Tag Archives: water quality

A utility’s novel attempt to force farmers to curb pollution in rivers failed. Now the utility is on the hook for millions of dollars to protect the region’s drinking water.
— Read on


I was at a recent AWWA technical and Education Council meeting in Denver. One of the major discussions was the issues with lead service lines as highlighted by the current problem in Flint, and how many utilities are now fielding questions about and dealing with lead in their services lines, research that will come for lead, and regulatory requirements for upgrades. One issue that remains unanswered is what happens on the customer’s side of the meter, which may also be lead piping. So removing the utility’s lead service would not solve the lead issue completely, but it will help. But why has lead not been an issue in 25 years? Did it suddenly arise?
While the lead has arisen again as a public health topic, the lead and copper rule has been in effect for nearly 30 years and much of the lead and copper testing was conducted in the early 1990s. Most utilities made water treatment upgrades based the findings from the testing, and utilities have been required to continue to monitor their system ever since. Normally lead levels, even when present, were not a health issue because the zinc orthophosphates and other treatment methods kept the pipe
encapsulated. Others like Cincinnati, Lansing, Madison, Boston and others had ongoing programs to replace lead pipes. 30 years ago in North Carolina we changed out lead goosenecks and galvanized lines rather than replace them – it was just easier.
Most of the folks in the room agreed most utilities have or have such programs and that the number of lead service lines and lead goosenecks on the utility side is
limited. So I suggested that maybe the lesson we should learn from Flint is not about lead service lines, but instead the risks we incur with decision-makers who only look at money when making decisions. Flint’s decision to change water sources was driven by money, not public health.
In fact the report just published indicates that public health was not a real consideration at all. But decisions based on money impacted not only Flint, but Alamosa, CO in 2008, where disinfection was not practiced, and Walkerton,
ONT in 2001 where a Flint like set of decisions cascaded into contamination that killed people. There are utiity systems who contract operations and their contract operator makes decisions based on money, and now there is a distribution system problem. This is a repetitive pattern that has less to do with personnel operating these systems, than decision-makers, who tend to look more at the business case or money as opposed to public health. The lesson we need to learn is that money cannot be the
deciding factor when operating public water and sewer system. And to reduce the chance it happens in the future, perhaps there should be penalties if it does.


Most water suppliers realize that the more natural their land is upstream of their water supplies, the less risk there likely is for their customers.  Under the source water protection programs that state, local officials and water utilities implement, the concept is to keep people related activities out, and let the natural forests and landscapes remain.   For the most part the natural areas support only a limited amount of wildlife (sustainable) and thereby there natural systems are attuned to compensate for the natural pollutant loads, sediment runoff, ash, detrital matter, etc., that might be created through natural processes.  For thousands of years these systems operated sustainably.  When people decide there needs to be changes, it seems like the unanticipated consequences of these actions create more problems.  Now many of these same ecosystems do not work sustainably and water quality has diminished, increasing the need for treatment and the risks of contamination to the public.  It would be better, but decidedly less popular on certain fronts, to provide more protection to natural systems that extend into watersheds (which is most of them), not less.

So this leads to a series of questions that go to the greater questions about natural environments:

Is it really necessary to cull the small Yellowstone bison herd by 1000?  What do bison have to do with watersheds?  Well, the bison create much less damage to grasslands and underlying soil than cattle due to the size of their hooves.  An argument is that we need to cull the herd because they transmit disease to cattle, but Brucellosis has never been demonstrated to move from bison to cattle, so disease is not an answer.  What is really happening is that there is competition between buffalo and cattle for grazing.  Competition with cattle means that the cattle are on public property, not private ranch lands, and the cattle trample the public lands which creates the potential for soil erosion and sediment runoff.  So I am thinking water folks should be siding with the bison. Of course without wolves, there is no natural predator for bison, which raises a different sustainability problem, so maybe instead of killing them, we move them to more of their native ranges – maybe some of those Indian reservation might want to restart the herds on their lands?  That might be good for everyone, water folks included.

