We are all Flint Michigan

Lead Pipe at Roman Bath in Bath, England

There are so many articles out there by now about the Flint, Michigan, water issue, I debated adding mine to the list. But I noticed there are some interesting aspects about what has happened that I've not seen discussed elsewhere. So I decided to go ahead and throw my voice in with the others. Also, I think it is important that someone from the industry point out what all of us know, but the public and media may not which is that in general,

…We are all Flint, Michigan.

I'm going to discuss this point first just because the other topics I want to touch on involve more technical information that probably won't interest most people. So why do I say we are all Flint, Michigan? First a short history of lead in the water industry:

In many countries throughout the world, including the United States, lead pipes were used for centuries to convey water.

As you can see below, lead lines were used at the Roman Baths which were built in 70 A.D. in Bath, England.

Lead Pipe at Roman Bath in Bath, England

So how did lead move from a commonly accepted material for water lines to the "do not use" list? Based on information in an article "The Lead Industry and Lead Water Pipes 'A Modest Campaign'" by Richard Rabin, MSPH, people started realizing in the late 1800s that maybe using lead for moving water around wasn't such a great idea. But even this knowledge didn't seem to immediately stop the use of lead for many more decades. According to the article:

"Although most cities in the United States were moving away from lead water pipes by the 1920s, it appears that this trend was not universal. National model plumbing codes approved lead into the 1970s and 1980s, and most water systems based their regulations on those codes. Federal guidelines and specifications also sanctioned lead pipes at least into the 1950s." 

Lead use in water systems was not banned until passage of the Safe Drinking Water Act which in Section 1417 prohibited the:

 “use of any pipe, any pipe or plumbing fitting or fixture, any solder, or any flux, after June 1986, in the installation or repair of (i) any public water system; or (ii) any plumbing in a residential or non-residential facility providing water for human consumption, that is not lead free.”

Later, in 1991, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) published the Lead and Copper Rule – a regulation to control lead and copper in drinking water. This rule established the action level (AL) of 0.015 mg/L for Pb and 1.3 mg/L for Cu based on 90th percentile level of tap water samples. It's interesting to note that this rule also states an exceedance of the AL is not a violation but "can trigger other requirements that include water quality parameter (WQP) monitoring, corrosion control treatment (CCT), source water monitoring/treatment, public education, and lead service line replacement (LSLR)."

If you are wondering why it took so long to get lead banned as a material in the water system, you can read Rabin's article linked above. My point I'm making here is that lead was commonly used all over the place. Over the 30 plus years I've been designing, building, and helping operate water systems, I've come across a lot of lead lines used for water services – the pipes carrying water from the public water main to people's homes and businesses. And because lead was such a common material, I never noticed lead only used for lines running to homes in low income areas. I've also seen lead lines running to the homes of the wealthiest in the community and to all types of businesses.

What really makes the difference on what type of service line someone has is when it was installed.

If it was put in decades ago before copper became the preferred choice, then the line is probably lead. In Werner Troesken's book, The Great Lead Water Pipe Disaster, he lists on page 11 in Table 1.1 50 of the major cities in the U.S. and the material used for service lines in the late 1900s for 46 of these cities. He notes 85% of the cities were using lead water pipes. Detroit, Michigan, is one of them, and the locations extend across our nation from Washington, D.C., to San Francisco, Calif. For all I know the White House might still have a lead water line.  

Polyphosphate SystemSo if lead water lines are everywhere, just like in Flint, you might ask, how come we haven't dug up all these lines and replaced them? Well, replacing every lead line was definitely an option every community water supply regulated by the Lead and Copper rule could consider. However, I haven't heard of many that chose that alternative. Probably because the cost and disruption to the community is potentially tremendous and not cost effective compared to other solutions. Also, in many communities, ordinances place ownership of these water service lines with the property owner, so few communities wanted to have to go to their water customers and force them to put in new water lines. And even if the water supplier chose to pay for everything, the cost would ultimately be passed along anyway to customers through higher rates, and the property owner would still need to go through the disruption of having their yard torn up. So many community water supplies chose an alternative which involves adding chemicals like polyphosphates to the water to coat the pipes and prevent the leaching of lead and copper into the water. For most, it's really the most cost effective solution, and as you can see from the photo here, it's a fairly simple setup.

So if we are like Flint, are we too at risk?

