WV elk river water
U.S. Army

The area around Charleston, W.Va., has been brought to its knees by contaminated drinking water. Thousands of gallons of an industrial chemical used for treating coal, MCHM, leaked last week from a company’s steel tank, flowed down the bank and into the Elk River, located just a mile upriver from the intake point for the region’s drinking water treatment plant.

Residents quickly noticed the licorice smell and a few hours later were officially warned not to drink or cook, wash, or bathe with the water. A state of emergency was declared in nine counties. Schools, hospitals, restaurants, hotels, and more closed. About 300,000 residents were affected.

We take the quality of our drinking water for granted, and for good reason. More people in the United States have access to safe water than ever before. Yet recent events raise an obvious concern: How safe is our drinking water really?

This question is both timely and timeless, for water providers have constantly defended water sources against contamination. From well before the Romans through today, they have always faced three broad classes of threats.