Written by: George Sendrey, P.E., Project Manager
…but no one thinks much about it – until it isn’t there or a potential water quality issue arises, such as the lead issue in Flint, Michigan. The average consumer generally assumes the water they drink is safe and the water bill they pay is enough to cover “everything” regarding the water system. There are many professionals, water utility managers, city administrators and their staff, who know the complexities of water utility, and spend most of their waking moments thinking about water, the distribution system and ways to protect the public health by treating their drinking water.
If you are a city, county, township, or entity that oversees the water in your community, here are some tips that will help you better protect and serve the public:
- Plan for Contingencies – The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has requirements for contingency plans, so make sure that your plan is updated and make it as real and actionable as possible. It is useful to have tabletop exercises that simulate real world scenarios such as a large -scale depressurization event or a contamination event. Logistical issues such as alternate water supply and distribution and customer notifications are important too, so don’t ignore them. Be prepared for an emergency, and don’t wait for one to occur before setting up or testing your plan – you’ll be glad you did.
- Communication – Water utility employees do a lot of work behind the scenes to treat the water and make it safe for all of us to use. Unfortunately, much of this crucial work goes unnoticed. Don’t be shy! Water utilities should make sure to take “credit” for all the work to capture and treat the water to make it safe for consumer use. Functions like education sessions or an annual open house at your treatment plant could be a good opportunity to educate consumers and show off the equipment, tanks, piping and processes involved in treating water. Safety precautions must be taken into consideration but events like these will create value and allow customers to see and appreciate how their water is treated and delivered to their homes. Don’t let the Annual Water Quality Report and the water bill be the only ways to communicate with your customers; share with them all the exceptional things that happen in the water department to provide safe drinking water so they understand the value and importance of quality drinking water.
- Source Water Protection Plan – Having a plan to protect your water supply is important for treating and achieving good quality drinking water. Even if you already have a good source water protection plan, you should review it and modify it at least annually. It is also a good idea to inspect your reservoir, river watershed, or groundwater well field just to make sure everything is in check. Is there a new housing development, or a new factory being built and how might that impact your supply of water? This is also an opportunity to review any known point source systems that discharge in to your water supply to see if they appear to be operating properly. Some communities even take it one step further by collecting water samples upstream from their water supply to analyze for water quality problems so they can be addressed within the watershed or in the water treatment process. The more information you have about the tributary to your raw water supply, the better you will be prepared to deal with issues such as spills, leaks or other unknown events, and have a communication plan to inform customers.
- Monitoring – With the recent focus on nutrients and harmful algal blooms (such as the event that left the City of Toledo without drinking water for three days), utilities have taken an aggressive approach to monitoring the raw water lakes and reservoirs that many water systems use for their drinking water source. The EPA has grant money available for utilities to purchase “in reservoir monitoring” or laboratory equipment to test for harmful algal blooms. This monitoring data can prove invaluable when used to adjust chemical and physical treatment parameters to improve and optimize harmful algal bloom treatments. By taking an “all the above” approach to protect against potential water quality problems, some water systems have successfully reduced the threat of harmful algal blooms by:
- Monitoring and testing within the watershed
- Treating the reservoir/lake to reduce algal blooms
- Adjusting the water treatment plant chemical and physical levels according to a predetermined protocol to treat the algal blooms
- Optimizing the chlorine residual to act as a final barrier
- Be Proactive and Transparent – Each water system is unique and each system has a different set of unique challenges. Make sure you keep customers educated, informed and up to date about water quality and the water treatment plant milestones, changes, or potential warnings regarding the water distribution system. While the work isn’t always seen, industry experts know what’s being done is making great impacts on improved water quality. By being transparent, credibility is built up for when water quality issues arise, and customers are reassured that actions are in place to keep drinking water safe.