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How's The Water? Part 1

Dangerous lead levels in Flint, Michigan’s drinking water and the prolonged drought in California have caused many communities to examine more closely the safety and the future of their water supplies. Currently Bloomington and Normal have adequate water resources, but experts say another severe drought could result in a shortage.

And while water here is treated to remove toxins that are regulated by the federal and state governments, a number of chemicals still make their way into the water, including potential carcinogens that are neither regulated nor measured.

WGLT conducted a nine-month investigation into what’s in our water. In Part 1 of the news series, "How's the Water?," WGLT’s Judy Valente uncovered much that’s positive, coupled with some potentially troubling trends.

Water. It's the essential building block for sustaining life. Water covers 70 percent of the earth’s surface, but only about one percent of it is fresh water suitable for human use.

Joan Brehm is a sociologist from Illinois State University who studies public water use.

“Water is a finite resource. We have no alternatives for clean water. Once it’s gone it’s gone,” she said.

“We’re lucky to have abundant source right now but we are not promised that in the future. Water is a basic human right and I would hate to see water move further down the road to privatization and other mechanisms where it becomes such a precious resource people start fighting over it, and now all of sudden it becomes who can afford it who can’t.”

Recent revelations about dangerously high lead levels in the Flint, Michigan water supply and similar problems found in other communities across the country, have refocused public attention on the issue of water safety.

Potentially dangerous chemicals

Here in the Twin Cities, lead levels currently are not a major threat. For one, local water sources don’t contain the kind of toxic industrial waste found in Flint River water.

And, the acid level of the water here is controlled. That prevents old pipes from corroding and leaching lead into the system, something that was not done in Flint. Steve Gerdes heads Normal’s Water Department.

“We’ve used the corrosion control strategies for number of years and we’ve never even come close to any compliance issues with lead or copper samplings we’ve done over the last 25 years anyway," said Gerdes.

A much bigger threat is contamination from the runoff of farm fertilizers. Farm runoff can introduce dangerous levels of nitrogen and phosphorus into surface water supplies. High levels of nitrogen are harmful to the intestinal system of infants and have been linked in some studies to brain development issues. High rates of phosphorous produce algal blooms that in dense concentrations not only give water a bad odor and taste, but can be toxic.

Two years ago, a blue-green form of algae in Lake Erie released a toxin called microcystin. It contaminated Toledo, Ohio’s water supply. A half-million residents were left without public water for three days. Angelo Capparella is conservation chair of the John Wesley Powell Audubon Society. He says microcystin is a growing problem across the country.

“That really has been under-appreciated and gone unmeasured in a lot of areas until the incident with the Toledo water supply and Lake Erie hit a couple of years ago,” said Capparella.

In the absence of crises, water rarely registers as an urgent public concern. Kathy Foster is a member of a local clean water advocacy group called Friends of EverBloom. An EverBloom survey a few years showed many residents don’t know where their water comes from.

“And they seemed kind of unconcerned about it because when they turn the faucet on the water keeps coming out,” said Foster.

Two main water sources

So here’s a brief primer on where Bloomington gets it water, from Rick Twait, director of the city’s water treatment plant.

“We have two reservoirs from which we draw our water. One is Lake Bloomington, the original lake that was built in 1929 by building a dam across Money Creek. The other was built in 1971. It’s Evergreen Lake at Comlara Park. That was built in 1971 by building a dam over Six Mile Creek,” said Twait.

Bloomington can also tap into a third water source under certain drought conditions, a pumping pool in the Mackinaw River, near Lake Evergreen

Unlike Bloomington, Normal draws its water from 15 wells attached to underground aquifers, including the vast Mahomet Aquifer. Aquifers are essentially deep subsurface rock formations that contain water.

Of the two communities, Bloomington, by depending on surface water, faces by far the most potential future threats. The Illinois Water Survey, a state agency, says Bloomington is likely to face a shortage in the coming decades unless it finds additional water sources.

