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?

check this out –

This could be really serious.  For example, your water system gets contaminated by something.  People  get sick.  We figure out the problem is in the raw water.  Someone is responsible.   But exactly how does one figure out where and who is responsible for impacting the  water systems and downstream users?  How does one comply with Safe Drinking Water Act  provisions for watersheds, or better what does this mean for utilities?  And what could possibly occur on land that cannot be “tested?”

What could possible go wrong?!

The US EPA estimates that there is a $500 billion need for infrastructure investment by 2025.  The American Water Works Association estimate $1 trillion.  Congress recently passes the Water infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (WIFIA) at $40 million/year, rising to $100 million in 5 years, which is a drop in the bucket.  Peanuts.  We have so many issues with infrastructure in the US and Congress tosses a few scheckles at the problem and thinks it is solved.  The reality is that the federal government wants to get out of the water infrastructure funding business and shift all water infrastructure to the local level.  This is a long-standing trend, going back to the conversion of the federal water and sewer grant programs to loan programs.

The reality is that local officials need to make their utility system self-sustaining and operating like a utility business whereby revenues are generated to cover needed maintenance and long-term system reliability.  The adage that “we can’t afford it” simply ignores the fact that most communities cannot afford NOT to maintain their utility system since the economic and social health of the community relies on safe potable water and wastewater systems operating 24/7.  Too often decision are made by elected officials who’s vision is limited by future elections as opposed to long-term viability and reliability of the utility system and community.  This is why boom communities fall precipitously, often never recovering – the boom is simply not sustainable.  Long-term planning is a minimum of 20 years, well beyond the next election and often beyond the reign of current managers.  Decisions today absolutely affect tomorrow’s operators.  Dependency on water rates may be a barrier, but this ignores the fact that power, telephone, cable television, gas, and internet access are generally more expensive hat either water or sewer in virtually all communities.  We need water. Not so sure about cable tv or he internet.  Great to have, but needed to survive?

The growth in costs can lead to mergers where a utility cannot afford to go it alone – as the economy of scale of larger operations continues to play out in communities.  Several small plants cannot operate at the same cost as one larger plant.  As a result larger projects will increase – from 87 to over 336 between 2005 and 2014.

But these costs are generally plant costs – treatment and storage, not piping.  Distribution pipelines remain the least recognized issue for water utilities (collection pipelines for sewer are similarly situated).  The initial Clean Water Act and Safe Drinking Water acts did not focus on piping systems – only treatment and supply.  The national Council on Public Works concluded their first assessment grade for infrastructure in the 1980s – but piping was not discussed.  ACSCE’s first report card in 1998 did not express concern about piping system.  Yet piping continues to age, and expose communities to risk.  In many communities greater than 50% of their assets are buried pipes.  Tools for assessing the condition of buried pipes especially water distribution pipes is limited to breaks and taps.  As a result the true risk to the community of pipe damage is underestimated and the potential for economic disruption increases.  The question is how do we lead our customers to investing in their/our future?  That is the question as the next 20 years play out.  Many risk issues will be exposed.  The fact that there are not more issues is completely related to the excellent work done by the utility employees.  More to come….

A past project I was involved  with involved a look at the feasibility of using wastewater to recharge the Biscayne aquifer In the vicinity of a utility’s potable water supply wells.  The utility was feeling the effects of restrictions on added water supplies, while their wastewater basically unused.  So they wanted a test to see if the wastewater could be cleaned up enough to pump it in the ground for recovery downstream, with the intent of getting added allocations of raw water.  Assuming the water quality issues could be resolved, the increased recovery would solve a number of water resource issues for them, and the cost was not nearly as high as some thought.

So we tested and using sand filters, microfiltration, reverse osmosis, peroxide and ultraviolet light, we were successful in meeting all regulatory criteria for water quality.  The water produced was basically pure water – not constituents in it, and therefore it exceeded all drinking water standards.  We demonstrated that technologically the water CAN be cleaned up.  The only issue is insurance that the treatment will always work – hence multiple barriers and the ground.  This was an indirect potable reuse project and ended because of the 2008 recession and the inability to of current water supply rules to deal with the in/out recovery issues.

The indirect reuse part was the pumping of the water into the ground for later withdrawal as raw water to feed a water treatment plant, as opposed to piping it directly to the head of their water plant.   But recovery of the water can be a challenge and there is a risk that a portion of the injected water is lost.  In severely water limited environments, loss of the supply may not be an acceptable outcome.  Places like Wichita Falls, Texas have instead pursued more aggressive projects that skip the pumping to the ground and go straight into the water plant as raw water.  Technologically the water CAN be treated so it is safe to drink.  The water plant is simply more treatment (added barriers).  So, with direct potable projects, monitoring water quality on a continuous basis maybe the greatest operational challenge, but technologically there is no problem as we demonstrated in our project.

The problem is the public.  You can hear it already – we are drinking “pee” or “poop water” or “drinking toilet water.”  The public relations tasks is a much bigger challenge because those opposed to indirect and direct potable projects can easily make scary public statements.   Overcoming the public relations issue is a problem, but what utilities often fail to convey is that many surface waters are a consolidations of a series of waste flows – agriculture, wastewater plants, etc. by the time they reach the downstream water intake.  Upstream wastewater plants discharge to downstream users.   But the public does not see the connection between upstream discharges and downstream intakes even where laws are in effect that actually require the return of wastewater to support streamflow.  So are rivers not also indirect reuse projects? In truth we have been doing indirect potable reuse for, well ever.

We have relied on conventional water plants for 100+ years to treat surface waters to make the water drinkable.  The problem is we have never educated the public on what the raw waters sources were, and how effective treatment is.  Rather we let the political pundits and others discuss concerns with chemicals like fluoride and chlorine being added to the water as opposed the change in water quality created by treatment plants and the benefits gained by disinfectants.  That message is lost today.  We also ignore the fact that the number one greatest health improvement practice in the 20th century was the introduction of chlorine to water.  Greater than all other medical and vaccine advances (although penicillin and polio vaccines might be a distant second and third above others).   Somehow that fact gets lost in the clutter.

Already the Water Reuse Association and Water Research Foundations have funded 26 projects on direct potable reuse.  Communicating risk is one of the projects.  The reason is to get in front of the issues.  You see, playing defense in football is great and you can sometimes win championships with a good defense (maybe a historically great one, but even they gamble).  Defense does not work that way in public relations.  Offense usually wins. Defenses often crumble or take years to grab hold.

The failure of utilities to play offense, and the failure of elected officials particularly support playing offense is part of the reason we struggle for funds to make upgrades in infrastructure, to perform enough maintenance or to gather sufficient reserves to protect the enterprise today.  And it remains a barrier to tomorrow.   Leadership is what is missing.  It struck me that when looking at leaders, what made them leaders was their ability to facilitate change.  Hence President Obama’s campaign slogan.  But talking about change and making real changes are a little more challenging (as he has seen).  You cannot lead without a good offense, one that conveys the message to the public and one that gets buy-in.  With direct and indirect potable reuse, the water industry has not changed the perception of “toilet water.”  That needs to change.  We need to be frank with our customers.  Their water IS SAFE to drink.  They do not need filters, RO systems, softeners, etc., or buy bottled water, when connected to potable water supplies (private wells, maybe).  We CAN treat wastewater to make it safe, and the technology tis available to make it potable.  . The value they pay for water is low.  Yet in all cases, others, have made in-roads to counter to the industry.  That happened because we play defense.

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