Part 2 – is it necessary to continue to protect wolves or should we continue to hunt them in their native ranges?  Keep in mind wolf re-introduction efforts are responsible for most of the wolf populations in the US, specifically in the Yellowstone area.  Without wolves, there is no control of large grazing animal populations (see bison above, but also elk and deer), and there is a loss of wetland habitat because the elk eat the small shoots used by beavers to build dams and trap sediment.  Eliminating wolves has been proven to create imbalance.  Wolves = sediment traps = better water quality downstream.  Sounds like a win for everyone. (BTW there is a program in Oregon to protect wolves and help ranchers avoid periodic predation of calves by wolves so they win too).

Part 3 – Is it really necessary to kill off coyotes in droves?  The federal government kills thousands of coyotes and hunters and others kill even more.  This is a far more interesting question because it leads to one of those unintended consequences.  !100+ years ago people decided wolves were bad (we still have this issue ongoing – see above).  So we eradicated wolves.  No wolves means more rodents, deer, elk, etc. which mean less grass, less aspens and less beavers, which means more runoff which does not help water suppliers.  It also means more coyotes, because there is more food for the coyotes.  Interesting that coyotes have pretty much covered the entire US, when their ranges were far more limited in the past.  Coyotes are attracted to the rodents and rabbits.  But the systems are generally not sustainable for coyotes because there is not enough prey and there is no natural control of the coyotes – again, see wolves above.  A Recent Predator defense report indicates that culling coyotes actually increases coyote birth rate and pushes them toward developed areas where they find cats and small dogs, unnatural prey.  Not the best solution – unintended consequences of hunting them on more distant land pushes them into your neighborhood.  Not the consequence intended.  So maybe we keep the small dogs and cat inside at daybreak and nightfall when the coyotes are out and let them eat the rats and mice that the cats chase and once consumed they go away.   Coyotes need to eat grazers and rodents but you need the right mix or the grazers overgraze, which leads to sediment runoff issues – which is bad for us.  That also seems like a win.

Everglades restoration is a big south Florida issue.  The recharge area for the Biscayne aquifer is the Everglades.  So water there seems like a win for water suppliers?  So why aren’t we the biggest Everglades advocates out there?  Still searching for that answer, but Everglades restoration is a win for us and a win for a lot of critters.  Federal dollars and more federal leadership on restoration is needed.  Which leads to ….

Do we need more, not less management of federal lands?  Consider that the largest water manager in the west is the federal government, which has built entire irrigation systems to provide water to farmers who grow crops in places that are water deficient.  Those farms then attract people to small towns that consume more of the deficient water.  Then people lobby to let cattle graze on those public lands (see bison above), timber removal – which increases sediment erosion, or mining (what could possible go wrong there?).  So since the federal government manages these lands, wouldn’t better regulations and control to keep the federal properties more protected benefit water users and suppliers?  Contrary to the wishes of folks like the guys holed up in a federal monument in Oregon, or the people who have physically attacked federal employees in Utah and Nevada, more regulations and less freedom is probably better in this situation for the public good.  If we are going to lease public lands (and most lands leased are leased to private parties for free or almost free), and there should be controls on the activities monitoring for compliance and requirements for damage control caused by those activities.  There should be limits on grazing, timber and mining, and monitoring of same.  Lots of monitoring.  It is one of the things government really should do.  And we need it to protect water users downstream.  Again a win for water suppliers.

So as we look at this side issue, ecosystems, bison, wolves, coyotes and the Everglades seem very distant from our day-to-day water jobs.  But in reality they are not.  We should consider the impacts they might have on water supply, keeping in mind natural system decisions are often significantly linked to our outcomes, albeit the linkage is not always obvious.