As for water quality, Bloomington, again, confronts the bigger problem. The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency says both Lake Bloomington and Lake Evergreen are quote “impaired” bodies of water. That’s largely because of the presence of nitrates and phosphorus from farm runoff. Phosphorus also gets into the lakes from the natural erosion of phosphorus-rich soil along water banks, as well as soil runoff from construction sites and lawns that makes its way into storm drains and eventually into feeder streams to both lakes.

On a sunny afternoon, Foster and other Friends of EverBloom volunteers set out in a motor boat to collect water samples from the Lake Bloomington and two of its feeder streams.  

“This is the last place out on surface before it goes into the water treatment plant so it should be a good place to see what they are getting when they first pull the water in to treat it,” Foster said.

Pre-treatment reservoir quality

WGLT had these samples of untreated lake water analyzed by PDC Laboratories in Peoria. In two separate analyses, the lab found the presence of nitrates and phosphorus as well as ammonia, and coliform bacteria - an indicator of unsanitary conditions.  It also found chlorophyll which indicates the presence of algae – the substances that can give water a bad taste and odor, and in high concentrations, prove toxic.

In Money Creek, the main feeder to the Lake Bloomington, there were traces of e coli; probably due to the presence of these frequent visitors to the lake, Canada geese, and other wildlife.

The PDC lab’s Kurt Stepping say the findings are not unusual for untreated reservoir water.

“Those aren’t what I would consider alarming levels, especially in surface water. If this were drinking water, it would not pass,” he said. 

Despite how impaired the water starts out, EverBloom’s Foster says residents can be confident about the water that eventually comes out of their faucets. That’s because the lake water undergoes a complex and costly treatment process.

Treating the water

The responsibility for that task falls largely to Twait and his staff at the city’s treatment plant – a massive complex of buildings alongside Lake Bloomington in Hudson, about 15 miles from downtown Bloomington.

"That’s main reason we’re here, for public health, to keep people from getting sick," Twait said.

The Bloomington treatment plant disinfects more than a million gallons of lake water daily. Those steps include sending the water through a clarifier, a softener, a series of filters and finally treating it with massive amounts of disinfectant.

In step one, water is pumped from the lake into the plant through a series of pipes.  

“There are a number of different particles. You have silt, sand, clays, algae, bacteria and viruses -- the majority of which are benign, but lurking among them can be potentially disease producing organisms,” said Twait.

Most of these organisms are so small that thousands of them would not fill the width of a human hair. But they can be sprayed with a special dye that fluoresces under ultra-violet light enabling them to be monitored.

Chemicals are added to the scum-like stew of silt, sand, bacteria and even insects that serve as coagulants to push the particles together.

“They have what we call a net surface charge. It’s just like the little magnets you had in school. If you put two magnets together they repel. When they collide they want to bounce away, that’s the opposite of what we want to happen. We want them to collide to make heavier particles,” said Twait.

Adding chemical coagulants with a high positive charge causes the tiny organisms and other particles to attach to one another and become larger, heavier.

“This is one of storage rooms for coagulants. This is ferric sulfate one of the main coagulants we have at plant,” said Twait.

As the particles connect and grow heavier, filters can then separate them out from the rest of the water.

“Sedimentation is when everything sinks to the bottom and you have clear water coming out of the top.”

Twait then moved to a gravelly area.

“This is one of our clarifiers these are actually the work horses of our treatment. If you look at it in cross section looks like a huge funnel, a huge funnel capable of treating 5.25 million gallons of water per day,” he said.

Lake water then goes into a softener where a lime is added. The lime helps to remove minerals from the water and compounds like calcium and magnesium that harden water. The softening process also helps remove algae that can cause taste and odor problems.

“We add a thousand pounds of lime for every million gallons of water we treat and we take out that same amount during the treatment process,” said Twait.

In the last phase of the physical filtration process, water flows through bits of what’s called granulated activated carbon made from anthracite coal as well as a fine layer of sand.

“This is our chlorine room. This is all isolated. There are no openings to the inside from this room.”

Finally, the water is doused with chlorine, the main disinfectant used in public water supplies, and ammonia.

