Sediments in Water

We have all seen the stories about land in the Everglades agricultural Area thissummer.  I was asked to give a presentation at a national conference in Orlando recently about water management in Florida.  It was a fun paper and most of the people there were not from Florida, so it was useful for them to understand the land of water.  Florida has always been a land shaped by water.  Initially it was too much, which frustrated federal soldiers trying to hunt down Native Americans in the 1830s.  In 1881, real estate developer Hamilton Disston first tried to drain the swamps with canals.  He was not successful, but Henry Flagler came through a decade later and constructed the east coast railroad in the 1890s.  It is still there, 2 miles off the coast, on the high ground.  However water limited development so in 1904, Napoleon Bonaparte Broward campaigned to drain the everglades.   Broward’s efforts initiated the first land boom in Florida, although it was interrupted in the 1920s by hurricanes (1926 and 1928) that sloshed water out of Lake Okeechobee killing people and severely damaging property in Miami and around Lake Okeechobee.  A dike was built (the Hover dike – it is still there). However, an extended drought occurred in the 1930s.  With the dike preventing water from leaving Lake Okeechobee, the Everglades became parched. Peat turned to dust, and saltwater entered Miami’s wells. When the city brought in an expert to investigate, he found that the water in the Everglades was the recharge area for the Biscayne aquifer, the City’s water supply.  Hence water from the lake needed to move south.

Resiliency has always been one of Florida’s best attributes.  So while the hurricanes created a lot of damage, it was only a decade or two later before the boom returned.  But in the late 1940s, additional hurricanes hit Florida, causing damage and flooding from Lake Okeechobee prompting Congress to direct the Army Corps of Engineers to build 1800 miles of canals, dozens of pump stations and other structures to drain the area south of Lake Okeechobee.  It is truly one of the great wonders of the world – they drained half a state by lowering the groundwater table by gravity canals. To improve resiliency, between 1952 and 1954, the Corps,  in cooperation with the state of Florida, built a levee 100 miles long between the eastern Everglades and the developing coastal area of southeast Florida to prevent the swamp from impacting the area primed for development.

As a part of the canal construction after 1940, 470,000 acres of the Everglades was set aside for farming on the south side of Lake Okeechobee and designated as the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA).  However water is inconsistent, so there are ongoing flood/drought cycles in agriculture.   Irrigation in the EAA is fed by a series of canals that are connected to larger ones through which water is pumped in or out depending on the needs of the sugar cane and vegetables, the predominant crops.  Hence water is pumped out of the EAA, laden with nutrients.  Backpumping to Lake Okeechobee and pumping the water conservation areas was a practice used to address the flooding problem.

There was an initial benefit to Lake Okeechobee receiving nutrients.  Older folks will recall that in the 1980s , the lake was the prime place for catching lunker bass.  That was because the lake was traditionally nutrient poor.  That changed with the backpumping which stimulated the biosystem productivity.  More production led to more biota and more large fish.  This works as long as the system is in balance e- i.e. the nutrients need to be growth limiting at the lower end of the food chain.  Otherwise the runaway nutrients overwhelm the natural production and eutrophication results.  Lake Okeechobee is a runaway system – the algae now overwhelm the rest of the biota.  Lunker bass have been gone for 20 years.

The backpumped water is usually low in oxygen and high in phosphorus and nitrogen, which triggers algal progressions, leading to toxic blue-green algae blooms and threaten lake drinking water supplies.  Think Toledo. Prolonged back pumping can lead to dead zones in the lake, which currently exist.  The nutrient cycle and algal growth is predictable.

The Hoover Dike is nearly 100 years old and while it sit on top of the land (19 ft according to the Army Corps of Engineers), there is concern about it being breached by sloshing or washouts.  Undermining appears in places where the water moves out of the lake flooding nearby property.  So the Corps tries to keep the water level below 15.5 ft.  During the rainy season, or a rainy winter as in 2016, that can become difficult. If the lake is full, that nutrient laden water needs to go somewhere.  The only options are the Caloosahatchee, St. Lucie River or the everglades.  The Everglades is not the answer for untreated water – the upper Everglades has thousands of acres of cattails to testify to the problem with discharges to the Everglades.  So the water gets discharged east and west via the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie River.

