Water is a vital provision for preppers and is always high up on lists of items you must have in order to be prepared for disasters large and small. This is for a very good reason as you can only survive a few days without water before you dehydrate and die, and you’ll be severely debilitated before then.
Therefore, you’ll hardly ever meet a prepper who does not have a sizable supply of water in bottles, in jugs or in barrels stashed and ready to go in case of disaster.
But I often talk to newbie preppers who wonder why you can’t just turn on the tap after a disaster to draw water for drinking and washing. The reasoning is at the water is still flowing, it should still be the same water you’ve been drinking the entire time and therefore safe, right? Seasoned preppers know this is not always the case.
Not always, but what about the times where you can turn on a tap in your house and the water comes out clear and cool just like it always has in the past? If the pressure is good, the water isn’t a funky color and doesn’t smell odd, or taste odd is it okay to drink?
Why wouldn’t you drink that water before drawing from your limited supply of potable bottled water? That changes the calculus little bit, doesn’t it?
In this article, we’ll talk about the reasons why you should, or shouldn’t, drink tap water post-SHTF.
Boil Until Further Notice
The reason local and federal authorities issue warnings to abstain from drinking any public or private water supplies in the aftermath of disasters is that disasters wreak all kinds of havoc on water supplies.
It is no secret that our nation’s Public Works infrastructure is aging, ramshackle and extremely vulnerable in most places. That certainly includes the Water Works of all kinds.
Something as simple as a power outage can result in a boil notice for a municipality or even a region. That’s because the vital machinery and infrastructure required to treat the water and make it safe to deliver to all those thirsty taps in the area often go down when there’s no power.
Most of these installations have no backup power supplies like generators. If there’s no power, you can’t be assured you’ll get clean water.
And think about it: a simple power outage, or a proper blackout, is one of the least destructive and least physically disruptive disasters. What happens when something truly destructive rolls around, something like a tornado, a hurricane, flooding or an earthquake?
Well, wonder no longer reader. I can tell you that bad things happen, as you know, but especially bad things can happen to the water supply.
How do Disasters Affect the Water Supply?
Local water supplies of all kinds are easily contaminated by most major natural disasters. They may vary a little bit an action, but the end result is the same: you shouldn’t trust the water coming out of your tap.
Flooding is one of the most common and worst perpetrators for contamination of water sources. Flood water is absolutely filthy, full of sediment, chemicals, pathogens, disease and rotting carcasses.
This flood water is under immense pressure since there’s so much of it, and it will inundate everything in its path; it will get everywhere including the water supply.
What’s worse, flood water inundating the soil can cause hydraulic action to break sewer mains and water supply lines, allowing dreadful contamination directly into the water headed for your tap assuming it still has pressure.
Hurricanes are another terrible disaster for contaminating water supplies. Aside from the above mentioned flooding that hurricanes invariably cause their extraordinarily powerful winds can drop all kinds of debris into places it doesn’t need to be as well as physically damaging water treatment and sewage control infrastructure.
Also, you can truly depend on hurricanes knocking out power which as mentioned above is going to cause havoc in the local water supply regardless of other circumstances.
Tornadoes can do much the same as hurricanes; they’re ferociously powerful winds physically destroy or damage water treatment and supply infrastructure leading to contamination or mishandling of water ready for treatment.
This is another disaster you can 100% depend on knocking out power if it barrels through your town. Also keep in mind tornadoes are typically accompanied by or spawned from very strong thunderstorms, which means, you guessed it, potential flooding. And as we already learned more flooding means more problems with the water supply.
Earthquakes are, as you might expect, one of the most deleterious disasters that could happen to our water supply infrastructure. The shaking and heaving of the ground will snap sewer and water pipes left, right and center.
This usually means you’ll have no pressure at all immediately after the event, or at least the pressure will taper out almost instantly, But in the event that you do have pressure chances are the water delivered to your tap will be absolutely full of contamination.
And even if you are a rural dweller who lives outside of a major city, you aren’t safe from all the above effects just because you have a well.
