In March of last year, residents in the small coastal community of Delray Beach, Florida, noticed something strange about the water coming from their taps.
It was discolored. Smelly. Flecked with bits of dirt.
“You looked at it and it wasn’t clean,” said resident Reeve Bright. “You started seeing the ice coming out of the ice maker, and you’re going, ‘What the heck is going on? There is stuff in the frozen water.’”
Complaints to the city prompted the discovery of sediment that had accumulated inside one of the city’s massive water storage tanks. The sediment had traveled along with the water into cups, cookware, ice trays and bathtubs.
It wasn’t a freak occurrence or the result of some unavoidable problem. A subsequent investigation found no records that the tank had ever been cleaned since it was built.
Water storage tanks, especially those sitting atop towers emblazoned with logos, serve as the most visible symbol of an amenity most Americans take for granted – clean water for drinking, cooking and bathing.
But they’re also one of the most vulnerable points in a public water supply. An opening as small as a few millimeters could prove the difference between drinking a glass of clean water and one contaminated by insects or animal feces that can cause diarrhea or respiratory infections.
Inspectors have found bloated snakes, mice and raccoons floating in water storage tanks after passing through small openings and drowning. Pigeon droppings and other animal excrement have sickened entire communities after literally slipping through cracks.
Contaminated tap water causes tens of millions of illnesses each year, experts estimate, contributing to as many as 1,000 American deaths. No one tracks how many are related to water tower contamination.
Yet an investigation by USA TODAY and Indiana University’s Arnolt Center for Investigative Journalism found gaps in water tank oversight that expose an unsuspecting public to multiple risks. In the absence of federal regulations governing water tank maintenance, each state determines on its own how frequently to inspect and clean this critical infrastructure.
Some appear to have no rules at all. Reporters called the agencies responsible for water systems oversight in every state – typically the department of environmental quality or department of health – and found that some do not require routine water storage tank inspections.
Officials in other states said tanks are inspected during sanitary surveys required under federal law every three to five years. The surveys examine the entire water supply system: source, treatment plant, distribution, sampling program and general management. Water storage tanks are included, but it’s not clear how effectively.
The Association of State Drinking Water Administrators asked its members last year about their water tank regulations. Of the 41 states that responded to the survey, 37 require visual inspections of the outside of water tanks and towers, but only nine – 22% – required interior inspections needed to check for sediment buildup or if animal carcasses have contaminated the supply. The ASDWA declined to share the state-by-state results of the survey.
Even when states require routine inspections and maintenance, enforcement of these rules can be lax.
The Florida Department of Environmental Protection, for example, says water storage tanks must be inspected and cleaned inside every five years. But it took a flurry of customer complaints and a city investigation to catch the potentially 50-year maintenance gap in Delray Beach.
George Gretsas, Delray’s city manager at the time of the incident, said he determined during an internal investigation that there were no records the tank or several others belonging to the city had ever been cleaned. Incredulous, he asked staff if anyone even recalled any maintenance.
“Nobody could remember a time when those tanks were cleaned,” he said.
But during its last scheduled visit in December 2019, the Palm Beach County Department of Health, which inspects water utilities on behalf of DEP in the county, appeared to miss the problem.
The department recorded that the north tank had last been cleaned in 2015, a fact that later turned out not to be true. The department told USA TODAY that it relies on utilities to tell the truth and “was told” the tank had been cleaned. Only after the sediment reached drinking water did the department find out that no records of cleaning existed; the department fined Delray $2,000.
Gretsas, who was fired in November for what he says was an effort to reveal corrupt practices in the city, believes someone at the water department misled the agency at the time.
“It’s widespread corruption within the utilities department,” Gretsas said. “They regularly lie to cover themselves up.”
For its part, Delray provided documents to USA TODAY that appeared to show tank inspections between 2013 and 2015 noting only light sedimentation inside the tanks. But the documents did not demonstrate compliance with state law.
Asked how water consumers can be confident in Florida’s tank cleaning and inspection laws given the oversight, the state’s DEP said only that it was reviewing what happened in Delray and that it “remains confident” of its regulations.
The EPA has known for at least two decades that many of the nation’s water storage tanks are deteriorating, but has yet to create any specific regulations for their upkeep.
In a 2002 white paper that was part of a failed effort to regulate storage tanks, the EPA found that as many as 1 out of every 4 tanks “have serious sanitary defects” and as many as 9 out of every 10 had “minor flaws that could lead to sanitary problems.”
In 2015, researchers sampled sediment in 18 water tanks across the country and found the deadly bacterium legionella in two-thirds.
The EPA estimates that water utilities nationwide need about $47 billion over 20 years to fully upgrade their storage tanks and ensure safe drinking water.