The nutrient and algae laden water manifests as a green slime that washed onto Florida beaches in the Treasure coast and southwest Florida this summer, algae is actually a regular visitor to the coasts.  Unfortunately memories often fail in temporal situations.  The summer 2016 occurrence is reportedly the eighth since 2004, and the most severe since 2013.  The green slime looks bad, can smell bad, kills fish and the 2016 bloom was so large it spread through estuaries on both coasts killing at least one manatee.  One can see if from the air – try this link:




Speaking of water supply problems, welcome to Flint, Michigan.  There have been a lot of coverage in the news about the troubles in Flint the last couple of months.  However if you read between the lines you see two issues – first this is not new – it is several years old, going back to when the City’s water plant came back on line in May 2014.  Second this was a political/financial issue not a public health issue.  In fact, the political/financial goals appear to have been so overwhelming, that the public health aspects were scarcely considered.  Let’s take a look at why.

Flint’s first water plant was constructed in 1917.  The source was the Flint River.  The second plant was constructed in 1952. Because of declining water quality in the Flint River, the city, in 1962, had plans to build a pipeline from Lake Huron to Flint, but a real estate scandal caused the city commission to abandon the pipeline project in 1964 and instead buy water from the City of Detroit (source:  Lake Huron).  Flint stopped treating its water in 1967, when a pipeline from Detroit was completed. The City was purchasing of almost 100 MGD.  Detroit declared bankruptcy.  The City of Flint was basically bankrupt.  Both had appointed receivers.  Both receivers were told to reduce costs (the finance/business decisions).  The City of Flint has purchased water for years from Detroit as opposed to using their Flint River water plant constructed in 1952.  The Flint WTP has been maintained as a backup to the DWSD system, operating approximately 20 days per year at 11 MGD.

The City of Flint joined the Karegnondi Water Authority (KWA) in 2010.  The KWA consists of a group of local communities that decided to support and fund construction of a raw water pipeline to Lake Huron. The KWA was to provide the City of Flint Water Treatment Plant with source water from Lake Huron. An engineer’s report noted that a Genesee County Drain Commissioner stated that one of the main reasons for pursuing the KWA supply was the reliability of the Detroit supply given the 2003 power blackout that left Flint without water for several days.  Another issue is that Flint no say in the rate increases issued to Flint by Detroit.  Detroit’s bankruptcy may also have been a factor given the likelihood of increased prices.  While discussion were ongoing for several years thereafter, the Detroit Free Press reported a 7-1 vote in favor of the KWA project by Flint’s elected officials in March, 2013.  The actual agreement date was April 2013. The cost of the pipeline was estimated to be $272 million, with Flint’s portion estimated at $81 million.

The City of Detroit objected due to loss of revenues at a time when a receiver was trying to stabilize the city’s finances (in conjunction with the State Treasurer).  In February 2013, the engineering consulting firm of Tucker, Young, Jackson, Tull, Inc. (TYJT), at the request of the State Treasurer, performed an analysis of the water supply options being considered by the City of Flint.  The preliminary investigation evaluated the cost associated with the required improvements to the plant, plus the costs for annual operation and maintenance including labor, utilities, chemicals and residual management.  They indicated that the pipeline cost was likely low and Flint’s obligation could be $25 million higher and that there was less redundancy in the KWA pipeline than in Detroit’s system.  In 2013, the City of Detroit made a final offer to convince Flint to stay on Detroit water with certain concessions.  Flint declined the final Detroit offer. Immediately after Flint declined the offer, Detroit gave Flint notice that their long-standing water agreement would terminate in twelve months, meaning that Flint’s water agreement with Detroit would end in April 2014 but construction of KWA was not expected to be completed until the end of 2016.

It should be noted that between 2011 and 2015, Flint’s finances were controlled by a series of receivers/emergency managers appointed by the Governor.  Cutting costs was a major issue and clearly their directive from the Governor.  Cost are the major issue addressed in the online reports about the issue.  Public health was not.

An engineering firm was hired as the old Flint River plan underwent $7 million in renovations in 2014 to the filters to treat volumes of freshwater for the citizens.  The project was designed to take water from the Flint River for a period of time until a Lake Huron water pipeline was completed.  The City of Flint began using the Flint River as a water source in May of 2014 knowing that treatment would need to be closely watched since the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality in partnership with the U.S. Geological Survey, and the City of Flint Utilities Department conducted a source water assessment and determined the susceptibility of potential contamination as having a very high susceptibility to potential contaminant sources (take a look at this photo and see what you think).


