Who Should Pay for Clean Water?

WaterfallThere's been an ongoing legal dispute in Iowa between the Des Moines Water Works (DMWW) and drainage districts in three Iowa counties to decide who should pay the price to clean up polluted water. It's an interesting case for those of us who are involved in stormwater regulation and water treatment. And it is one more step in the ongoing struggle to determine how best to protect the environment and who is best positioned or most responsible to pay that cost.

Background on the DMWW Case

According to the final ruling document (No. 16-0076), DMWW "is a municipal water utility … that provides drinking water to an estimated half-million Iowans in the Des Moines area." Their water sources are primarily the Racoon and Des Moines Rivers. The watershed for the Racoon River is about 2.3 million acres in size and spans 17 counties in Iowa. DMWW stated in their complaint filed in federal court that "from 1995 to 2014, nitrate concentrations in the Racoon River at the DMWW intake points exceeded the 10 mg/L standard for drinking water at least 1636 days, or 24% of the time." Example concentrations mentioned in the complaint are 11.98 mg/L, 13.23 mg/L, 11.89 mg/L, 13.43 mg/L, and 12.56 mg/L. Therefore in order to provide water to its customers that meets drinking water regulations, DMWW incurred costs at its three treatment plants to reduce this level below the standard. DMWW also noted the need to expend funds in the near future to construct a new facility to handle the continuing elevated levels of nitrate.

In an effort that appears to force a reduction in or capture of these costs, DMWW filed a petition in federal court on March 16, 2015 (Trial Case No. C 15-4020-MWB). According to the Order Certifying Questions to the Supreme Court, the complaint basically alleges the drainage districts, or defendents, are "responsible for the increasing nitrate concentrations in the Racoon River." And because DMWW provides water to its customers from this river, which now has elevated levels of nitrate, it must incur costs it would not otherwise have to in order to reduce these concentrations below regulated standards.

On the defendent side, the drainage districts argued they were not the proper party for this lawsuit. They also indicate that other agencies of the state and federal government are responsible for regulating these matters – not a court of law. In the end, their bottom line was  "the existence and functions of drainage districts are so limited, the Iowa Supreme Court repeatedly, for over a century, has found districts not amenable to suit for damages, i.e., they are entitled to unqualified immunity."

Court Ruling in the DMWW Case

As reported in the online article of the Des Moines Register on Jan. 27, 2017, "the Iowa Supreme Court ruled that Des Moines Water Works cannot win damages under the Iowa Constitution against drainage districts in the three counties it is suing." The article includes an embed of the ruling in case anyone is interested in reading the court's explanation for each count of the complaint. The article also mentions there will be another ruling in June of this year to decide if drainage districts should be considered polluters under the Clean Water Act and subject to those regulations including the need to obtain permits for their discharges.corn


Why does this matter?

Water receives contaminants from natural and man-made activity, and removing those contaminants is not free. In the end, someone has to pay the cost, but who? In the Des Moines area, the cost to remove contaminants to provide safe drinking water is currently paid for by the DMWW which most likely passes the costs onto its customers. If the city subsidizes its utility for this purpose then the taxpayers of the city are also paying. But the people paying for that cost are not directly responsible for putting nitrates in the water. Instead studies show elevated contaminants in receiving streams are primarily a result of agricultural operations. (An earlier article in this blog cites a report indicating results of this in Illinois). So should agricultural operators pay the costs to remove contaminants?

Who pays is really what is being decided by lawsuits like the one brought by DMWW. In that case the court's decision leaves those using the water to bear the costs. Whether that is because of the manner in which the complaint was written or the specific defendents named, I cannot really comment on since I am not a lawyer. Articles and opinions I've read on the case indicate the matter is best left to legislators and regulatory agencies. What does seem obvious to me is no matter which entity pays, the cost will always ultimately be passed along to the end user. So whether it is the water or stormwater utility paying or the farmer, it seems we will pay for it through increased water bills to treat our water, taxes to clean our waterways, or grocery bills for increased costs for food production. So really the question should perhaps be How Do We Want to Pay for Clean Water?