“It’s what will inactivate or kill any organism that might get through our system," Twait said.

Fluoride is also added at this time to help prevent tooth decay.

“We also add ammonia to form a compound called chloramine that is not as strong a disinfectant as chlorine, but it doesn’t dissipate as quickly so we have a suitable amount of disinfectant even at the farthest reaches of our system,” Twait said.

The disinfected water spends time in an underground reservoir to make sure any bacteria are killed before the water is pumped through pipes to residences, businesses, hospitals and schools.

The plant is a 24-hour operation. Oz Toledo is one of the plant operators.

“At night you’re here, you might have a thunderstorm roll in, it knocks out power. You got to act quickly, make sure your filters are working and everything comes back on because some slight mistake can mean a lot,” said Toledo.

Tony Alwood is a lab technician for the city of Bloomington at Lake Bloomington. He and other workers, sometimes accompanied by Twait, sweep around Lake Bloomington in motorboat carrying various instruments with exotic names like Secchi disk and multi-parameter sonde, in order to assess water quality.

“The white object you see there is what’s called a multi-parameter sonde, it measures a lot of things important to us...dissolved oxygen, temperature, PH, turbidity, the cloudiness of the water," said Twait.

Dissolved oxygen is one of the most important indicators. High levels of oxygen in the upper portions of the lake and lower oxygen levels at night in lower depths indicate an increased potential for algal growth, like the algae that produced the toxin microcystin which poisoned Toledo’s drinking water.

Concerns over standards

But unlike nitrates, phosphates and e coli, which are tightly regulated by state and federal law, communities aren’t required to test for microcystin, and a host of chemicals.  Among them: chemicals commonly used in agricultural pesticides and herbicides. It’s a fact that troubles David Rubin, a professor of physiology at Illinois State University who has done extensive research on the health effects of these chemicals.

“You don’t’ need much and you can get an effect, little doses do matter,” Rubin said.

Rubin said most of the chemicals that are tightly regulated are those that would cause immediate harm if they made their way into drinking water, like the e coli bacteria. But exposure to other chemicals over time has a cumulative effect, and is more difficult to measure.

“You won’t see the effects for year. If I put 20 grams in your coffee cup this morning, chances are you will be vomiting that night. If I give you a tenth of a gram over a month, you probably won’t see the change for 10 years, but there are changes taking place in the body," he said.

Rubin said chlorothalonil is a potent fungicide that can make its way into water systems through farm runoff.

“We work with it in the lab. It’s a fungicide. We have to work with it wearing a hood, using gloves, using masks in a vented space, but that could be applied by farmers in their fields. And chlorothalonil is not regulated by the EPA," said Rubin.

A further concern is whether EPA standards are adequate for the chemicals that are regulated. Atrazine is an herbicide regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act. The federal government says 3 parts per billion of Atrazine in public drinking water is safe.

Europe has a much stricter standard for the product, point zero one parts per billion. Emily Marquez, staff scientist at the Pesticide Action Network says Atrazine has been found to alter the genetics of reptiles, birds and fish, and other studies indicate adverse effects on humans.

“There’s been associations in epidemiology studies that indicate that at levels below the U.S. legal limit, we see an uptick in birth defects, but there’s also  been another study that indicates low birth weight in people, in humans,” said Marquez.

In 2011, Angelo Capparella of the local Audubon Society, sent a Bloomington drinking water sample to the Pesticide Action Network for analysis. The analysis found an Atrazine level in the local water of .30, far below what regulators consider dangerous. But Capparella issued a warning.

“Atrazine may be getting into the water at levels that may be below the official standard, but it’s above what many scientists are now saying is the actual protective standard we should be at. We do think a closer look should be taken at the actual atrazine that is getting into the tap water,” he said.

Rubin, the ISU physiologist, says those standards probably won’t change any time soon.

“There is a lot of money in atrazine and agrichemicals in general," said Rubin.

He said household charcoal water filtration systems can also help remove Atrazine and other toxins.

“But how many households can afford a $150 water filtration system?” asked Rubin.

