Bathed and confused: Reno water
Just because the levels of contaminants in Reno water are legal doesn’t mean they’re healthy. That’s the gist of a new report by Environmental Working Group. For years, Reno residents have been told they drink some of the best water in the nation. So they were thrown into a justifiable tizzy when the nonprofit group’s report said that not only was Truckee Meadows water not the best, it was among the worst.
Out of 100 cities with populations above 250,000, Reno was listed as fifth worst in the nation, ahead only of Riverside County, Calif., Las Vegas, Riverside, Calif., and Pensacola, Fla. The rankings were based on data from state and local water utilities’ own consumer confidence reports.
The Truckee Meadows Water Authority held a press conference last week to dispute the report.
“The fact is that Reno and Las Vegas drinking water meets and is significantly better than federal Environmental Protection Agency’s water standards,” said Allen Biaggi of the Nevada Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, which oversees the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection, the agency responsible for Nevada’s safe drinking water program.
So the nonprofit group says Reno is among the worst; the water authority maintains we’re among the best. It’s possible they could both be right, but based on different standards.
The EWG report said water utilities “are noted as exceeding the legal limit if any test [emphasis added] is above the maximum contaminant level (MCL). Most MCLs are based on annual averages, so exceeding the MCL for one test does not necessarily indicate that the system is out of compliance.” This could explain the discrepancy between TMWA’s findings and those of the EWG. The TMWA report lists MCLs as an average, not just as found on one test. For instance, the average levels of cancer-causing arsenic, the solvent tetrachloroethylene (PCE) and the metal manganese were below the legal limits of 10 parts per billion (ppb), 5 ppb and 50 ppb, respectively. However, maximum levels found for those contaminants were above legal limits: a maximum of 24 ppb was detected for arsenic, 15.1 ppb for PCE and a whopping 130 ppb for manganese.
TMWA stated it has never received any health-based violations from the EPA or the state of Nevada. But the EWG report wasn’t about whether water utilities were in legal violation. Of the 316 pollutants the EWG analyzed in American tap water, more than half aren’t subject to health or safety regulations and can legally be present in any amount. So it’s possible for Reno to be legally compliant but still rank low.
Richard Wiles, senior vice president for policy at EWG, said Reno’s ranking was due not to legal violations, but a combination of how many contaminants we had, how many of those pollutants were approaching legal limits, and how toxic those contaminants were, arsenic in particular. “You guys are two-and-a-half times the national average for the number of contaminants found,” said Wiles. And where most cities had an average of four contaminants above health guideline levels, Reno had eight.
“EWG’s criticism amounts to saying federal water quality requirements are not adequate,” said Biaggi. “It’s like saying driving 25 miles an hour in a 55-mile-an-hour zone is too fast.”
That is exactly what EWG is saying. The group’s report is intended to call attention to the need for tougher drinking water standards nationwide.
“If you have a safe amount of arsenic and a safe amount of alpha radiation and a safe amount of radium—is that safe?” said Wiles. “We’re not even asking that question. Is it safe to drink 21 contaminants, supposedly at safe levels? Maybe, but we just assume that it is, and that’s not a smart thing to do. We are saying federal standards are not adequate.”
TMWA noted a link on EWG’s website that shows the group receives a portion of proceeds from water filtration devices bought through Amazon.com. Wiles said the same would be true “if you bought a tractor” from Amazon, which has similar arrangements with many nonprofits whose readers link to Amazon from their website. If there is a conflict of interest, it still doesn’t fully discredit why, in a list of firsts, lasts and in-betweens, Reno would rank so low.