Behind WGLT’s “How’s The Water?” Series
Even before news broke of the devastating lead contamination of the water in Flint, Michigan, our WGLT newsroom was in the process of exploring the future of water in McLean County. It was a prescient decision. Not only did the Flint example focus national attention on the safety of public water supplies, but the on-going drought in California also called attention to the need for communities to plan for adequate amounts of drinking water.
The immediate impetus for our series was a recent water study conducted by the McLean County League of Women Voters. I attended the public forum at which League members presented their findings. Something gnawed at me: the findings seemed overly optimistic.
And yet, there were some clear warning signals. As Illinois Master Naturalist Meredith Schroeer, a member of the League’s study committee, pointed out a Canadian company had received approval to run a petroleum pipeline under two feeder creeks to Lake Bloomington, the city’s main water supply. The company had not yet declared these sections of the pipeline as “high consequence” areas, deserving of more extensive monitoring for leaks.
There was also the open question of an additional water supply for Bloomington to supplement Lakes Bloomington and Evergreen. Plans to tap a well southwest of the city had fallen through, and the city had yet to find another option. Then there was the on-going struggle of how to reduce the amount of nitrates and phosphorus in the lakes from farm and lawn fertilizer runoff. Because of these pollutants, the state Environmental Protection Agency has designated both drinking water sources as “impaired.”
I spent August 2015 until March of this year looking into those issues and several others, including the lack of inspections of home septic systems that discharge treated effluent to within an few feet of Lake Bloomington. WGLT also asked independent laboratories to analyze what’s in our drinking water, as well as water taken directly from Lake Bloomington. Over the course of my reporting, I found much that we can feel confident about in terms of our water future, but also many troubling trends. These included:
- High levels of fertilizer, pesticides and herbicides that run off of farm fields, have caused the Illinois EPA to list Lake Bloomington and Lake Evergreen, Bloomington’s two main sources of drinking water, as “impaired” bodies of water.
- Bloomington officials have been unable to meet EPA goals set in 2006 for reducing the amount of nitrates and phosphates from farm runoff in these bodies of water.
- Many farm chemicals are not regulated by the EPA and therefore local officials don’t regularly test for the amounts of those chemicals in the lakes.
- An independent laboratory analysis of the water in Lake Bloomington commissioned by WGLT found the presence of coliform bacteria and e coli, indicators of unclean conditions, in the lake.
- With the permission of the Illinois EPA and Commerce Commission, Enbridge Inc. was allowed to run its petroleum pipeline underneath three bodies of water that help supply Bloomington’s drinking water. Although Enbridge says it uses a remote internal detection system to catch any oil leaks that might occur, it does not use more sensitive external leak detection equipment which could pinpoint even a small leak within seconds.
- Enbridge was responsible for one of the worst pipeline mishaps in recent years, spilling a million gallons of a form of thick tar sands oil known as diluted bitumen into the Kalamazoo River. The clean-up lasted several years and cost Enbridge about $1 billion. Conservationists maintain even a small leak could shut down Bloomington’s water supply.
- Although Enbridge has offered the city of Bloomington a $30,000 grant to purchase its own external leak detection equipment for one of the pipeline crossing sites, at Money Creek, city officials said they “have not yet had time” to apply for the grant.
- The EPA does not mandate testing for microcystin, a toxin released by a particular kind of blue-green algae. Algal blooms, especially in summer, are a continuous problem in Lakes Bloomington and Evergreen, and have caused problems with taste and odor to drinking water in the past. In 2014, high microcystin levels in Toledo, Ohio’s water supply shut down that city’s water system for three days, affecting a half million residents.
- Aging septic systems from the homes surrounding Lake Bloomington discharge their treated effluent to within 25-50 feet of the lake. Responsibility for inspecting those systems lies with the county Health Department, but there is no regular schedule for inspections. The systems are inspected when they are installed, and not inspected again unless a house is sold or leased to a new tenant, or a problem, like leaking sewage, arises. In 2013, state law was changed to require systems put in after Jan. 1, 2014 to be re-inspected within three years and every five years subsequently.
- Several independent and governmental studies over the past two years have recommended that Bloomington seek an additional source for water to meet future demand. The city thus far has not been able to identify a new source.
- The Clinton Landfill, which sits atop the Mahomet Aquifer, the water source for a million central Illinois residents, including the city of Normal, continues to accept toxic waste. Periodic tests to insure toxins are not leaking into the water supply are currently conducted by the landfill owners or laboratories hired by the landfill.
- While lead levels are “non-detectable” in the drinking water sent out by the Normal Water Treatment Plant, officials in both Normal and Bloomington said homes built before 1986 may contain lead household pipes that could lead to some contamination. City officials say they don’t know how many homes fit into this category and suggest homeowners in older homes have their tap water privately tested to determine lead levels.
- A number of Lake Bloomington residents said they did not know whether they had a septic system, according to a recent study done by Illinois State University sociologist, Joan Brehm. A separate study by Friends of Everbloom, a water conservation group, found that many McLean County residents don’t know where their drinking water comes from.
These issues raise serious concerns about the future of water quality and quantity for the Twin Cities. WGLT will continue to report on these issues in the months to come. You can hear all five parts of the investigative series at the "How's The Water?" series page.