Water Unleaded Launch

Water Unleaded Window Cling Example

Water Unleaded Window Cling ExampleHaving worked for many years in the water industry, I've closely followed the recent events related to the lead controversy in Flint, Michigan. If you're a regular reader of this blog, you've also probably seen the articles my partner and I posted about the topic. As we continued to discuss the topic over the last few months, we realized we could continue to offer through our blog information to people about minimizing their exposure to lead in their homes. But what could we do to help people be sure they are not exposed to lead once they ventured outside their home? So we started to wonder if it might be useful to have a place online where people could check to see the levels of lead in places they were thinking of visiting. Today we are launching that site – Water Unleaded – to serve as a type of drinking water quality registry focusing on the content of lead in drinking water. 

If you own or manage a business and are interested in listing information about lead in the drinking water at your site, we encourage you to head on over and check out the various listing methods. One basic listing can be created for free in the primary categories. If you are interested in posting test results or placing a listing in a lead-level category, a small fee applies. Memberships and paid listings are also available offering additional features. Some premium memberships allow the abilty to purchase a window cling to post at your place of business with verfication of test results.

If you provide testing services or other water related services or products, you can also create a listing. For a small fee, you can place your listing in the category representing the type of service or product you offer.

Because the site is newly launched, we are very interested in your feedback. Please let us know if you find any bugs or have any questions or suggestions. We are trying to provide a useful site to help all of us better understand lead levels in our drinking water and minimize our exposure. Thanks for checking it out!!!


Lead Paint and Elevated Water Tanks

Elevated Water Tank - Source: Morguefile

Elevated Water Tank - Source: MorguefileRecently I read that the USEPA is considering revising the Lead and Copper regulations because of public concern over the drinking water issue in Flint, Michigan, and lead poisoning in general. And it got me wondering if the USEPA is going to develop a more comprehensive approach to addressing lead and copper in our water systems, will they add in regulations to address lead paint on elevated water tanks? I have not really seen any data on how many tanks in our country might still have lead paint, but based on my past experience, I would guess most tanks painted prior to the late 1970s could still have a lead paint coating if the original paint had not been removed by sandblasting to bare metal. I also have not seen any data indicating leaving the lead paint in place is causing any issues, but if we are talking about replacing all the lead pipes in the country even if phosphates are used and lead is no longer leaching into the water, why would we not at least discuss the pros and cons of requiring removal of lead paint from our elevated water tanks?

I know in one city where I worked, one of the tanks for which I prepared specifications for repainting definitely had lead paint which surprised me because it had been painted about 1977-78. The reason it was surprising is that by the late 1970s, people in the industry must have been well aware that lead paint was being phased out. So I could not figure out why the consultant who developed the specifications and managed the construction and painting of that 1 million gallon tank allowed the contractor to use lead paint. But because he did, I was faced with the decision 30 years later to just do minor sandblasting and paint over the remaining paint or to blast to bare metal and repaint. Although it was more costly, I chose the latter because I could not imagine leaving lead paint on the tank and risking a problem in the future. Unfortunately I left the position before the tank painting was put out to bid, so I can't guarantee the city chose in the end to follow that plan since it was more costly.


Flint Water Testing Update & One Quick Easy Fix

Flint Water Analysis as of Feb. 13, 2016

One more week has gone by and there have been an additional 2,133 tests completed for lead and copper in Flint, Michigan. This brings the total number tested to date to almost one third of the 31,000 total users (number of total users from the city of Flint website). I've updated the pie chart showing little change in the percent of sites testing over the action limit for lead levels, now at 7% with a level of 9 ppb being the 90th percentile – well below the action level of 15.

Flint Water Analysis as of Feb. 13, 2016Fortunately I've noticed discussion of the situation in the media and online turning to a more well thought out direction with some realizing lead in the water is probably not the primary cause of the lead problem in Flint. People are also starting to realize Flint is no different than the majority of cities in the U.S., and all this testing is proving Flint is actually better off than many with respect to lead levels in their water.

One article, "Two, Three… Many Flints – America’s Coast-to-Coast Toxic Crisis," does a good job discussing the lead risks posed by paint and how this is not just a problem for Flint, Michigan. The article also points out how focusing too much on Flint to the exclusion of all else and not acknowledging that cities all across America are in the same or worse state will ignore the larger problem. And this will mean that people in other areas will continue to face this issue as they do now with little to no help or education.