Wells both man-made and natural get contaminated by many of the same forces: flood water, hydraulic action and fracturing caused by earthquakes lead to plenty of natural contaminants finding their way into your otherwise clean well water.
So don’t get lazy just because you live outside the high-rises in the Concrete Jungle!
Sabotage and Man-Made Mayhem
Something else you must consider, although it is grisly to contemplate. Our water infrastructure is very mechanically vulnerable, but also very vulnerable to direct attack or sabotage.
You must consider that some deranged lunatic or malevolent terrorists might directly Target a water supply in order to cause or enhance a mass casualty event.
Biological agents, chemicals and poisons of every description could be introduced into the water supply relatively easily and if it is carried off by a competent operative the results could be horrendous.
You must also consider that sleeper cells, who are certainly in the country, now, today, might be waiting for an opportunity to strike doing exactly that on the backside of a major natural or man-made disaster, taking advantage of the chaos, destruction and suffering to generate even more casualties.
Certainly in the aftermath how the discovery of such an instance you could not trust tap water, purified or not.
Signs of Contamination
Before you fall back on the notion of keeping an eye on the County website for a boil advisory or an ear perked on the radio for notification that public water sources may be contaminated, remind yourself these alert systems may be compromised.
There may not be a call. There may not be a notice. If you turn on the tap, and the water is flowing, you may have to make the decision of whether or not it is safe to drink.
Of course you can always depend on your supply of potable water you have stored, but should you save it for the Long Haul? Will you take a chance and roll the dice, or go thirsty?
It pays to know how to identify contamination in the water. Before we get into these methods understand the only surefire way to know what is in the water is to test it with the appropriate sampling and test kit.
There is no other near-100% certain solution. You’ll be relying on methods that may not be highly reliable, and may not even be marginally reliable. It will entail risk, and you need to decide now, before the water potentially goes bad, if you’re willing to sustain that risk.
There are few obvious symptoms of contaminated water that anyone could recognize. One is a strange odor or color. If the water doesn’t look right, and it doesn’t smell right you know something unusual is in the water supply.
It would be disastrous if you were to take a few big gulps of water contaminated with sewage, or laced with biological pathogens introduced from ruptured pipes or collapsed wells.
But not so fast: some things can get into water supply that will change its color or odor that aren’t necessarily lethal or even seriously dangerous. You might be missing out on drinkable water for nothing!
There is seemingly no end to the list of nasty things that might end up in your local water supply after a disaster. Some are merely annoyances, making you slightly ill or causing the water to taste terrible.
Other’s are devastatin gastrointestinal haymakers that can floor your with vomiting, diarrhea, cramps and nausea. Some things can even kill you. Below is a list of some of the most common contaminants, what signs they present (if any) and what they can do to you.
Mineral impurities entering the water supply bound for your taps and tub are commonly encountered in the aftermath of all kinds of natural disasters.
They dissolve slowly over time, and doing nothing else (assuming the supply of contaminant is cut off) the water should go back to normal after a few days or a week. You can usually determine what kind of minerals have entered the water supply based on its color.
Water that has a greenish tinge is often contaminated by copper. Ever seen copper pipes in an old home that have that greenish verdigris on them? Or an old weathered penny?
Same thing here. While minimal copper contamination will only give your water a nasty metallic taste, ingesting large quantities of soluble copper at once or in smaller doses over time may cause vomiting and diarrhea, nausea and can lead to intense abdominal pain, cardiac arrhythmia, hemolytic anemia,and coma.
Manganese – Water that has a nasty black or purplish color but otherwise seems free of large debris and chunky nastiness is probably contaminated by manganese.
This will make the water taste very bitter and astringent. Extreme doses of manganese will lead to motor control degradation, psychiatric disorder resembling dementia, tremors and slurred speech. Manganese is an essential trace mineral in the body, but too much is bad news!
Water that has a brown or ochre yellow to orange color contains iron in abundance. Iron is another element we have to have for healthy function, but excess iron in our water will give it a gross metal taste.
Iron overdose is rarely a common issue in drinking water contaminated with it, but iron and rust particles in the water might harbor several varieties of harmful bacteria, making it something of a Trojan Horse contaminant.