The other thing we learned was that we need to be far more careful about what goes in the sewer system.  Paper towels, baby wipes and hand towels do not deteriorate in the sewers.  No matter what manufacturers claim, you find them everywhere and they look just like they did when flushed.  They clog lift station pumps and pipelines.  Do not put these down the toilet for any reason?  Likewise there are no feminine hygiene products that should be flushed, ever!  Again regardless what the manufacturers claim, you can find there ubiquitously in the sewer system and they look, well just like they did when flushed.  No biodegradation.  I have included some figures.  They show up in pump clogging and at plants as well.  They are not biodegradable.  Again do not put these down the toilet!  Put all these products in the trashcan in the bathroom.

Worse, do not put grease down the drain.  One photo is a greaseball in a manhole.  It fills the whole manhole up!  Of course the feminine hygiene products, towels, wipes, etc. plus grease make almost impenetrable obstacles that block the sewer system.  So we need to remove the inflow and we need to keep grease and the reset of these products out to reduce the costs of operating the wastewater utility.  We all contribute, and we all can help.  We want systems to operate properly and dependably, so let’s do our part.

photo 3 photo 1 GREASE

In an interesting twist of fate, USEPA caused a spill on the Animas River when a staffer accidently breached a dike holding back a solution of heavy metals at the Gold King mine because the misjudged the pressure behind the dike.  Pressure?  The spill flowed at 500 gpm (0.7 MGD), spilling yellow water spilled into the river.  Downstream, the plume has travelled through parts of Colorado, New Mexico and Utah, and will ultimately hit Lake Mead.  Officials, residents, and farmers are outraged.  People were told not to drink the water because the yellow water carried at least 200 times more arsenic and 3,500 times more lead than is considered safe for drinking. The conspiracy theorists are out.  The pictures are otherworldly.

colorado-mine-spillRayna Willhite holds a bottle of water she collected form the Animas River north of Durango Colo., on Thursday, August 6th, 2015. About a million gallons of toxic mine waste emptied out of the Gold King Mine north of Silverton that eventually made it into the Animas River. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald via AP)

0807 colo spill epa-spill-

But they are all missing the point, and the problem.  This is one of hundreds of “legacy disasters” waiting to happen.  We are just surprised when they actually do.  A legacy disaster is one that is predicated on events that have happened in the past, that can impact the future.  In some cases the far past.  There are two big ones that linger over communities all over the west and the southeast – mines and coal.  Now don’t get me wrong, we have used coal and needed metals form mines.  That’s ok.  But the problem is no one has dealt with the effects of mining or coal ash for many years.  And then people are upset.  Why?  We can expect these issues to happen.

One major problem is that both are often located adjacent to or uphill from rivers.  That’s a disaster waiting to happen.  The King Gold mine is just the latest.  We had recent coal ash spills in Kingston, Tennessee (TVA, 2008) and the Dan River in 2014 (Duke Power). The Dan River spill was 30-40,000 tons.  Kingston cleanup has exceeded a billion dollars.  Coal ash is still stored at both places.  Next to rivers.  We had the federal government build ion exchange facilities in Leadville, CO and Idaho Springs, CO to deal with leaking water from mine tailings from the mountains. Examples are in the hundreds.  The photos are of the two coal spills, mine tailings that have been sitting the ground for 140 years in Leadville and one of the stormwater ponds – water is red in Leadville, not yellow.

kingston_coalash POLLUTE-master675 IMG_4803 IMG_6527 (2015_03_08 17_53_48 UTC)

When the disaster does occur, the federal government ends up fixing it, as opposed those responsible who are usually long gone or suddenly bankrupt, so it is no surprise that EPA and other regulatory folks are often very skeptical of mining operations, especially when large amounts of water are involved.  We can predict that a problem will happen, so expensive measures are often required to treat the waste and minimize the potential for damage from spills.  That costs money, but creates jobs.

