ME Water Talk
Carrie Lewis, General Manager at the Portland Water District and previous Superintendent at Milwaukee Water Works
Twenty-five years ago 400,000 people fell ill and 50 people died in one of the deadliest waterborne disease outbreaks in U.S. history. This April marks the 25th anniversary of the Cryptosporidium outbreak in Milwaukee WI. Cryptosporidium is a parasite that can be found in soil, food, water, or surfaces that have been contaminated with the feces from infected humans or animals.
So what happened in April 1993? Deep snow had built up over the winter; it was all released into the watershed during a rainstorm early that spring. The wastewater plant was overloaded and combined sewer overflows were pouring into Lake Michigan. The discharge from the plant and the combined sewer overflows flowed over the intake to one of Milwaukee’s two drinking water treatment plants. Because Cryptosporidium is resistant to chlorine, the pathogen was unaffected by the plant’s disinfectant. Then, the filtration plant failed to remove the tiny microorganisms and the pathogen passed through the plant and into the distribution system.
Customer complaints of dirty and smelly water started to trickle in. Symptoms begin to appear 2 to 10 days after ingestion, so soon there were many people out of work and school with gastrointestinal illnesses. Pharmacies couldn’t keep Imodium in stock. City and state health agencies conferred and concluded that the drinking water was the likely source of the illness. After the State Health Director said he would not drink Milwaukee water, the plant was shut down and a city-wide boil water advisory was issued.
In the years that followed, water quality monitoring was increased and SCADA controls were improved. Drinking water treatment processes and wastewater systems were upgraded, including the use of deep tunnel storage. Green infrastructure was implemented to absorb storm water runoff, and the utility hired its first ever Water Quality Manager to help get things back on track.
The outbreak was a huge wake-up call for the drinking water profession and had lasting effects nationwide. The crisis solidified the water industry’s understanding that we are in the business of protecting public health, not just treating and distributing water. We began to view operators as highly skilled positions and realized the importance of maintenance and reinvestment in our infrastructure. The importance of multiple barriers to prevent contamination came into focus. We also learned that regulations need to be considered in relation to each other, not in isolation, and optimal performance of wastewater systems is essential. Federal rules were enacted to address the health effects associated with Cryptosporidium in surface water used as a drinking water supply and improved treatments were implemented across the country. Today, water quality data and information are widely used to guide adjustments that better protect public health and the environment.
Twenty-five years later, the water industry is clear, the importance of quality drinking water to protect public health is a key component to the success of any community.
We hear about water crises every day from the South African city of Cape Town’s reserve running dry as of April 12th, to the severe droughts in California causing wildfires, to the Siberian winters that make it impossible for pipes not the freeze and provide water to Russian citizens. We are very lucky to have reliable clean potable water provided by streams, rivers, and lakes here in Maine. But what if there was another way to get large amounts of water. What if we could utilize our own waste to produce clean drinking water? A company in Northeast Ohio has done just that. “Our goal is to change the way the world thinks about water by changing how we treat it, use it, and manage it,” said Michelle Matty, sales and human resources manager at the Tangent Company. The 2,000-gallon Watercycle pilot project has been operational for the past four years at the Western Reserve Land Conservancy’s headquarters in century home in Moreland Hills, OH. This on-site recycling system served multiple purposes for the conservancy, eventually eliminating the need for a well and septic system, said Rich Cochran, the conservancy’s CEO. “Especially when people are in dire need of drinking water they get over that (“yuck factor”) pretty fast,” Matty said. “The whole concept of toilet-to-tap is something you might imagine that some people have a hard time with,” Ebie Holst, CEO of Splashlink, said. “But even our own utility-based municipal tap water is reused water. It just happens to pass through a body of water like Lake Erie first.” Water is Mother Nature’s most precious gift to us but it is not endless past a certain point. We need to use it wisely or find ways to better manage what we do have. Perhaps our own waste is the answer.
Learn more here:
Mary Jane Dillingham – Water Quality Manager, Lewiston Water Division, Auburn Water District
The recent uprising of the “raw” water fad is somewhat frightening. “Raw” means the water has not been processed or purified. While the raw water being sold, at a premium price, may be free of contamination, it is risky to assume that drinking any untested and untreated surface water or groundwater is safe. The World Health Organization stated that more than 3.4 million people were dying each year as a result of water related diseases such as typhoid, cholera, hepatitis A, dysentery and polio making it the leading cause of disease and death around the world. Though it may look clean, many of the natural and man-made contaminants are completely invisible in water and water is an excellent medium for transporting these contaminants. Research human history and you will find that some of society’s greatest achievements were developed from combating illnesses and death resulting from drinking untreated water. Our planet’s human population levels are the highest in history at 7.4 billion, primarily due to sanitation effectiveness.