Flows were designed for 16 MGD. Lime softening, sand filters and disinfection were in place.  Everything sounded great.  But it was not. Immediately, in May and August of 2014, TTHM samples violated the drinking water standards.  This means two things – total organic carbon (TOC) in the water and additional chlorine being added to disinfect and probably reduce color caused by the TOC.  Softening does not remove TOC.  Filtration is not very effective either.  High concentration usually needs granular activated carbon, ion exchange or membranes.  The flint plant had none of these, so the carbon staying in the water.  To address the TTHM issue, chlorine appears to have been reduced as the TTHM issue was in compliance by the next sampling event in Nov 2014.  However, in the interim new violations included a total coliform and E. coli in August and September of 2014, and indication of inadequate disinfection.  That means boil your water and lots of public outcry.  The pH, salinity (salt) and other parameters were reported to be quite different than the Detroit water as well.  A variable river system with upstream agriculture, industry and a high potential for contamination, is not nearly as easy to treat as cold lake water.  These waters are very different as they City was to find.  What this appears to indicate is that the chemistry profile and sampling prior to conversion and startup does not appear to have been fully performed to identify the potential for this to occur or this would have been discovered.  This is now being suggested in the press.

The change in water quality and treatment created other water quality challenges that have resulted in water quality violations. Like most older northern cities, the water distribution system in almost 100 years old. As with many other municipalities at the time, all of the service lines from the cast iron water mains (with lead joints) to end users homes were constructed with lead goosenecks and copper lines.  Utilities have addressed this with additive to prevent corrosion.  In the early 1990s water systems were required to comply with the federal lead and copper rule.  The concept was that on the first draw of water in the morning, the lead concentration should not exceed 0.015 mg/L and copper should not exceed 1.3 mg/L.  Depending on the size of the utility, sampling was to be undertaken twice and a random set of hoses, with the number of samples dependent on the size of the system.  The sampling was required to be performed twice, six months apart (note routine sampling has occurred since then to insure compliance).  Residents were instructed on how to take the samples, and results submitted to regulatory agencies.  If the system came up “hot” for either compound, the utility was required to make adjustments to the treatment process.  Ideally water leaving the plant would have a slightly negative Langlier saturation index (LSI) and would tend to slightly deposit on pipes.  Coupon tests could be conducted to demonstrate this actually occurred.  As they age, the pipes develop a scale that helps prevent leaching. Most utilities tested various products.  Detroit clearly did this and there were no problems.  Flint did not.

The utility I was at was a perfect 100% non-detects the first time were tested.  We had a few detections of lead and copper in samples the second time which really bothered me since the system was newer and we had limited lead in the lines.  I investigated this and found that the polyphosphate had been changed because the County purchasing department found a cheaper product.  I forced them to buy the old stuff, re-ran the tests and was again perfect.  We instructed our purchasing department that saving a few bucks did not protect the public health, but the polyphosphate product did.  Business and cost savings does not trump public health!  Different waters are different, so you have to test and then stay with what works.

Now fast forward to Flint.  They did not do this testing.  The Flint River water was different that Detroit’s.  Salinity, TOC, pH and overall quality differed.  Accommodations were not made to address the problem and the state found no polyphosphates were added to protect the coatings.  Veolia reported that the operations needed changes and operators needed training.  Facilities were needed to address quality concerns (including granular activated carbon filter media).  As a result the City appears to have sent corrosive water into the piping system, which dissolved the scale that had developed over the years, exposing raw metal, and created the leaching issue. Volunteer teams led by Virginia Tech researchers reported found that at least a quarter of Flint households have levels of lead above the federal level of 15 ppb, and as high as 13,200 ppb.  Aging cast-iron pipe compounded the situation, leading to aesthetic issues including taste, odor and discoloration that result from aggressive water (brown water). Once the City started receiving violations, public interest and scrutiny of the drinking water system intensified.