While I said all that to try to let people know Flint is not different than most other cities across our nation with respect to its water piping, it is important to remember, not everyone, including everyone in Flint, is at risk. Based on the lead and copper water testing results I saw from Flint, it seems the results showed a little over 10% of the sites tested over the Action Limit which was similar to results from the supply systems for which I worked. So for those in Flint, this would mean if they do not have a lead service line, they are probably at a low risk of having lead levels above the action level. And for those of you who do not live in Flint and have a lead water line, if your community water supply is in compliance with the Lead and Copper rule, levels of lead in your water would probably not exceed the action levels noted above. However, to be sure, you could always contact your water supplier and ask them to test your water for lead and copper.

Also, be cautious of blaming drinking water for lead in children when it is more likely to be lead paint

 Prevent Lead Poisoning. Get your home tested. Get your child tested. Get the facts! Click here…If your community is going to analyze the lead levels in children and compare them over a specific time frame to determine if there is a lead problem, keep in mind the primary source of lead in children is not from drinking water, but from lead paint. So a true study would develop methodology that includes an analysis of each child's home environment over that time period. I tried to find the study or report from the pediatrician in Flint who analyzed the levels of lead in children in the area, but could not find any document summarizing her methodology, analysis, and testing to see if she had taken into account exposure to lead paint. Particularly if she has made a correlation between elevated levels and income levels of children who test positive for lead, I thought it would seem more likely lead paint would be the cause of that than would water. Not having found anything verifying she used the proper methodology, I have to wonder if there is a lead problem in Flint that will not be solved by addressing the drinking water because it is actually a lead paint problem. As the leadfreekids.org site states, "just a few particles of dust from lead-based paint are enough to poison a child."

And now for the technical discussion…

People familiar with the Flint story probably won't be surprised to hear that one of the main  problems we had with a plant where I used to work was that the engineer who designed it based the treatment design on the parameters of the existing water supply. For almost a hundred years, the community had drawn water from a shallow acquifer lying under about seven acres of land. As part of the water plant construction, the city had decided to expand their supply by digging a new well. This well was located outside of the immediate area of the historic well field, but because it was in the same acquifer, the engineer assumed the water quality would be the same. First lesson I learned from this project:

Always test the water quality parameters of a new water supply – preferably before committing to its use

The other wells had about 0.5 parts of manganese while this new well had 3 parts iron. Now if you are in the industry, you can imagine how the plant performed if it was designed to treat 0.5 parts of manganese and now had to also oxidize 3 parts iron. Iron oxidizes first so when that new well was running, there wasn't enough ozone, which we were using as the oxidant, to oxidize everything. Guess what we had to do? We pre-chlorinated to assist in the oxidation. And guess what the extra chlorine added ahead of the ozonators did? Increased the corrosiveness of the water.

So it seems like Flint built their new plant because they had been receiving treated water from Detroit then decided to enter into an agreement with other communities to pull water from the lake. And what I am wondering is did the plant designer set up the treatment system for the lake water without knowing or ignoring the river water would be used in the interim? If that was the case and the water quality is different between the two sources, this could be causing many of the issues they are having with corrosion. If changes had to be made to the process to address the change in the quality of the water supply, there could be impacts to the finished water quality that were not anticipated in the design.

Another issue with a change in water supply is that it can change the anticipated pH for which the plant was designed. And pH definitely has an impact on the performance of the treatment process. If pH is too low, the water can be more corrosive; if pH is too high, certain substances like calcium carbonate can fall out of solution, bind to the pipes, and reduce flow. Below is the inside of a pipe in which substances came out of solution and adhered to the pipe.

Pipe coated with calcium carbonate

I also looked at the treatment reports for Flint's water plant to see if there seemed to be anything unusual with their process that could affect the corrosiveness of the water. This is important to look into because replacing water lines may lower the risk of lead in drinking water supplying homes and businesses, but it will not improve the water quality. One thing I noticed is that according to Flint's Consumer Confidence Reports for 2014, they are using ozone for taste and odor control and as a pretreatment disinfection. Because of my past experience I wondered if their use of ozone was impacting the corrosiveness of their water. 

In our system, which used ozone as an oxidant (a photo of one of our ozonators is shown below) and required the need to pre-chlorinate, we initially experienced the formation of nitrates/nitrites. The level never exceeded the regulated amount, but it still caused problems in the system. Unfortunately we had to treat the problem with more chlorine until the nitrates/nitrite formation was under control. Fortunately for Flint, it doesn't appear this is an issue, but it is something to be on the lookout for.


