Ask An Expert: Bloomington-Normal Water In The Clear | WGLT

Ask An Expert: Bloomington-Normal Water In The Clear

Jun 23, 2016

MIKE McCURDY: This is Sound Ideas. I’m Mike McCurdy in the studio with Kevin Bersett, editor of ISU’s Redbird Scholar Magazine and the Ask An Expert column in the Redbird Scholar magazine. Thanks for joining us on Sound Ideas.

KEVIN BERSETT: Thanks, Mike.

McCURDY: Before we talk about water quality, explain the ask-an-expert-concept…and how someone can submit a question they want answered.

BERSETT: It's simple we are looking for readers and listeners to challenge ISU's faculty experts by asking them interesting questions that couldn't  be easily answered through a Google search. we've had questions about arts and sciences, why humans laugh and cry, and about the odds of the Cubs winning the World Series and if someone wants to submit a question, send an email to

McCURDY: So, it’s not really a surprise we might get a question about water quality following the debacle in Flint Michigan. Who did we hear from?

BERSETT: Jason Wagner of Bloomington.

JASON WAGNER: My question is how does drinking water in Bloomington-Normal compare to other cities in the United States. Thanks and I look forward to the answer.

Joan Brehm filling a drinking glass with tap water at her home.
Credit Joan Brehm

McCURDY: So where did you turn? Who’s our expert?

BERSETT: I talked with Joan Brehm. She’s a professor in the Sociology and Anthropology Department and last year, Brehm helped conduct an assessment of water use and perceptions about water quality in the Lake Bloomington and Evergreen Lake watersheds.

McCURDY: The issues in Flint really drove up attention to water quality and in particular lead content.

BERSETT: It did, but Brehm says Bloomington Normal water is clear of lead.

DR. JOAN BREHM: Both Bloomington and Normal have had no violations in the past year. And if you go historically, we haven’t had EPA violations of water quality and lead is one of the contaminants we test for. We have exceptionally low levels of lead if any levels at all in both Bloomington and Normal’s water supply.

McCURDY: And if only it was that simple. From a homeowners tap, there could still be lead.

BERSETT: Yes. Even though the water piped to a house could be lead free, it could pick up lead before it exits the tap in the house.

BREHM: It mainly comes from residential pipes, so if you have lead pipes in an older home, you may pick up some minor lead in your water that way. But in terms of the city’s infrastructure we don’t have that problem with the lead.

McCURDY: So if someone’s concerned, test the tap water. What about water quality --  before it’s treated?

BERSETT: Normal gets its water from an aquifer…and the water is pretty good before treatment.

McCURDY: What about Bloomington?

BERSETT: That’s more complicated because Bloomington’s source is surface water: Lakes Evergreen and Bloomington. Those reservoirs are fed essentially by run-off. The water picks up naturally occurring minerals, but also nitrates from farm production and phosphorus from lawn chemicals. But Bloomington is working to eliminate those contaminants and chemicals. Again, Joan Brehm with ISU’s Sociology and Anthropology Department.

BREHM: Well, there’s two things. There’s treating the water and there’s an extensive water treatment plant. They’re constantly in upgrades and updating. They’re very on top of the technology to keep the treatment at or above the EPA levels. The other element is basically trying to mitigate the stuff going into the lake in the first place. There are a lot of cooperative agreements with projects with the farmers, in collaboration with the City of Bloomington, McLean County Soil and Water Conservation District, The Ecology Action Center, The Nature Conservancy – all of these groups are working in concert on different projects to mitigate the runoff and mitigate what comes off our lawns and what comes off the farm fields so they don’t have to treat the water as extensively.

BERSETT: And Mike, you might not even recognize some of these mitigation efforts or buffers that filter out some contaminants. They look like naturally occurring wild areas.

BREHM: Several farmers stepped up and agreed to let these wetlands installed on their fields. And they’re experimental plots so we’re measuring the water coming off the fields and measuring what goes into the wetlands and then measuring what comes out, looking at nitrate levels to better understand how the wetlands function.

McCURDY: So where are you with your water consumption? Tap water, filtered tap water, bottled, combination?

BERSETT: Just like, Joan, who says it 100 percent safe and far cheaper, I’m drinking and cooking with tap water.

McCURDY: Kevin, thanks for your contribution to our Ask An Expert features on Sound Ideas. Kevin Bersett is the editor of Redbird Scholar magazine and editor of the magazine’s Ask An Expert column. Also thanks to Joan Brehm. She’s a professor in the Sociology and Anthropology Department and last year she helped conduct an assessment of water use and perceptions about water quality in the Lake Bloomington and Evergreen Lake Watersheds.

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