The City Commission reportedly asked the receiver to switch back to Detroit water, but that request was initially rebuffed and the damage to pipes continued.  Finally in October 2015, the water supply was switched back to Detroit and the City started adding additional zinc orthophosphate in December 2015 to facilitate the buildup of the phosphate scale eroded from the pipes by the Flint River water. But that means the pipes were stable, then destabilized, now destabilized again by the switch back.  It will now take some time for the scale to rebuild and to lower lead levels, leaving the residents of Flint at risk because of a business/finance/political decision that had not consideration of public health impacts.  And what is the ultimate fate of the KWA pipeline?

Just when things were starting to look up (?), in January 2016, a hospital in Flint reported that low levels of Legionnaires’ disease bacteria were discovered in the water system and that 10 people have died and another 77 to 85 affected.  From the water system?  A disinfection problem?  Still TOC in the water?  The lawsuits have begun but where does the problem lie?  Let’s look at Walkerton Ontario for guidance in the aftermath of their 2000 incident.

First it is clear that public health was not the primary driver for the decisions.  Treating water is not as simple as cost managers think.  You need to understand what water quality, piping quality and stabilization you have and address the potential issues with new water sources.  Membrane systems are very familiar with these challenges.  Cost cannot be the driver.  The Safe Drinking Water Act does not say cost is a consideration you use to make decisions.  Public health is.  So the initial decision-making appears to have been flawed. Cost was a Walkerton issue – cost cannot be the limiting factor when public health is at risk.

The guidance from consultants or other water managers is unclear.  If the due diligence of engineers as to water quality impacts of the change in waters was not undertaken, the engineering appears to have been flawed.  If the engineer recommended, and has lots of documentation saying testing should be done, but also a file full of accompanying denials from the receivers, another flawed business decision that fails the public health test.  If not, I see a lawsuit coming against the consultants who failed in their duty to protect the public health, safety and welfare.

The politics is a problem.  A poor community must still get water and sewer service. Consultants that can deal with rate and fee issues should be engaged to address fairness and pricing burdens.  Was this done?  Or was cutting costs the only goal?  Unclear.  The politics was a Walkerton issue.

Was the water being treated properly?  Water quality testing would help identify this.  Clearly there were issues with operations.  Telling the state phosphates were used when they were not, appears to be an operations error.  Walkerton also had operations issues as well.  A major concern when public health is at risk.  Veolia came to a similar conclusion.

The state has received its share of blame in the press, but do they deserve it?  The question I have is what does the regulatory staff look like?  Has it been reduced as the state trims its budget?  Are there sufficient resources to insure oversight of water quality?  The lack of provincial resources to monitor water quality was an issue in Walkerton – lack of oversight compounded local issues.  That would then involve the Governor and Legislature.  Politics at work.  Likewise was there pressure applied to make certain decisions?  If so, politics before public heath – a deadly combination.

So many confounding problems, but what is clear is that Flint is an example of why public utilities should be operated with public health at the forefront, not cost or politics.  Neither cost of politics protect the public health.  While we all need finances to pay for our needs, in a utility, money supports the operations, not controls it.  We seems to have that backward. Private entities look sat controlling costs.  Public agencies should look at public service first; cost is down the list.   We need the operations folks to get the funds needed to protect the public health.  And then we need to get the politicians to work with the staff to achieve their needs, not limit resources to cut costs for political gain.  Ask the people in Flint.

So is Flint the next Walkerton?  Will there be a similar investigation by outside unconnected people?  Will the blame be parsed out?  Is there a reasonable plan for the future?  The answers to these questions would provide utilities with a lot of lessons learned and guidance going forward and maybe reset the way we operate our utilities.  Happy to be a part of it if so!



In the last blog we talked about a side issue: ecosystems, bison, wolves, coyotes and the Everglades, which seem very distant form our day-to-day water jobs, but really are not.  So let’s ask another, even more relevant issue that strikes close to home.  Why is it that it is a good idea to store coal ash, mine tailings, untreated mine waste, garbage, and other materials next to rivers?  We see this over and over again, so someone must think this is brilliant.   It cost Duke Energy $100 million for the 39,000 tons of coal ash and 24 MG of wastewater spilled into the Dan River near Eden NC in 2014. In West Virginia, Patriot Coal spilled 100,000 gallons of coal slurry into Fields Creek in 2014, blackening the creek and impacting thousands of water supply intakes.  Fines to come.  Being a banner year for spills, again in West Virginia, methylcyclohexamethanol was released from a Freedom Industries facility into the Elk River in 2014, contaminating the water supply for 300,000 residents.   Fines to come, lawsuits filed.  But that’s not all.  In 2008, an ash dike ruptured at an 84-acre solid waste containment area, spilling material into the Emory River in Kingston TN at the TVA Kingston Fossil Plant.  And in 2015, in the Animas River in western Colorado, water tainted with heavy metal gushed from the abandoned Gold King mining site pond into the nearby Animas River, turning it a yellow for dozens of miles crossing state lines.

