For residents of isolated rural communities, tapping into the public water system is expensive. To get the water they need to drink, bathe, cook and use the bathroom, people in these areas dig wells, tanks and pipes under their homes to collect, treat and store water. These private water systems — which can include drinking-water wells and septic systems for flushing waste — are more cost-effective for their users. But they may have a health and environmental cost. Well water can become contaminated. And unlike the public water system, septic systems are not federally regulated to protect against health and safety hazards. If not properly maintained, they can leak toxins that make their way into groundwater and streams.
As an environmental health engineer in the septic department of the Southern Nevada Health District, Bloomberg Fellow Robert Fyda’s job is to manage and regulate the use of septic systems in his area.
Now earning a doctorate in public health from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Robert primarily deals with wastewater and well water in more rural parts of the region.
We talked to him about the health risks of unregulated water, potential issues of water pollution and what he’s learning that will help him improve septic policy.
What public health risks can water pose and what are you doing about it?
Public water systems are regulated by the Safe Water Drinking Act, which holds water utilities responsible for meeting federal standards. But domestic well users’ water is not regulated by anyone. As a result, these people are drinking water at their own risk. Domestic well users should be getting their water tested regularly, but most people aren’t doing that due to financial barriers or a lack of awareness. Our goal is to create a groundwater monitoring program with our partners to educate well users about steps they can take to protect themselves.
Are there any concerns about water pollution in Southern Nevada right now?
One problem we’ve been exploring here is a possible nitrate contamination in certain areas. We have areas with a lot of septic systems, so we track possible issues of nitrates coming from unregulated septic systems and runoff from fertilized lands that could affect everyone’s water. Nitrate contamination can lead to blue baby syndrome, a fatal condition where blood can’t carry oxygen to the rest of the body, as well as increased risks of cancer. The threshold density is about 119 milligrams per liter, and anything higher than that triggers a groundwater study. We have some areas in the valley that have densities of 300 milligrams per liter to 500 milligrams per liter. There are other areas that have not been explored due to a lack of infrastructure and limited resources to set up testing. We try to gather our data through partnerships, but the problem is there are not many wells to get samples from, and it’s hard to make assumptions based on just a few data points.
How will you apply your classwork to improve Southern Nevada’s water practices?
My goal is to develop effective sampling plans. I have some ideas about how to get data, but I also want to be able to analyze the data we collect. My classes at Bloomberg are helping me do that in addition to better understanding existing trends and ideas in the field. I also want to use what I’ve been learning in my policy development coursework to implement better regulations and guidelines for our septic programs to make them more site-specific. For example, some nearby areas have a lot of caliche in their soil. In a septic system, bacteria and germs are filtered out of water as it travels down through soil. Caliche is a very dense clay that is not water-porous. When water cannot get past this layer to travel through soil, it re-enters the water system unfiltered and unclean. Every site has unique characteristics, and we need to be taking that into consideration before designing septic systems.