Should you ingest way too much iron, symptoms include hemochromatosis, a disease that attacks organ tissue, fatigue, rapid weight loss, joint pain, heart disease and liver damage.
Lead is bad news no matter how it gets into your body, by bullet or beverage makes no difference. Lead is extremely hazardous in sufficient quantities, and can be inhaled as dust, absorbed through the skin or ingested with food or water.
Lead buildup attacks nerve tissues, and sharp intakes of lead can cause headache, vomiting, abdominal pain, sterility, memory issues, anemia, seizures and coma. Lead is especially hazardous for young children whose bodies are still developing.
Most people are familiar with this contaminant if they have used well water in certain parts of the country. Hydrogen sulfide smells like rotten eggs or farts, and while it does occur naturally in ground water in some areas and in trace amounts is not harmful it is of concern to us since its sudden arrival usually signals bacteria in the water supply.
All the above minerals are toxic to the human body in high doses and sufficient concentrations, but you should know that the human body does not absorb any of them very readily from water.
Assuming no other chemical contaminants or pathogens are present in water so contaminated with these minerals, it is safe to drink, at least for the short-term. Now, it will taste positively nasty and you will hate the experience but it is otherwise safe.
Assuming the water still comes out of your tap and is visibly changed to any of the colors mentioned above, you cannot assume that that is indeed what the contaminant is and you should just go on hold your nose and drink the water. Once again, the only way to be sure is to test it.
Pathogens are bacteria, viruses, amoebas and other nasty microorganisms that cause disease. You know, gribblies! It doesn’t matter what they are, you don’t want them in your body and that means they had better not be in the drinking water! Not all pathogens are created equal.
Some can cause mild distress. Others will make you gravely ill, sick enough to rue the day you were ever born. Some can even kill you.
Behold a few of these invisible terrors below!
The one that the FDA is always warning us about. Most Escherichia Coli, or E. coli, bacteria strains are harmless, but the virulent ones can cause gastroenteritis, UTI, and even meningitis.
More common ailments stemming from infection include diarrhea, severe abdominal pain, vomiting and occasionally fever. Young children are highly susceptible topathogenic strains of E.coli.
This parasitic aveolate does not have a catchy shortened nickname like E.coli, but it can just as easily mess you up with severe diarrhea and respiratory distress in the form of a nasty cough to go along with it.
People who have weakened immune systems will battle the disease on hard mode; the symptoms will be ferociously severe and may even be fatal.
A bacteria that causes legionellosis, or Legionnaires’ disease, a type of pneumonia. Expect shortness of breath, a blazing fever, wracking cough, muscle pain, nausea, headache and diarrhea. The elderly and smokers are especially at risk.
A protozoan parasite that will infest and reproduce in the intestines, causes giardiasis. If you are the lucky 1-in-10th person who is infected but showsno symptoms, hooray! But if you aren’t lucky, you’ll suffer a gallery of horrors including terrible diarrhea, abdominal cramps, and rapid weight loss.
Some will endure bloody diarrhea, vomiting and fever. Giardia takes a couple weeks to mature before getting the party started and you can expect to endure it for 6 weeks or so once symptoms develop, Have fun!
A family of bacteria that typically infests food or water contaminated with fecal matter. This is your garden variety “food poisoning” when it does occur. Typhoid fever is a famous member of this family of bacteria. If you don’t catch proper typhoid, you can expect diarrhea, cramping and fever. Headache is sometimes encountered.
Everyone died from dysentery on the Oregon Trail back in elementary school. Memes aside, dysentery is no joke. This gastroenteritis, or infectious diarrhea, will produce the most apocalypticly horrorfying bowel movements imaginable, and they will likely be bloody.
Fever and dehydration will complicate things quickly, Dysentery is a historic killer, described since at least the time of the ancient Greek scholars and philosophers.
It is possible to lose over a liter of body fluid an hour when dysentery has hit hard. Loss of fluids and electrolytes that rapidly can lead to deadly shock.
