Flooding's Impact on Public Water Supplies, Sanitation

Dec. 9, 2021
Rick Andrew discusses a few of the harmful effects that flooding can have on public water, and how providers can help the public prepare and respond.

There is an old saying that goes “there is nothing new under the sun” – and this certainly applies to the negative effects floods from extreme weather can have on access to clean and safe water. 

Almost a century ago, President Calvin Coolidge and then Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover faced one of the biggest challenges in their political careers. They were tasked with spearheading relief efforts for the Great Mississippi Flood that killed nearly 500 Americans and caused damages in excess of $5 billion.

Fast forward to 2021, the Biden Administration, local governments, as well as environmental and water professionals are faced with a similar challenge from Hurricane Ida. With tragic timing, the Category 4 Hurricane Ida engulfed Mississippi and Louisiana on the anniversary of 2005’s Hurricane Katrina. This recent hurricane was so powerful that it travelled upward from the Southern region, triggering flash floods in the Northeastern region. The storm also interrupted access to power and clean drinking water for local residents. Social posts went viral online and showcased just how devastating the damage was, and how quickly the situation can turn deadly. 

These incidents should be recognized as evidence of an alarming trend and a call-to-action to course correct the nation’s flood response efforts. Loss of human life, disruption of social services and long-term emotional challenges are just a few of the negative ramifications that floods can have on a community. To quantify the issue, the United States Congressional Budget Office recently reported that the U.S. economy loses $54 billion annually to hurricane winds and storm related floods. Roughly $17 billion of this sum falls on the backs of everyday taxpayers.

For these reasons, a unified approach between the private and public sector is needed to better equip first responders and consumers to prepare for floods. The public must also be educated on how to avoid being inadvertently exposed to dangerous toxins via their water supply.

Floods can produce a number of harmful effects, including:

  • Water Supply Contamination
    Excess floodwater can contaminate private drinking water sources, such as wells and springs, when rainfall makes contact with the ground and comes into contact with things like animal waste. This increases the amount of bacteria, sewage, and other industrial waste and chemicals that seeps into the water source or leaky pipes. Additionally, the excess water makes it more difficult for water treatment devices to treat the water efficiently and effectively. If there is a contamination at any step of the water flow process, this puts consumers at risk of exposure to dangerous toxins that could result in serious harm such as wound infections, skin rashes, gastrointestinal illnesses, and tetanus. In extreme cases, death may occur.
  • Disruption to Clean Drinking and Cooking Water
    In the event of only having access to contaminated water, consumers are unable to cook or clean in their home indefinitely until a water professional certifies their water as safe. Depending on the severity of the flood and the storm, this could take days, weeks, months and in some cases even years. Without access to clean drinking and cooking water, consumers ultimately become reliant on bottled water which is likely to increase drastically in price during such a time. In poor and impoverished communities, this reality is even more detrimental because they may not have the economic means to “stock up” on bottled water in comparison to their more affluent peers. Moreover, in a flood, retail locations are often inaccessible and/or low on water supply as well.

How to Prepare and Respond

Here are a few recommendations that providers could follow to improve the public’s understanding of flood best practices:

  • Communicate Water Quality to Consumers
    The Environmental Protection Agency’s Consumer Confidence Rule requires public water providers to provide water quality reports to consumers annually. Water professionals should initiate conversations about this report, so consumers know what to do in case of a service disruption. For those that rely on private water sources, they should also be encouraged to have their water tested annually or after any flooding.
  • Educate Consumers on Dangers of Floodwater
    As tempting as it may be, it is recommended that people avoid drinking, entering, or swimming in floodwater due to the various contaminants in the water, as well as the risk of electrocution. There has been an uptick in viral social media content that popularizes this trend, so government officials should reiterate the public health ramifications of this activity, as it can result in severe illnesses and diseases.
  • Prepare Emergency Kits
    Local governments can help educate the public on how to best prepare for floods. This could include storing a certain amount of bottled water in case of emergencies and best practices on rationing during extended periods of service disruption. Moreover, for those who may be struggling financially, local governments could identify and publicize locations where free bottled water will be made available following a flood.
  • Look to Certified Water Filters
    For those who are interested in filtering or otherwise treating their water, it is recommended to focus on water treatment systems that are third-party certified. Third-party certification organizations, including NSF and others, provide assurance that treatment systems are safe to use with drinking water, are structurally sound and won’t leak, and very importantly, that they treat the water effectively according to the manufacturer’s claims. Be sure to check specifically which contaminants any system is certified to reduce by reviewing the product literature or the certification listings. Also note that many third-party certified treatment systems are certified for use only with potable water supplies, so these systems are not appropriate for use in treating water in a flood situation.

A unified approach is needed between the public and private sectors to ensure that consumers are knowledgeable on how flooding can possibly impact their water supply. Local governments can make this information public — and, interacting directly with consumers, water professionals have an opportunity to serve as public health ambassadors as well.

About the Author:  Rick Andrew is Director of Global Business Development for Water Systems at NSF International. Rick has 30 years of experience in preserving and maintaining clean drinking water and is responsible for NSF's global sales and structuring of water-related programs.

About the Author

Rick Andrew

Rick Andrew is Director of Global Business Development for Water Systems at NSF International. Rick has 30 years of experience in preserving and maintaining clean drinking water and is responsible for NSF's global sales and structuring of water-related programs.

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