Wednesday, May 25, 2016

From Recreation and Commerce to Quality of Life – Water is Top of Mind

By: Gary Davis
Water is abundant in central Illinois, so we think about it frequently.  We appreciate the fact that it is plentiful, unless it is flooding our basements, overflowing the banks of the Illinois River or its tributaries, or surfacing through the ground due to a water main break. We enjoy boating in it, catching fish from it, swimming through it (even polar dives), ice skating on it, enjoying a cool glass of it, and are pleased it can be used to transport products efficiently to and from our area. Since water makes up nearly 70% of our body weight, 80% of our brain tissue, and 71% of our Earth’s surface (only 3.5% of that is freshwater), it is important that we keep water at the top of our mind.

The subject of water quality has gained significant attention recently – both nationally and locally – which reminds us not to take this natural resource for granted.

Water Quality Failure Example
The Flint, Michigan water quality issue involving elevated lead levels in their drinking water certainly raised our awareness of potential water quality issues that could impact our health. With improved treatment technologies and high-tech water sampling and analysis techniques, we would think these types of danger would be limited to our history books. Numerous regulations have been instituted to protect both our drinking and surface waters, but there are still opportunities where these safeguards can fail, as is the case with Flint’s water system.

After more than a year of following the warning signs of the Flint water crisis, it has been determined by some independent sources where the failures occurred. The problem was apparently two-fold with the first failure being a change in the City’s water supply source from Lake Huron to Flint River. The corrosive treated river water was without an optimized corrosion control plan, and ate away at the lead service lines and other lead containing appurtenances within the water system. The second issue, and the one that prevented the problem from being detected earlier, was the state’s Department of Environmental Quality’s lack of sufficient sample collection and analysis, plus disposing of samples whose inclusion would have put the system at the “actionable level” for lead. The result of these failures has been a crisis for Flint residents that have been drinking the water with elevated levels of lead for over a year. The City has converted back to using Lake Huron for their water supply, but it will take some time for the corrosion control chemicals to restore the protective pipe coating to prevent further leaching of the lead.

Drinking water sources in Illinois come from both surface water and groundwater, with 70% of the state’s population served by surface water. Most of central Illinois is served by groundwater wells. The cities of Springfield and Bloomington use surface water, and Illinois American Peoria District utilizes both surface and well water for their supply, including an Illinois River intake and three groundwater well sites.
Surface Water Conditions

In 1972, the Clean Water Act was passed by Congress with the intent “to restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the nation’s waters.” In general, within the freshwater lakes of the nation, nothing has changed since the adoption of the Act, indicating conditions are not improved to support fishable and swimmable lakes uniformly throughout the U.S. as mandated by the Act. On the positive side, the water quality has not gotten worse, possibly indicating the legislation has prevented further deterioration of the freshwater lake quality. 

In February 2016, the Illinois Protection Agency (IEPA) Bureau of Water released its report on surface water quality within the state. Of the 119,244 stream miles in Illinois, they assessed 18,044 miles for at least one of six uses including aquatic life, fish consumption, primary contact, secondary contact, indigenous aquatic life, and public and food processing water supply. The full report is available on IEPA’s website, but here are a couple of their findings. First, 50.4% of the stream miles assessed were rated poor for supporting primary contact activities such as swimming or other uses where there is prolonged contact with the water, with 16.8% rated good. Another important assessment factor is the ability for the stream water to support aquatic life, and 57.8% of the stream miles assessed in 2016 were rated good and only 4.9% with a poor rating. The IEPA reports that the assessed stream miles rated good for supporting aquatic live has improved from 34.7% in 1972 to 57.8% in 2016. Even better results were recorded in the lakes in the state, with 17.8% rated good in 1972 and 90.9% in 2016.

With surface waters being used for many activities, including a source for some drinking water supplies, this improvement in quality is something to be celebrated. While all reports indicate more improvements are needed, at least the results being reported are mostly positive.

 Groundwater Conditions

Groundwater is a primary source of drinking water for most communities in central Illinois, so preserving it is important to all of us. Many of the wells in central Illinois are sand and gravel aquifer wells, with some groundwater supplies having their source from deep bedrock aquifers. In an IEPA Bureau of Water Report dated February 2016, the latest count of groundwater-dependent public water supplies is 5,200, with 1,150 of them being community water supplies. According to the Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH), there are an additional 400,000 residences in the state that rely on private groundwater wells for their potable water. 

Groundwater quality throughout the state has been monitored for many years and the State of Illinois evaluates these results closely to protect groundwater supplies. Public water supplies continue to monitor their supply and treated water on a strict schedule, enabling them to detect variances in the water quality quickly to prevent major quality concerns. When variances occur, which are typically minor in a groundwater supply, adjustments can usually be made to the treatment system to provide water to their customers that meet state water quality requirements. Community and private water well systems, according to IEPA, are the most vulnerable to contaminants and other water quality issues.

Industrial, agricultural, and commercial activities and the use of pesticides, road salts, plastics, adhesives, paints, gasoline, etc. can produce contaminants harmful to groundwater. Monitoring is required for these potential contaminants, including nitrates, chlorides, SOCs, and VOCs to assure a safe water is provided to water customer. Lead monitoring in the distribution system is also required and many systems are utilizing an optimized corrosion control plan to prevent lead leaching from any lead service lines or other lead in the water system appurtenances due to corrosive source waters.

Public water systems within the State of Illinois are operated by licensed operators who take their responsibility of providing safe potable water to their customers seriously. So, if you detect a change in your potable water quality, reach out to them and make them aware of your concerns. Teaming with your water professionals in this manner can reassure you and help the operators be aware of potential problems.  

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