We also noticed that in addition to the corrosive water causing a change in the level of lead and copper from the levels tested prior to the plant going online, there were many failures of metal-based parts in equipment exposed to water. In particular, the impellers of our pumps and the pumps in the fire trucks were degraded to the point they had to be replaced. I am not sure if Flint has experience any of this, but it is also something to monitor. Fortunately the addition of the phosphates and the addition of chemicals to increase our pH slightly seemed to elminate this problem for us.

Another issue that came up was raised by industries in our city that relied upon our water for their operation. A change in water quality can make a significant difference for these companies not only in the successful operation of their own process, but in their costs. I suspect this became an issue in Flint because I read a report indicating one of the industries had to be supplied with different water. Changing lead lines will not address this issue. Instead the treatment system needs to be analyzed and the water quality addressed. 

In the end, what all of the problems at our plant taught me was that the design and operation of a water treatment process is highly dependent on a strong knowledge of water chemistry. And over the years when I've talked with operators starting up new plants, I've found they are all struggling to solve the same issues again and again. And it all seems to be caused by the designer ignoring water chemistry. Engineers are typically the people designing water plants, but most engineers are not chemists. Which has always made me wonder

Why doesn't the EPA require a water chemist to sign off on new plant designs?

Information about the source water used in the design, the use of ozone, the pH and perhaps even temperature of the water, and the apparent use of high amounts of chlorine could indicate something might not be right with the treatment process chosen or implemented in Flint. And while I cannot say without a doubt that these are the issues impacting the corrosiveness of Flint's water, they are clues that tell me someone who knows water chemistry should be analyzing their treatment process. Because the government can throw hundreds of millions of dollars at this and everyone's pipes can be replaced, but in the end, the root of the problem might not be addressed which could be the use of the wrong treatment process for that particular water supply.







Running Toilets Get Their Own 5K Race!

Running Toilet
Catch a Running Toilet in a 5K Race Near You!

The EPA has been promoting Fix-a-Leak Week (March 16-22, 2015) for the past seven years. But like many issues in public works, sometimes it is difficult to drive awareness and attract people's attention to the message. Even with great social media resources and a topic that left ignored could mean a loss of money, it's still not easy for a message like this to stand out in today's constant stream of information. So some communities are taking a different and innovative approach by promoting the problem of running water with a 5K Run, and a few races will even include a running toilet.

If you manage a water system and have been looking for an idea for getting your message out about Fix-a-Leak, you can check out the races listed at the end of this post and consider organizing something similar in your own community. As the popularity of the race in Roswell, Ga., shows, your one event can end up reaching 800 people from your community. If the idea of a race is too much for your staff to manage on their own with the often limited time and resources available, you can follow the lead of Fort Worth, Texas, and partner with a local running group or club to help organize and host your run.

Many of the communities also enhance their event by incorporating social media. A few have created videos to promote their run (included with each listing below) or encouraged participants to use social media to post photos of themselves running in the race. Some of the races are themed and include a costume contest. At least one of the races offers a prize to a random person who posts on social media something they learned from the event. And others, including the one in Fort Worth, have also arranged for groups such as the EPA, local water conservation organizations, and local hardware or plumbing companies to set up information booths at the race. What better way to raise awareness, offer information, and have some fun!?


Races Promoting Fix-a-Leak Week:


Peoria: One for Water 4-miler, Saturday, March 21, 2015


Santa Rosa: St. Patrick's Day 5K, Sunday, March 15, 2015


Roswell: Water Drop Dash, Saturday, March 21, 2015



Fort Worth: Chasing Leaks 5K Run/Walk, Sunday, March 15, 2015

Plano: Chasing Leaks Fun Run, Saturday, March 14, 2015


Charlottesville: Fix-A-Leak Family 5K, Sunday, March 22, 2015



Will There be a Water Crisis in Next 10 Years?

Most observers believe a water crisis threat to be one of scarcity, but there is another crisis at hand for Earth's many inhabitants living without regular access to drinking water and sanitation. However, global water mismanagement unfolds continually which does not bode well for the future – regardless of where you live. As we strive to accommodate those who are suffering from a lack of access, we must also turn our efforts toward conservation and other measures to protect global water resources for future generations.

Widespread Usage

Understanding the scale of water use goes beyond our individual daily concerns. Personal use accounts for a significant portion of the water used, overall, but this is only one aspect of the big picture. In fact, domestic water use accounts for roughly ten-percent of total consumption levels, so household personal water use accounts for a relatively small portion of the total water used; especially when compared to agricultural and industrial use. In each of the primary water usage categories: Agricultural, Industrial, and Domestic; there is room for management improvement leading to more efficient use and conservation of water resources. Shifts in the way we farm and eat, for example, hold the potential to greatly diminish the amount of water used to produce food. Simply moving toward a plant-based diet, with less acreage devoted to raising beef and feed crops, would have a significant impact in itself.