The agency told USA TODAY in an email that it is gathering information to determine whether to regulate storage tank maintenance. The agency held an initial, virtual public meeting in October, but may not arrive at a decision until 2024. Even if it does adopt rules, they likely won’t take effect until three years after that.
“EPA basically lets the states pretty much do whatever they want to do, without any meaningful oversight or auditing,” said Erik Olson, senior strategic director at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “It’s a real problem.”
When water tank maintenance is neglected, the results can be deadly.
In 1993, 650 people got sick from a salmonella outbreak in Gideon, Missouri, after bird droppings got into a water tank through a poorly protected vent. Seven died, all residents of a local nursing home.
In Alamosa, Colorado, an estimated 1,300 people got sick and one died after a salmonella outbreak started in a municipal water storage tank in 2008. The one fatality also had other health conditions, officials said.
And in Peoria, Arizona, two 5-year-old boys died in 2002 after bathing in tap water contaminated by Naegleria fowleri, a microscopic organism that infects the brain, destroying tissue and causing deadly inflammation. An investigation turned up the so-called “brain-eating amoeba” in a chlorinated water storage tank, among other sources.
More common than the identified outbreaks, however, are the millions of cases of gastrointestinal or respiratory illness that no one suspected came from their drinking water.
“It’s an endemic level of illness that we just sort of live with. We have to decide, is it an acceptable risk?” said Kelly Reynolds, a professor of environmental health at the University of Arizona who studies how often Americans fall ill from drinking water.
She estimates that contaminated drinking water causes as many as 21 million illnesses and 1,000 deaths annually, though it’s hard to pinpoint exactly how much is attributed to problems in the tanks. Her estimates line up with research from others, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and EPA, which cite studies with estimates of up to 32 million illnesses a year.
Kristina Mena, a water safety expert and dean of the University of Texas Health School of Public Health in El Paso, said the country’s growing elderly population, children, and those with prior health issues are particularly at risk.
“The segment of the United States population who are in that immunocompromised category is greater than ever,” Mena said. “When there have been waterborne outbreaks, those are the people that are going to have the more severe illness that may require hospitalization.”
While the EPA has neglected to regulate water tank maintenance, it has made efforts to prevent contaminated drinking water. In 1989, the agency began requiring all water systems that draw from rivers, creeks or lakes to add disinfectant, such as chlorine, before distributing to customers.
Since then, an increasing number of states also now require disinfection for systems that use groundwater. The EPA reports that about two-thirds of water systems, serving 90% of Americans, now disinfect.
The increase in disinfection has helped prevent worst-case scenario outbreaks, experts said. But it’s not a cure-all: Decaying animals or outside bacteria can still overwhelm water treatment under certain conditions.
Industry professionals differ on how often such threats occur.
Christine Gunsaullus, a water tower expert based in Reading, Pennsylvania, said in her 26-year career as an inspector and project manager, she’s encountered some 3,500 water tanks and towers. Only five had a serious issue like a dead animal or other obvious public health risk.
“It’s just a gut feel, based on my experience, that it really isn’t a big, big problem,” Gunsaullus said.
But utilities that regularly inspect their tanks aren’t the problem, said Chip Stein, the managing principal at Tank Industry Consultants, a nationwide engineering company that conducts water tank inspections in 48 states.
It’s the ones that delay maintenance or conduct infrequent inspections that worry him; the ones that only call when there’s a problem – like tanks where holes have corroded through a steel-plate roof allowing animals and insects to get inside.
“That doesn’t happen overnight,” Stein said. “That is just neglect of inspection. For a hole to have corroded through that plate? You know, that tank probably hadn’t been looked at for 20 to 40 years.”
Water tanks are far more than billboards for civic pride or simple storage for up to millions of gallons. Stored water helps utilities meet peak demand periods, particularly mornings when customers are showering, brushing teeth, and making coffee. They also create pressure throughout the system and are essential for fire safety.
Yet for all their benefits, water tanks can prove dangerous if not maintained correctly. Tiny holes in the roof, walls or screens risk the intrusion of birds, vermin, insects, and their feces.
That’s why regular inspections of tanks are essential, said Mark LeChevallier, a water researcher and former chief environmental officer at public utility company American Water.
“If you don’t do that, it’s not just that the problem is inside the tank,” he said. “That poor water can then go out into the water system.”
Inspections are complex, with the smallest of details potentially carrying big risk. One example are the mesh screens built into tanks to allow air to flow in when water flows out. Without them, the tank walls would crumple like a juice box being drained of its last drop.
Most experts call for the mesh in the screens to be 10 times smaller than a typical window screen. If not, tiny insects can pass through and contaminate the water.
Inside the tank, if water is left too long, especially in hotter conditions, it can stagnate. Disinfectants like chlorine degrade, bacteria multiply and pathogens proliferate, particularly in the sediment that can accumulate at the bottom of a tank.