Five easy-to-find examples that impacted a lot of people, but it does not address the obvious question – WHY are these sites next to rivers?  Why isn’t this material moved to more appropriate locations?  It should never be stored on site, next to water that is someone else’s drinking water supply.  USEPA and state regulators “regulate” these sites but regulation is a form of tacit approval for them to be located there.  Washington politicians are reluctant to take on these interests, to require removal and to pursue the owners of defunct operations (the mine for example), but in failing to turn the regulators loose to address these problems, it puts our customers at risk.  It is popular in some sectors to complain about environmental laws (see the Presidential elections and Congress), but clearly they are putting private interests and industry before the public interest.  I am thinking we need to let the regulators do their job and require these materials to be removed immediately to safe disposal.  That would help all of us.

Happy 91st Pop! It’s been 2.5 years since you were last with us, but it’s funny how many things popped (no pun intended) up today that connect to you. Clearly you are still watching what goes on. We had a family summer cottage located 8 miles east of Grayling Michigan. So today I came across an old book entitled the Old AuSable written in 1963 by Hazen Miller, a U of M doctor (you were a U of M aerospace engineer) who wrote about the area back in the day (1870s to 1920s), just before your father purchased property along the AuSable River. It mentions the great grandfather of my dad’s summer playmates, one of whom just died last summer - his obit came up in my email today. Reminded me of many places I went as a kid. Funny it also reminded me of some of the old “names” that are now being lost to time, but created what exists today. It also helped with some perspective on a proposal I have been working on regarding water supplies and quality. The grayling fish disappeared by 1912 as a result of hanged on water quality (warming and silt), human impacts of logging on the fish and the introduction of other species. My proposal looks at impacts of human activity on SE Florida, especially as it relates to sea level rise and the need to capture additional soil storage capacity through infiltration trenches. The water cannot be discharged to tide due to Human-induced nutrient and roadway pollutants of the potential exists to impact fish populations. So we are looking at moving the infiltrated water to water plants in the future. We can treat the water there, cost effectively while solving another problem – diminishing water supplies for urban populations. This would diminish our need to deal with desalination and the disposal of concentrate, another proposal. Funny how sometimes it all comes together….Good times back then and up there. Making progress today. Thanks and keep on watching out for us!!

I went back to Colorado last week and it’s dry again out there.  Ok, maybe not this past week when it rained a bit, but despite late snow (March to May), the forests are dry.  The bark beetle problem has not made things easier, so lightning from thunderstorms can easily create fires, like the fire down in Colorado Springs or the Big Meadows fire that is ongoing in Rocky Mountain National Park.  The latter has been ongoing (although fortunately mostly out) for over a month, and has closed some trails in the park.  I hiked through the Fern Lake fire remnants (although virtually all the fire was around Cub Lake). That fire burned for a couple months last fall, only finally burned out in the winter after snowfall. 


The west is dry and “drier than in the past” is the new normal it seems in Colorado.  So now water managers are faced with three new challenges:  less water, faster runoff and more difficult water to treat.  The fires cause the loss of protective vegetation, which means less water is kept in the forest.  As a result, the tiny, light ash particles easily run off in the rain.  Ash is hard to remove without activated carbon or other advanced processes.  The loss of vegetation increases runoff, which means larger sediment content in otherwise pristine water supplies.  That can make a major impact on downstream water plants that may not have planned for such events.  The cost of fire suppression for the last 60 years confounds the current water supply and quality problems.  There are also ecological effects that may impact local economies. 


All this said, I am unsure what the solution is.  Clearly the climate in Colorado is changing.  It is unlikely we can alter the current course any time soon.  Instead we must adapt to the changes and attempt to mitigate the impacts on water supplies.  Creativity, innovation and likely more infrastructure will be required. Concepts like aquifer storage and recovery are coming back to the fore as a result of the current condition. It will be interesting to see how this all plays out. 



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