Water Reliability and Potential Impacts

Brandon Talbert, Location Consultant with Austin Consulting

On January 9, 2014, crude 4-methylcyclohexanemethanol (MCHM), a chemical agent used in washing coal, reportedly leaked from a storage tank at a chemical storage facility located along the Elk River in Charleston, WV. The spill leaked into the ground before traveling to the adjacent river. The incident occurred about one mile upstream from American Water’s treatment facility along the Elk River, which flows into the Kanawha River in downtown Charleston. When it was determined that the spill had contaminated local drinking water, a “do-not-use” advisory was issued to parts of nine counties, affecting up to 300,000 customers. The ban lasted five days before gradually being lifted.

For industries that depend on a reliable supply of potable water, these types of incidents are especially concerning. Water is an important part of the process for many industries and often a key ingredient for food processing companies. As companies evaluate locations for new facilities, it is important to carefully examine the local water supply and treatment infrastructure to ensure that these types of risks are minimized.

According to the U.S. Geological Survey, approximately 80% of the U.S. water supply comes from surface water sources, while 20% comes from groundwater sources, primarily freshwater aquifers. Surface water is more susceptible to contamination than groundwater, but the two are often interconnected and both carry the risk of contamination. Most large cities were established around a major surface freshwater source - a river, tributary, or lake - which historically served as the primary source of potable water. As these surface water sources have become more contaminated due to surrounding development, treatment is essential for both safety and quality. Many rural communities still rely heavily on groundwater sources, especially for irrigation, but pesticide chemicals, nitrates and other contaminants have the potential to impact groundwater sources as well.

Some communities are fortunate to have access to multiple water sources from which they can supply their customers. This can provide some assurance to companies that depend on potable water. For example, throughout the Midwest it is common to find communities that utilize a major surface water source as their primary source, but also have access to high quality groundwater to provide backup in the event of primary source contamination. 

For communities that do not have access to multiple water sources, it’s important to look at the source of the water and the potential for contamination. For example, a foothills community collecting water from a stream stemming from the nearby mountains with little to no development upstream is probably less likely to experience contamination than a community collecting river water several miles downstream from a major industrial city. It’s important to understand whether a community has a backup plan and the capacity to handle short term demands in the event of source contamination. Unfortunately, American Water was unable to during the Charleston incident.

Of course, contamination isn’t the only measure of reliability. The ongoing drought throughout much of California has forced some areas to implement water rationing measures to prevent a complete moratorium. As the drought continues, many industries are growing increasingly concerned about future impacts and are carefully considering their options.

While reliable, quality water cannot be guaranteed, there are steps you can take to reduce these types of risks when selecting a location for your operation.