There are plenty of things that can contaminate the water that you cannot see and often cannot taste. Biological pathogens are one of those things.
Chemicals are another and heavy doses of pesticide and other ground-bound chemicals from around the county will often find their way into drinking water supplies in the aftermath of a flood.
Many of these chemicals cause short and long-term health problems and are virtually undetectable by taste or sight once they are in the water.
There is no guarantee your tap water will be safe in the aftermath of any disaster worth the name. Water Supply infrastructure is too fragile, too vulnerable in too many ways and too easily compromised to depend on.
I would even advise caution assuming you get an “all clear” from officials and inspectors in the wake of a disaster. If you have alternate water supplies that you can trust or that you know you can treat easily, I would go with those instead of your tap water, especially in the wake of something like a flood event.
But, if you are desperate or simply willing to roll the dice and take a chance, the only time I would trust tap water in the wake of a disaster is if the water was coming out of the tap with normal pressure and it was still clear and odor-free.
If I could detect any difference at all, no matter how slight, compared to my normal everyday water, I would not drink it, or at least drink it without filtering and purifying it first per normal procedure.
Quick Emergency Supplies of Uncontaminated Water
Now, I know that none of our readership has messed around and failed to stock up on ample supplies of potable drinking water. That would never, ever happen to any one of you. But let’s say for kicks that it does.
Let’s say maybe you’re away from your stash, or your stash is destroyed. Here’s the scenario: there you sit in the aftermath of a properly calamitous and destructive disaster. You can turn on any tap in your house and the water trickles in, but it smells foul and looks worse.
There is no way on God’s green earth you’re even going to try to purify it. You need water, and soon and it doesn’t look like rain is forthcoming. Where should you look for water that is safe to drink, or at least safe to reliably purify and then drink? Here are a few choice spots below:
- Harvest the ice. Pull all the ice from your ice maker compartment and ice cube trays you might have in your freezer. Place them in a clean container and let them melt.
- Toilet cisterns. Not the bowl! Siphon, scoop or otherwise draw the water out of your toilet cistern however you can. This water will be more or less safe to drink as it is, though it may be very mineral-ly or have some Rust particles in it. Note you cannot do this if you put those disinfectant or bleach tabs in your toilet tank without first purifying it. If you have time and means, purify it first regardless.
- Drain the water heater. If you know disaster is coming, shut down your water heater’s inlet as soon as possible to quarantine the water inside. Using the tank’s built-in drain valve, draw as much water as you need into a clean container. Your average water heater holds anywhere from 30 to 40 gallons of water, that’s quite a supply!
- Check the garden hose. You likely won’t get much, if you have a garden hose wrapped up around a reel or a holder you can uncoil it and drain out what water remains inside the hose.
- Out of the pool or spa. Assuming a private or public pool has not been contaminated by flood water or other liquid debris it is an ideal choice for harvesting and purification to turn it into drinking water. No, you shouldn’t be drinking water full of pool chemicals on the regular but in an emergency it will keep you alive with little ill effect. If in doubt, filter it.
- Lake or Pond. Again, assuming this natural source has not been contaminated severely by whatever the disaster has wrought these can make plentiful sources of water ready for easy filtration. Note that you should not drink from these sources as-is unless you have no other choice.
- Fruit and Veggie Juice. Specifically from canned fruits and vegetables. It will be sugary, or salty, respectively but it is certainly safe to drink and can hydrate you although I definitely don’t recommend it for hygiene!
Deciding whether or not to trust tap water in your home or business in the aftermath of a major disaster is a nerve-wracking experience. It should be, as drinking water contaminated with chemical or biological matter can severely sicken or even kill you.
The only way to truly know for sure if the water is safe and by using a test kit. If you lack a test kit you will never be able to say for certain and you’ll have to rely on your intuition and what observations you can make about the water’s characteristics in order to make your decision. Here’s hoping you make the right one!
Tom Marlowe practically grew up with a gun in his hand, and has held all kinds of jobs in the gun industry: range safety, sales, instruction and consulting, Tom has the experience to help civilian shooters figure out what will work best for them.