Consequences of agriculture

Twait, the Bloomington water treatment plant director, says Atrazine and other such chemicals are of concern, but it is up to the EPA to change the standards.

“That is not something we as a utility have the purview to do. We follow the federal standard based on the science they deem acceptable and sound and we will do our utmost to maintain those standards," said Twait.

“I am gratified the detections we do have infrequently are quite low.”

As for nitrates and phosphorus from runoff, Twait said Bloomington has been unable so far to meet a target, set by the EPA in 2006, to reduce nitrate levels in the lake by 66 percent and phosphorus by 34 percent.

“It’s one of the consequences of living in a high agricultural area,” said Twait.

Measuring and monitoring

Even so, Twait said the water department is making some progress. To reduce the amount of sediment in the lakes, which adds to the phosphorus levels, the department is working with the Everbloom clean water group on a shoreline stabilization effort. There will be more on that effort in a future report in this series.

The water department is also working with a team of Illinois State University researchers to help farmers improve the rate and timing of their fertilizer applications to lessen the potential for runoff.  The team has educated farmers on the value of planting cover crops such as rye and radishes in the off season. Those crops absorb nutrients and then also return them to the soil.

And Twait and his staff are working with the Illinois Nature Conservancy and McLean County Soil and Water Conservation District to increase the number of wetlands around farms. Wetlands were once naturally occurring areas that helped dilute farm runoff before it could flow into streams. We’ll visit one of these wetlands in a future segment.

'Better today than yesterday'

Through all of those efforts, Twait said water is arguably safer now than any time in the past.

“One of the great success stories for civilization has been the successful treatment of water," said Twait.

"I would much rather have treated water now than take a risk a hundred years ago and put my canteen in a stream,” he said.

ISU biologist Bill Perry is working with farmers to reduce fertilizer runoff. He said McLean County is making steady progress in improving the water quality.

"I’m really happy with water quality I’ve seen. Having traveled to many countries, I think our water supply is among the best."

But Perry and others warn that the contamination problems that occurred in Flint and Toledo, as well as the California water shortage, are wake up calls to more carefully monitor how clean our water is and how much of it we have.

Credit Judith Valente / WGLT
Steve Gerdes, town of Normal water department director

'Get the Lead out' 

Water officials in both Bloomington and Normal say that for the past 25 years, their testing has shown non-detectable lead levels in Twin Cities drinking water. But there may be a hidden problem. Lead wasn't banned from home water pipes and fixtures until 1986. Some older houses still have lead pipes or pipes with lead solder. The trouble is, water officials don't know which houses still have these pipes and whether they might be leaching lead into the water once it gets into the home. Many homeowners don't know either. Normal's water department director Steve Gerdes recently spoke with GLT's Judy Valente about a dilemma facing both cities.

"We've been doing lead and copper sampling for 25 years now. We've never exceeded an action level," said Gerdes. "We've always been below action levels and the vast majority of samples have been below detection limits."

Gerdes said homeowners should check into what compounds might be removed from water before investing in filtration devices or water softening systems. He said residents in older homes concerned about the lead level should have their water tested by a certified lab.

Listen to the interview

Town of Normal City Manager Mark Peterson Q&A

Residents whose drinking water comes from the Mahomet Aquifer, including all of Normal, will soon have a better idea of whether toxins from the Clinton Landfill are affecting that water.

Normal city manager Mark Peterson said the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency is about to begin independent testing of ground water near landfill, which sits atop part of the aquifer. Previously, the the state EPA relied on test results provided by the landfill's users.

"The testing was done by the landfill operators and, in many cases, the results were sent to labs that were owned and operated by the landfill themselves," Peterson said. "Now, I'm not saying there was anything done inappropriately, but it does sort of raise a concern."

The Clinton Landfill was allowed to open over the objection of environmentalists and other local citizens after its operators agreed not to dump PCBs there -- chemicals that have been linked to high rates of cancer. Peterson says local municipalities need to do a better idea of monitoring the other substances that are going into the landfill.

Listen to the interview