And while I like that the article, "Fixing Our Broken Water Systems" also acknowledges the problem is all over, it's concerning that the media is still pushing for full replacement of service lines and other requirements that will be costly, time-consuming, and more importantly not immediately solve the problem. Another suggestion in the article was for each city to conduct a census of homes to find all the lead lines. Anyone who has worked in the water industry understands this would not be a foolproof method because the line at the main and into the home can be copper, but any of the length in between could be lead. The only way to know for sure if a line has any lead pipe is to dig it all up, and it is not feasible to do so just to get a census done.

Using a GIS to help analyze the problem

Instead it would be beneficial for cities to check their old records to see if they have anything showing service line installations. One city where I worked still had old permits for each installation indicating the size and material for each service line. If a city has cards like Flint, they can hire someone to input all that data into a GIS or into an EXCEL table with addresses and then upload it into a Google Fusion table and map it like I did for the test results below. Once the data is in a GIS, someone could overlay the information to see if the lead tests results match up with the lead line records. If age of residence is known, that could also be used and overlaid with the other data.

A quick, easy fix for communities with lead issues

While a GIS can help a water system get a better handle on lead in their system, it still doesn't actually solve the problem. Adding phosphates will address the lead in the water issue, and it is a fairly easy method to implement. But I understand Flint has already done this, so the lead levels in the water problem appears to be covered. But what about the lead paint and the community's need and desire to specifically focus on solving the problem for their lower income population? Since this population primarily lives in rental housing, the city of Flint, which already has a Rental Inspection Program, could easily add lead-free requirements to their rental program by amending their ordinance.

Basically, in order to rent a unit in Flint, the city could require the landlord to provide proof the service line to the unit was either installed originally with a non-lead pipe or that if originally lead, it had been replaced. Additionally, the landlord would need to prove the home did not test positive for lead paint. Only with this lead-free certification could a unit be approved as a rental. This places the burden of cost on the landlord who is a business owner and has an obligation to provide a safe living environment for people who are paying him or her money to live there. This requirement would also assist people who have lower incomes and who have little to no control to improve the building or facilities on which they rely. According to the U.S. Census 2014 Housing Selected Characteristics for Flint, Michigan, 45% of their housing stock are rentals. Enacting this amendment to their Rental Inspection Program would go a long way towards ensuring people in their community are living in lead free homes.


Water Source Poster

Water Supply with Labels and filter

I've been working on a project and needed some graphics related to drinking water. Because the easiest way to get pictures is to see if any are available online, I searched for any in the public domain or any that might be available without copyright. The USEPA has some nice graphics that are not copyright restricted, but the ones I found focused more on the water cycle, and I needed something that very simply showed drinking water sources. There were a few I found online created by private companies, but all of them were copyright restricted. So I had to finally make my own, but wanted to do so in the easiest way possible. So I defaulted to a method I've been using lately and decided I'd share it here in case anyone else who needs to make graphics fast wants to try it.

First I create the image I need in a 3D environment. Now you might be saying, "Oh no – 3D programs are so complicated to learn and use so how in the world can that be fast?!"  Normally I would agree with that – I use 3D programs like Blender and still can't make what I made today using a traditional 3D program. Instead I use a program called OpenSimulator which is used to run 3D worlds just like Second Life software runs the Second Life world. And I imagine if you've never spent time in a 3D world, you might still wonder how in the world can a program like that be used to create a graphic for professional use? 

The key is that you create in the 3D world the image you need in your graphic. For me, I needed some mountains or hills, streams, a reservoir, a lake, a spring, and a well head. So I chose a world to use and went in and built what you see below:

Water Supply Sources - No LabelsThe reason it is so easy to build this in a 3D world using software like OpenSimulator is that there are tools that very easily allow you to manipulate the terrain by raising or lowering it and smoothing it. Also, while you can make your own landscaping items, to save time I chose to use some free trees I picked up that someone else had made. Other items that people make are available at a very low cost. For example, I bought the water I used for the streams up in the hills because it has some special properties I can use in other builds. I made the well head and the reservoir with a few cylinders I was able to quickly generate, size, and texture. The total time it took me to  make this was roughly an hour or so. The software allows you to take a photo using different lighting and cloud cover. For example, below is another photo of the same site using a different environment filter that only takes a moment to change:

Water Supply no Text and sunset

If you were interested in exploring how to start using 3D worlds to very easily generate graphics, I would suggest going into a world like Second Life and playing around with the build tools. You can also go into other worlds that are run by Opensimulator such as Kitely or any of the others (you can find a list here). The key point is that to build something you need to either own the land on which you are building or have permission to build. In many worlds such as Second Life, you must pay to own land which would allow your build to remain or build for free in a public sandbox you share with others and which clears builds on a regular schedule. However, in some of the worlds run by Opensimulator, you can arrange to secure some free land to test out small builds. There are also instructions online of how to install Opensimulator on your own computer, create land, and either build in your own world using something like simonastrick or connect your own land to a world like OSGrid. For me, I am currently renting land in Kitely in addition to occasionally running a world on my own computer. 