Recognize the Limited Resource

Averting a water crisis starts with recognition that water is a scarce and limited resource which must be protected and conserved. Responsible water management requires commitments from users, who must alter their behavior to successfully lower consumption levels. Until the commitment becomes widespread, the status quo will continue to support water waste.

Water Management Realities

Pressure from pollution, industrial expansion, and population growth has led to water usage that is not sustainable. In addition to scarcity, the quality of the world's water supply is degrading as we continue to draw on water resources. A significant share of the world's wetlands have been lost to farmland or other development, for example, and some of the world's great rivers no longer complete their flow to the sea.

Once water usage is quantified and the resource is recognized as a scarce natural supply, there are only two ways to address shortcomings in the world supply: Find more water or use less. Consumption levels cannot realistically carry forward at the same rate; especially in light of population growth and forecasts accounting for future demands. As a result, synching our human needs with the natural planetary resources provided is the only way to avert a water crisis. Effective management works the equation in reverse; claiming only the amount of water that is sustainable, rather than continuing to deplete future resources.

Mobilize Leadership

In addition to incremental conservation efforts conducted by individuals, water management reform relies on strong leadership. Legislators and other global decision-makers are tasked with crafting policies that influence how water is used in industry and agriculture, which account for a vast majority of the world's water usage. The world's population continues to grow by around 80-million people annually, so the current water usage model is unsustainable for a growing set of users. Lawmakers and global organizations can no longer leave water issues for subsequent generations to remedy; water management must be prioritized as a global concern. Global water mismanagement has set the stage for a water crisis more widespread than today's regional lack of access to fresh water. Conservation, effective water management, and changes in the way humans use water are promising strategies for heading-off catastrophic consequences.

Author Bio:

This is a guest post by Sarah Brooks from Freepeoplesearch.org. She is a Houston based freelance writer and blogger. Questions and comments can be sent to brooks.sarah23 @ gmail.com.


Augview – a Window to Your Underground Assets


Water Main Installation

Augview, founded by Michael Bundock in 2012 in New Zealand, is the first commercial, mobile application I have seen offered to the public works industry allowing utilities to geospatially capture, store, and display underground utilities in 3D through the use of a tablet or other mobile device. The software, through the use of GIS, will show operators their water, sewer, or other underground lines superimposed in 3D upon the ground in a geospatially accurate position. Users can then query the lines as with any other online GIS and access data about that utility such as size, material, age, and any other type of stored data. Or if a locator finds a discrepancy in a line's location or if he finds a new line, he can enter it into the software and immediately verify the updated or new location is accurate.

One example I can think of where I could have used this type of device was when we found a patched area in a roadway on one of our projects. It was one of those typical failures you find where you can see someone repaired something, but there's still something going on because a small hole opens back up with a void underneath. A lot of times this is caused by a hole in a sewer which allows soil above the pipe to wash away into the line leaving a void under the pavement. I knew the city had a sewer running along the roadway near that area, and I noticed a water shut off box nearby in the parkway. Because in our area the sewer lines used to be run with the water lines, I suspected it could be a failure with the building sewer. The business owner came out to comment on it and mentioned there had been a problem there, but it was difficult for me to tell for sure from what she explained if it had been the city sewer or the building owner's line. If I had Augview, I would have seen how all these lines related and where they were located. This visualization would have offered a better prediction of exactly which line could possibly have a failure. Of course public works professionals already try to make this determination using paper maps, but if it was the building owner's line, it is much easier to explain the problem to them using a 3D representation of everything rather than expect them to read a utility atlas.

I would have also liked to have an application like Augview for management of our water network. Our crews could have used the application to document the valve position when they opened or closed it. Then we could have just driven by to see if we had opened them all back up after we repaired the break, or we could have noticed when a valve between our pressure zones accidently was opened.

It would also be useful to use Augview to look at non-utility data for something like visualizing roadway ratings in the field. Then each year when we went out to rate the roadways, perhaps Augview could color the roadway based on the rating we assigned the year before in our GIS. This would prevent us from juggling paper maps in the truck while we are trying to also view and assess the pavement.

