When the Summer Olympics kick off on August 5, the world’s attention will be focused for two weeks on the Games and on the host city, Rio de Janeiro. But instead of the international spotlight shining solely on the athletes and on the fabulous Brazilian culture enveloping the competition, scrutiny will also be turned to a more concerning topic — the deplorable state of water quality in and around Rio, especially where many of the Olympic sailing and other water events will take place.
As has been documented extensively in the media during the lead-up to the 2016 Summer Games, the waters surrounding Rio contain dangerously high levels of bacteria and viruses that pose significant health risks to Olympic competitors and recreational beach-goers alike. Much of this comes from nearly 17 million gallons a day of raw sewage that flows directly in the ocean and bays bordering the city. Rio is home to over 6 million people, but only about 40% of its sewage receives treatment.
Watching and reading the coverage of Rio’s water woes has made me appreciate all over again how fortunate we are to have excellent water quality in most areas of the United States – and frankly, how much we take it for granted. I also can’t help but think that if this year’s Olympics were in Chicago instead – which was one of the finalists for the 2016 Games – there wouldn’t have even been a second thought about potential health concerns in holding sailing, rowing, swimming and other events on Lake Michigan.
The reality is, the more I think about the fact that a major city in one of the most populous countries in the world is hosting the premier international sporting event and only treats 40% of its wastewater, the more I am amazed by the incredible progress we have made in this country to address water quality and public health threats from sewage.
But the high level of wastewater treatment we enjoy in the United States has not happened by accident. First and foremost, it is the direct result of the incredible effort made by NACWA members and other clean water professionals over the past 40 years. Clean water utilities all across the nation work 24 hours a day, 365 days a year to serve their communities and ensure the highest level of public health and environmental protection possible.
Municipal ratepayers must also receive significant credit for their contribution to this success – after all, they are the ones who, recognizing the importance of clean water, have collectively spent hundreds of billions of dollars in recent decades to pay for world-class wastewater and stormwater systems nationwide.
We must also celebrate the vital role of the Clean Water Act in ensuring our waters are routinely free of sewage. The Act set clear benchmarks for clean water utilities to meet, and in many ways municipal wastewater treatment plants are the greatest success story of the legislation. There may be other ways in which the Act is flawed – especially its failure to regulate nonpoint sources – but no one can reasonably question its effectiveness in aggressively addressing the discharge of municipal wastewater.
We all know there is still more work that must be done on municipal clean water issues, especially continued efforts to minimize combined sewer overflows during wet weather events, additional commitment to addressing collection system concerns, and greater emphasis on reducing contamination from urban stormwater. But the fact that the vast number of waterbodies in the United States are safe for recreation and competition – and that no American city has anywhere near the same water quality problems as Rio — is a testament to the dedication, hard work, and innovation of the municipal clean water community, federal and state regulators, and many other stakeholders.
So as we watch the Olympics over the next few weeks and cheer on the athletes, let’s remember that everyone who works in and for municipal clean water in the United States also deserves a gold medal!