Troubled water: what’s wrong with what we drink (Siegel, 2019)

Rebecca F.A. Bernat

HD Siegel, S. 2019. Troubled water: What’s wrong with what we drink. Thomas Dunne Books, ISBN 978-1250132543, 352 p., $29.99


Rebecca F.A. Bernat

The University of Arizona;

To cite this Review: Bernat, R. F.A. 2019. Review of "Troubled water: What’s wrong with what we drink", Thomas Dunne Books, 2019, by Seth Siegel, Water Alternatives,


In the United States, a focus on water quality has been lacking, even though scholars of the water sector – be they historians, sociologists, economists or geographers – continue to produce rich studies of the myriad issues surrounding water technology, supply and demand and of the sociopolitical implications of these dimensions. Seth Siegel, entrepreneur-turned-scholar-activist, has followed up his 2015 release, Let There be Water, with Troubled Water: What’s Wrong with What We Drink, a convincing and accessible portrait of water management, regulation and enforcement in the US.

The word ‘trouble’ presumably refers to the problems and complexities of drinking water management and the fact that society should be concerned; however, the word has an additional possible meaning taken from the French word trouble, which means ‘murky’ in English. Layering in this second meaning adds another dimension to the title. As I started this book, I had many expectations pertaining to these definitions and the book did not disappoint.

The publication of Troubled Water is timely, as a number of articles have recently appeared which confirm Siegel’s technical arguments, for example that by Evans et al.(2019); these publications conclude that there is now as much risk of getting cancer from contaminants in water as from pollutants in the air. The issue is particularly critical as many populated regions in the United States are facing water scarcity and consequently need to reuse their wastewater, increasing the risk of waterborne contamination.

This book is in three key sections, following the author’s overarching arguments and policy recommendations. Siegel advocates for better drinking water governance in the United States and calls for the urgent funding of an independent entity to evaluate the health risk of contaminants in America’s drinking water. He presses for the modernisation of water operations, transportation and treatment systems with the help of new technologies. Finally, he encourages “intelligent” readers – as specified somewhat pompously in his preface – to get involved and take control of their drinking water. In sum, the book situates itself between being publicly accessible and of serious interest to scholars. Siegel’s years of research allow him to move deftly between technical arguments on water quality and policy arguments, making this book useful in a variety of forums ranging from community discussions to water law and policy courses for advanced undergraduate and graduate students. Students and readers will be able to engage with a wealth of useful case studies in Siegel’s text. This review outlines the book’s arguments and evidence thematically rather than with a chapter-by-chapter synopsis.

Towards Independent Control of Drinking Water Quality

Readers will be alarmed at this book’s documentation of the poor management and quality control of potable water in the United States. At the outset, Siegel criticises the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), particularly its inadequate study of the risks of the thousands of chemicals that have entered the water system and its poor enforcement of the treatment of regulated contaminants. He suggests the creation of an independent entity to promote objective water quality policies. The reader may be taken aback by the author’s vehement criticism, but before the end of the second chapter she will be convinced by the evidence that Siegel puts forward, which details the EPA’s inactivity on public health matters.

Chapter 1,“Welcome to Hoosick Falls!”, discusses the contamination of the town’s groundwater by a local factory that was manufacturing Teflon products. Perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA, one of the chemicals used by this industry, infiltrated the soil and percolated into the aquifer from which the town pumps its drinking water. Years later, rates of cancer and other diseases showed increases, although more research is required to establish causality between water contamination exposure and health effects. (Nine year earlier, the same company had been sued in another state and had consequently stopped discharging PFOA.) Seigel’s use of the unfortunate and dramatic story of Hoosick Falls is strategic, persuasively making the point that the contaminant problem is very real and is not being adequately addressed.

Other chapters also reveal the need for a ‘precautionary principle’ – taking preventive action when facing uncertainty – before introducing chemicals into daily products or before releasing wastewater into waterbodies. For example, Chapter 4, “Pills in the Water”, alarms the reader about the risk of epidemics due to superbugs – bacteria which develop resistance to antibiotics that are present in water – as well as the unknowing ingestion of oestrogens and other medicines by consumers. Preventive measures are being perceived as being ever more critical, particularly as better detection is revealing the presence in drinking water of new industrial products and pharmaceuticals. Chapter 5, “Plastic Everywhere”, testifies further to the laissez-faire attitude, detailing the replacement of harmful Bisphenol A by another potentially toxic plastic. Dr. Shanna Swan, an expert consulted by Siegel, summarises this policy alarmingly: “Humans have become the guinea pigs to test the effect of new chemicals” (p. 102). Chapter 2 “The EPA Takes Control of Drinking Water”, shows how the EPA, since its creation, has been struggling to adopt new contaminant standards; one of the excuses given for their lack of success is the poor funding of research, but this book shows the issue to be more complex.

Throughout the book, Siegel reveals issues about the regulation and control of water quality, one of which is a conflict of interest between federal agencies and programmes, and industries manufacturing new products. Indeed, in Chapter 3, “An Endless Road to Nowhere”, Siegel gives the example of the United States National Research Council, the Pentagon, NASA, and manufacturers, all pressuring the EPA not to regulate perchlorate; meanwhile, the public health consequences of this contaminant are so serious that two states have regulated it proactively, without the EPA’s intervention. At the local level, mayors do not always report water quality infractions to the EPA because, they argue, it is burdensome to then have to hire specialised staff, perform costly laboratory analyses, and treat the contamination.