Past articles on this site have also imagined one day a product like Augview could be used to assist contractors as they build by displaying not only the underground lines but actually superimposing the plan onto the site. And I don't think it will be long before this type of implementation is extended to allow us to display real time data too. I can see one day we will be able to look up at the water tower and actually see the level of water in it or be able to see an indication at our water or wastewater plants of the flows running in and out and through each process. It would also be interesting to be able to drive by our lift stations and see the whole area colored red or green rather than just see the little red/green run light. This is also another facility that could display flows, seal failures, water levels or any other type of data.

While at the present time Augview has primarily been implemented in New Zealand, Melanie Langlotz,  business development manager, said she is "also looking for interested parties in the U.S. who can see the possibilities." So I believe it won't be long before we see Augview in use throughout the U.S. and other countries.

You can find out more about Augview by watching the video below or visiting their website or other social media sites:



This year I am fortunate to again have the opportunity to attend WATERCON in Springfield, Ill.It's amazing how every year the conference offers so many great sessions, and the exhibitors always have such interesting displays and information. In addition to attending sessions and talking with vendors, I'll be posting as much as I can on several social media sites so that all of you can follow as much of the conference as possible. Because most of these sites are already listed in a blog post over at the Watercon blog site, I won't list them again here. Instead I encourage you to visit over there. And if you're attending too, I'll be looking for your own posts and photos from the event!

One added treat is a virtual expo we set up to try out that technology. Here's an image of the entry screen – you can find the link to visit the expo over on the Watercon site.

Watercon Virtual Expo Image 


Hacking into SCADA

Water Plant Controls

Fortunately, for many years, the water and wastewater industry did not experience too many breaches on the digital front. But a few years back, the Stuxnet virus showed up and our digital innocence was shattered. When this happened, I was somewhat surprised because of the lack of previous attacks, but I never really heard how it all went down until last year when I sat in on a session at WATERCON 2013. When the topic came up the other day, I realized I'd never really shared exactly what I learned that day other than some rough notes I took on Cover-it-live and a general summary on the blog so figured I'd finally get around to posting that information today. 

The speaker, Michael Minkebige, a control systems engineer with Donohue and Associates started out by telling us we never really had problems in the past because hackers did not know very much about PLCs. But, he said "Stuxnet was a game changer." It was the first direct attack on PLC and HMI systems and also the first attack on governmental infrastructure from a physical angle because it was the first to destroy physical equipment. Minkebige said, "we've had other threats like denial of service but firewalls and antivirus software handled this." The other reason we were somewhat protected was because our systems and networks were old and isolated or were proprietary. He also said hackers were concentrating more on PCs – they were typically kids trying to cause trouble or break into banking systems. So basically he said we had "security through obsurity."

Then we heard about the Stuxnet attack in June of 2010. He said it was most likely deployed against Iran in 2009 by another governmental entity. Some person had picked up the virus on a USB stick and uploaded it into the Internet. There were 22,000 infections found in Iran and 6,700 in Indonesia. They suspect it took a team of 5 to 35 programmers 5 years to write the code for the virus. It is 500K bytes while most typical malware is only 10 to 15 K bytes.

The virus was spread through memory sticks and targeted Siemens PLCs and HMI software. From what Minkebige understood, the virus would "phone home" to a computer located most likely in Germany or Russia and reported what system it was on and then asked what it should do. The virus was programmed to self-destruct in June 2012. But if your antivirus found it, the virus would morph into something else. It also had two security certificates from Taiwan so it might also have appeared to be legitimate to an antivirus software program. When the virus did launch its attack it typically would change data or set points in the program. Then it would mis-report information about the operational data indicating it was operating at the correct levels or set points when it was not. A typical attack might change the speed of centrifuges by cycling them through great speed changes. There was a loss of 500 to 600 centrifuges because bearings were ripped out from this operational attack.

Unfortunately the code is now public knowledge. But there are some steps we have taken to protect our industry. Homeland Security (DHS) is on the lookout for attacks since water and wastewater plants in our country are vulnerable. And if Homeland Security recognizes an IP address from a suspect area accessing your system, the agency will notify your facility. The PLC industry has also added security to their systems. Operators are advised to keep up with patches for PLC systems. Industry organizations and societies are also publishing guidance. And DHS has released a document on how to secure your systems. We are advised to keep our systems off the Internet if possible. Otherwise, a firewall needs to be used for protection. Also, all systems should prohibit unauthorized memory devices from being used on PCs connected to your system, and you should lock out all USB connections to ensure they are not used. IT departments need to be made aware of this threat so they can monitor the systems for any suspicious activity. It's thought that future attacks might not necessarily be the Stuxnet virus, but an alteration of it.