For those long gone or bankrupt problems, Congress passed the Superfund legislation 40 years ago to provide cleanup funds.  But Congress deleted funding for the program in the early 2000s because they did not want to continue taxing the business community (mines, power plants, etc.).  So EPA uses ARRA funds from 2009.  And funding is down from historical levels, which makes some businesses and local communities happy.  The spectre of Superfund often impacts potential developers and buyers who are concerned about impacts to future residents.  We all remember Love Canals and Erin Brockovich.  Lack of development is “bad.”  They ignore the thousands or jobs and $31 billion in annual economic activity that cleanup creates, but it all about perception.

But squabbling about Superfund ignores the problem.  We continue to stockpile coal ash near rivers and have legacy mine problems.  Instead we should be asking different questions:

WHY are these sites permitted to store ash, tailings, and liquids near water bodies in the first place?  EPA would not be inspecting them if the wastes were not there.

WHY aren’t the current operators of these mines and power plants required to treat and remove the wastes immediately like wastewater operators do?  You cannot have millions of gallons of water, or tons of coal ash appear overnight on a site, which means these potential disasters are allowed to fester for long periods of time.  Coal ash is years.  Mine tailings… well, sometimes hundreds of years.

One resident on the news was reported to have said “Something should be done, something should be done to those who are responsible!”  Let’s start with not storing materials on site, next to rivers.  Let’s get the waste off site immediately and disposed of in a safe manner.  Let’s recover the metals.  Let’s start with Gold King mine.  Or Duke Power.  Or TVA.

This month’s Journal for AWWA has several articles devoted to direct potable reuse (DPR).  Total Water Solutions is the moniker that AWWA has tapped lately as the organization has moved to the message that water sources cannot be separated.  California believes that 40% of its urban water use can be recycled to direct potable reuse, which can address a lot of the drought concerns for urban users (11% of California’s water use).  The technology is available to make DPR a reality.  The concerns involve insuring system reliability (i.e. redundancy in processes), and public perception of DPR.  As I noted in a prior blog, there are two cities in Texas already doing DPR.  There are several places in California doing indirect potable reuse (IPR) which basically involves injected the water into an aquifer or releasing it in an upstream reservoir.  The treatment is basically the same for both but the separation is creates a different public opinion. One that is not so different than discharging wastewater to rivers that serve as water supplies downstream.  Both IPR and DPR were unheard of as ideas outside southern California until more recently.  But in the past several years, both have seen a significant change in Texas, California and Florida.  Water-logged south Florida has looked at 5 IPR projects in the past 7 years, and has a couple reuse ASR systems.  Should drought conditions return, these projects may not be so far-out (note we are at 25% normal rainfall in southeast Florida – but water use is 10% below 2005 levels).

There is an interesting ethical issues that arises in this discussion also. Engineers are entrusted to protect the public health, safety and welfare. When there were few people, projects did not impact many so little thought was given to the “what could possible happen” question. We are still paying for that. When bad things happen, the precedent has unfortunately been set that somehow “the government” will resolve this. An old 1950s BOR director said he thought he was “a hero because he helped create more room for people” in the west with dams and water projects. He did accomplish that, except that while there were more people coming, the resources were never analyzed for sustainability, nor the impact it might have on the existing or potential future economic resources. But once the well runs dry, I think we just assumed that another solution would resolve any issue. But what is if doesn’t?

There are many water supply examples, where we have engineered solutions that have brought water or treated water to allow development. South Florida is a great example – we drained half a state. But no one asked if that development was good or appropriate – we drained off a lot of our water supply in the process and messed up the ecological system that provided a lot of the recharge. No one asked in the 1930 if this was a good idea.

Designing/building cities in the desert, designing systems that pump groundwater that does not recharge, or design systems that cannot be paid for by the community – we know what will happen at some point. Now that there are more people, conflicts become more likely and more frequent. Most times engineers are not asked to evaluate the unintended consequences of the projects they build. Only to build them to protect the public health safety and welfare while doing so, but from a specific vantage point.

So if you know a project will create a long-term consequence, what action should you take? So the question is whether there is a conflict between engineers meeting their obligations to the public and economic interests in such cases?  Or should we just build, build, build, with no consideration of the consequences?

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