A diver inspecting a water tank last year in Magna, Utah, discovered a dead raccoon in one of the town’s 500,000-gallon tanks. Luckily, the animal was found before it could begin to decompose, so the only consequence to residents in the town west of Salt Lake City was a boil-water notice while the tank was drained, cleaned, disinfected and tested.
In another instance documented in an EPA presentation, a federal inspector visited a water tank after levels of fecal bacteria had been elevated for six months in drinking water. A single knothole in a wooden board on the tank’s exterior was missing. Inside, seven dead snakes and three bloated mice floated in the water. The presentation urged inspectors not to edit out from inspection videos dead animal carcasses found within storage tanks.
The continued threat of waterborne illness or worse is a source of frustration for experts like Reynolds, especially given the ease with which they can be avoided through regular and consistent inspections and upkeep.
“Storage tanks are a finite source of contamination. And it should be very easy to control,” Reynolds said. “These are things that just shouldn’t be happening.”
Thirteen years after the outbreak in Alamosa, Colorado, Louise Malouff still won’t drink the city’s tap water. She knows the city started adding chlorine after the incident, but she also knows that’s no guarantee against another outbreak if the system isn’t properly maintained and inspected.
While Malouff’s entire family was sickened during the outbreak, her then-6-year-old son Abel suffered the worst effects, including diarrhea and vomiting. His physician recommended she give him Gatorade to keep him hydrated. But when Abel started vomiting and passing blood, Malouff rushed him to the hospital.
“I just remember him lying on the floor in the emergency room, asking me if he was going to die,” Malouff said. “I felt helpless, especially when we didn’t know what was causing it. … It was something that scared the hell out of me, and I never want to go through that again.”
At a water treatment plant, the EPA has limits on the amount of toxic chemicals and heavy metals that can go into the water supply. At the other end, if pipes leading to homes corrode and release lead, the EPA can make a water system replace them.
But there’s little on the books for water storage tanks – at least from the EPA.
The American Water Works Association recommends a set of best practices and standards that include inspecting water tanks every three years. But because there is no federal regulation or enforcement, there’s no guarantee that happens.
Only the federally required sanitary survey exists. But these are inconsistent at best, Bob Clement, an EPA microbiologist, wrote in a compilation of water storage tank training materials previously posted to the agency’s website. The EPA removed the slideshow after a reporter inquired about it, citing outdated guidance it contained.
Clement wrote in the training materials that inspections are only as good as the people inspecting them, and there’s a gulf in the educational and professional experiences of this profession. He also said the surveys require inspection of so many different parts of a water system that details can be missed.
“Surveyors are not given enough time or taking enough time to thoroughly inspect storage tanks,” Clement wrote. “So much has been piled onto the survey that tanks have taken a back seat.”
Alan Roberson, executive director of the Association of State Drinking Water Administrators, believes that “most” water systems perform at least a visual inspection on a regular basis. But he concedes the condition of the nation’s water tanks “probably needs some improvement,” as water authorities don’t always prioritize maintenance in the absence of federal regulation.
“As systems struggle with their finances, it’s an easy thing to say, ‘We’ll push off that inspection for another year,’” Roberson said.
While the EPA is now considering regulations for water tanks, any new rules wouldn’t be in place until 2027, and the agency hasn’t said what could be on the table.
LeChevallier, who has previously served on EPA regulatory panels, predicted minimal pushback if water authorities were required to conduct the regular inspections most already do.
“What regulations tend to do is codify what everyone considers best practice,” he said.
LeChevallier believes the greatest impact could be made by requiring uniform training and certification for inspectors who conduct sanitary surveys. But for Roberson of the Association of State Drinking Water Administrators, increased water sampling could provide the biggest benefit.
And therein lies the rub: While many experts agree for the need to do something on water storage tanks, consensus falls apart on exactly what. The water administrator’s survey showed more than half of states agreed on the need for more regulation, but specifics varied. Some cited storage tanks, others named issues with disinfecting water or regulating private water companies. Even when officials agreed more oversight is needed, they were leery of blanket federal regulations that apply the same to every water system.
“How do you write the reg in a way that you get good, solid practice?” said Steve Via, director of federal relations for the American Water Works Association. “Just because you can check a box that you’ve got a rule that says thou shalt do something, doesn’t mean you’ve actually pushed a good practice.”
Yet while EPA surveys this landscape in considering new regulations, America’s water towers continue to age. The risks are growing, even if they are invisible to most people, said Reynolds, the Arizona health researcher.
“We’re giving this product (water) to our children the moment they’re born, right?” she said. “And we’re making their formula with it. And adults drink it, two liters a day on average, for our entire lives.”
Alyssa Velez, Lily Wray, Brianna Lanham, Daniela Molina, Drake Garbacik, Nathan Moore, Nadia Scharf and Emma Cail of Indiana University’s Arnolt Center for Investigative Journalism contributed to this report.