The inclusion of Chapter 6, “One City of Many: Flint and Lead in America’s Drinking Water”, is no surprise as one cannot write a book about the (mis)management of water quality and loss of trust in authority without mentioning this tragedy. The author not only traces the cause of drinking water contamination in Flint, Michigan, but also insists that this is not an exception in America today: “[T]he inadequate required monitoring, manipulated testing, falsified results, poorly trained staff, outdated facilities, and the consequent contamination of drinking water – from lead and other sources – that was found in Flint is also present to some degree in many other cities” (p.123-124). Siegel denounces the scandalous inertia among US officials; a statement by Marc Edwards, a professor and water quality activist consulted by Siegel, highlights the hypocrisy of the government with regard to the tragedy of Flint, stating that it “would never have allowed the private sector to get away with creating this kind of harm” (p.143). Protecting the interest of the public is essential if such tragedies are to be prevented from occurring in the future.

In Chapter 10, “New Ideas Needed”, Siegel calls for the creation of a “well-funded independent Drinking Water Improvement Fund”. Such an entity would not be subject to the agenda of politicians who are worried about raising taxes or getting the support of wealthy chemical companies. An independent agency – funded by taxes on bottled water and tap water – would allocate funds for more intensive research into the contaminants that are of emerging concern and which need to be regulated. It would also maintain mandatory countrywide control of water quality and would prosecute water utilities that violate the maximum contaminant limits of the Safe Drinking Water Act.

Endorsing Up-to-Date Technology to Address Contemporary Issues

The deplorable management of Flint’s water is only one example of how water operations, transportation, and treatment systems need to be updated. Seigel, as a businessman, unsurprisingly rethinks water utility configuration and funding systems to address ways in which they can become more efficient.

In the context of climate change and water scarcity, water conservation is a moral obligation. Many water utilities, however, lose water because of leaky aging pipes. The book argues that many utilities would be incentivised to replace their oldest water pipes if they realised how much money is lost every year because of leakage. Moreover, as the tragedy of Flint showed, not all water utilities use anti-corrosion chemicals before injecting water into lead pipes; hence, water has been contaminated with this metal with severe and irreversible effects. In Chapter 7, “The Water Industry”, Siegel argues that short-term mitigating techniques must come to an end; he presses for the replacement of old pipes with technological upgrades such as those using wireless leak-detection systems.

Accusations as to the obsolescence of the US water system appear at the beginning of the book: “With nearly all of us drinking water that is purified using techniques that were established as much as centuries ago – and long before so many laboratory-created synthetic chemicals began getting into our drinking water – we are like generals fighting the last war” (Chapter 1, p.15). Chapter 9, “Why Can’t We All Have Water Like Orange County”, and Chapter 10, “New Ideas Needed”, call for the use of nanofiltration technology as a way to eliminate of the most persistent contaminants from drinking water. In the context of Orange County and with the topic of high-end water-cleaning technologies, it would have seemed appropriate to seriously discuss desalination, which was introduced in Chapter 7. Indeed, while the partnership between the Water District and the Sanitation District of Orange County has been successful in reusing wastewater by treating it to appropriate water quality standards, a desalination plant project has been promoted for the past 20 years in Huntington Beach, California; furthermore, both of the agencies that Siegel mentions have been involved in the siting of the proposed desalination plant for some time. The challenge of turning ocean water into drinking water would have been a more appropriate topic to develop in the last chapter, as opposed to atmospheric water generation which appeared rather abruptly and without much context.

One of the critiques often made of those state-of-the-art technologies is the cost of their implementation; Siegel anticipates this discussion in Chapter 7. The first step, he suggests, would be to allocate all water-related fees to water utilities development. Second, he calls for the consolidation of some of the 50,000 water utilities, claiming that this would solve many problems; indeed, water utilities should merge their funding, thus enabling them to afford better treatment systems and specialised staff. Moreover, in certain cases this would also allow water utilities to do better public outreach, which is essential for democratic water governance.

Advocating for a SDWfA (Safe Drinking Water for All) Policy

Chapter 8, “Pushing the EPA to Do More”, outlines what is needed to fix today’s problems: citizens must become involved in water-related issues and, with the media’s support, must request more financial resources as water is underfunded in the United States. Siegel also initiates a discussion about environmental justice, calling for “the fair and equal treatment of all peoples’ environmental needs, regardless of race, income or national origin” (p.205), and for the inclusion of communities that are left out of the debate on water quality. The most vulnerable populations, including owners of private wells in rural America, lack the political and social power to advocate for clean water; however, even the wealthiest cities in the US, those that now get their water from sources so pristine that it does not require treatment, will not be exempt from future water quality issues such as contaminants of emerging concern. In this way, the book aims to convince the public, broadly conceived, to act for safe drinking water.

Seth Siegel leaves the reader well informed about the state of water quality issues in the United States. In Chapter 11, “What You Can Do Now”, he concludes with suggestions for how to achieve safer water. He recommends that readers learn about potential harm to water sources that can come from neighbouring areas, such as factories and farms; he advises reading local water utility reports, drinking bottled water if a risk of contamination is evaluated in the region, and purchasing and installing water filtration systems in homes. As much as you will want to join Siegel in the fight to take control of your drinking water, it remains unclear how the reader can campaign for a better system. Many of the solutions appear to be actionable by policymakers but out of reach of civil society. Troubled Waters raises more questions than it answers in terms of the role of civil society in water policy, a field already flush with experts, however it should provide room for scholars to manoeuvre in terms of studying policy solutions.



Additional Info

  • Authors: Seth Siegel
  • Year of publication: 2019
  • Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books
  • Reviewer: Rebecca Bernat
  • Subject: Water policy, Environmental History, Water quality, pollution
  • Type: Review
  • Language: English