Anyway, once I had my photo, I needed to label the sources so I brought the photo I took into a graphics program like Paint Shop Pro and added the following text:

Water Supply with Labels

And because I wanted to try to create a different look, I brought the photo into Photoshop and applied one last filter to get my final image. In all the whole process probably took me 2 to 3 hours mostly because I like playing around with the filters:

Water Supply with Labels and filter

Feel free to use the images with the labels if you need your own Sources of Drinking Water Poster – I'm releasing it under a Creative Commons License and just ask for a link back to this blog if you use it online:

 Creative Commons License
Sources of Drinking Water by Public Works Group is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.


Is the Lead in Flint Really in the Drinking Water?

Flint Water Analysis 2/4/2016

I'm following up on the Flint water issue because the more I thought about it, I'm becoming much more convinced my original suspicion is true – the elevated lead levels in the kids there are not really related to the drinking water. As I mentioned in my last blog post about this, the leading cause of lead poisoning in children is lead paint, not drinking water. So if the pediatrician who analyzed the lead testing didn't take into account the living environments of those children, how does Flint know the lead in those kids is really from the drinking water and not lead paint? The government could end up spending hundreds of millions of dollars on replacing pipes and addressing lead in the drinking water, but the actual cause of the lead poisoning would not have been removed.

Perhaps someone closer to this problem has already looked into this because I cannot imagine this entire issue has been allowed to get to this point without someone bringing up this question. But I cannot find anywhere a discussion of how everyone came to the conclusion that the lead problem in Flint is due to the drinking water rather than lead paint which is a much more likely cause.  Even a recent article by PBS ("Worried about lead in your water? Flint pediatricians have this advice") cautions people about the dangers of lead paint, but just accepts that the problem in Flint is primarily due to the drinking water. 

It doesn't seem like the doctor who did the analysis is an expert in the built environment or in water chemistry so is it possible she just did not consider other causes or know what else to check? And now everyone is so focused on the drinking water that the actual cause of their problem is being missed? Recent test results of lead in drinking water in Flint seem to indicate this is a possibility. Out of a total of 7,131 tests to date, 6.5% of the sites tested had a lead level over the action limit of 15 ppb. And while this might be a concern if you were living in one of those homes over the limit, it is not quite the citywide risk it is being reported to be. According to the EPA's Lead and Copper Rule, the water supply is only required to address lead and copper in the drinking water if more than 10% of the sites tested are over 15 ppb.

Flint Water Analysis 2/4/2016

If the final result of all this testing proves lead in the drinking water in Flint isn't even above the action levels set by the EPA, this will serve as a good example of how data in the wrong hands can be misinterpreted and result in public panic and a waste of tax payer dollars without even solving the actual problem.

And will another result be that all the other cities with drinking water systems with lead level results above Flint's will begin to weigh whether or not it is worth letting the media know so they can also get more funding and free bottled water from celebrities. There's a similar size community I'm aware of that might not have lead levels over the action limit either, but according to a comparison shown below of the 2014 Consumer Confidence Reports from both communities, this water system does have a little more than twice the amount of lead Flint has. Based on the public's reaction to Flint, I'm thinking if this system drew attention to this fact, they could finally receive the millions they probably could use to upgrade their water system too. 

Lead Comparison 2014

In the end, I suppose we can say on the plus side this situation in Flint has resulted in bottled water companies having sold 234,490 cases of water for Flint since Jan. 9, 2016 (Source: State of Michigan), people being more aware of drinking water issues, and Flint receiving huge amount of funding for their water system. But I have to still wonder if the down side will be not having truly served the children of Flint?


If you are curious about where testing in Flint has taken place and want a visualization of the lead limits that are under (green) or exceed (red) the action limit of 15 ppb, you can check out a map I threw together from the current test results (there are a few outliers in the data, I apologize for not cleaning up):