What’s concerning about the “raw” water fad, is that it questions whether treated water is healthy. Water treatment is a barrier that protects us from contracting chemical and microbial disease. Invoking a distrust of our public water systems and steering people with misinformation to promote unsafe practices is certainly an action that needs to be questioned. Consider 2.1 billion people on our planet lack access to safe water. Many of these people only have access to “raw” water and it is unsafe and causing disease. Our safely managed water treatment systems ensure that the people served by those systems have access to the most basic requirement to life.
Sophia Scott – Source Water Protection Coordinator, ME CDC Drinking Water Program
While not as straight forward as planting a tree in your backyard, a new study from the U. S. Forest Service and the American Water Works Association (AWWA) highlights the influence of a forested watershed on keeping water treatment costs down. Lower water treatment costs at public water systems often translate to lower water bills for consumers like you. This research will help to better inform communities and policy makers of the financial impact of green infrastructure in an effort to encourage watershed protection and keep consumer costs low. It adds to a growing body of research linking forested watersheds to high quality drinking water sources. The added savings of a protected drinking water source is not just true for surface waters such as lakes, ponds, and rivers; the EPA found that for groundwater, treating a contaminated supply can be 30-40 times more expensive than preventing contamination in the first place. The take home message here is that a protected drinking water source not only yields high quality drinking water, it also results in costs savings for water systems and their consumers.
Find the full report by visiting: https://tinyurl.com/treesnottreatment
Americans have the great privilege of drinking, utilizing, and reveling in safe, potable water. This drinking water often comes from the vast 1 million miles of pipe line maintained by municipalities, water districts, and privatized businesses alike. In June 2017 the Value of Water Campaign unveiled national poll results demonstrating the extreme importance of rebuilding the water industry infrastructure. 82% of Americans ranked rebuilding America’s water infrastructure as very important; more important than reforming the tax system, replacing Obamacare, or increasing the defense budget. The poll participants aggregated a diverse cross section of the American population. 87% of Americans strongly support an increase to the federal investment in water infrastructure.
The average American uses 176 gallons of water per day or 64,240 gallons a year. For every $1.00 spent on infrastructure improvement within the US, the US generates $6.00 in returns for the economy. Every job created within the water industry adds another 3.68 jobs to the national economy. The facts are endless and they support the need to face our infrastructure challenges with timeliness and poise. Every year the industry estimates 1.7 trillion gallons of drinking water are lost through aging or leaky pipes. The average pipe segment is 47 years old. With 1/3 of water sector employees currently eligible for retirement, it is critical that the water industry recruit quality personnel that will bring us into the next millennia of innovation and technology.
While the media coverage of the Flint, Michigan crisis has started to die down the health concerns associated with elevated lead levels in water still exist. For more information about the true story associated with the Flint, MI tragedy the PBS, NOVA video, Poisoned Water provides an in depth view into how the lead in water contamination crisis unfolded.
You may be wondering, how does this affect me as a Maine resident? The Maine Drinking Water Program has been actively working to assess the situation in Maine. You can obtain more information about their efforts and additional educational materials through their website. Lead is not naturally found in water and while Maine’s public drinking water sources and systems provide lead-free drinking water, lead can dissolve into water from plumbing fixtures and piping that contain lead, such as brass faucets and lead solder.
If you are concerned that you have lead in your home drinking water you may reach out to your public water utility or a state certified laboratory for more information about sampling and analyzing your water. If you test your water and the sample results indicate elevated lead levels there are several options for reducing lead levels in your drinking water, including:
- Running the water for several seconds before consuming: The more time water has been sitting in your home’s pipes, the more lead it may contain. When your water has been sitting for several hours, you can minimize the potential for lead exposure by flushing your tap for 30 seconds to 2 minutes before using water for drinking or cooking.
- Only use cold water for eating and drinking: Use only water from the cold-water tap for drinking, cooking, and especially for making baby formula. Hot water is likely to contain higher levels of lead. Run cold water until it becomes as cold as it can get.
- Installing an NSF certified filtration product: Many water filters and water treatment devices are certified by independent organizations for effective lead reduction. Devices that are not designed to remove lead will not work. Verify the claims of manufacturers by checking with independent certifying organizations that provide lists of treatment devices they have certified.
- Removing/replacing plumbing pipes or fixtures that leach lead
- Note that boiling water will NOT get rid of lead contamination.
For more information on this issue please refer to your local public water utility, the Maine Drinking Water Program, the Maine Water Utilities Association, the Maine Rural Water Association, the Maine Public Drinking Water Commission, and/or the USEPA.