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Environment


Ohio's clean drinking water doesn't come cheap or easy
Chlorine was big, but doesn't do it anymore
Story by KAREN SCHAEFER


 
Frank Woyma, manager of Cleveland's Baldwin water plant, says city water is safer than bottled.
Courtesy of KAREN SCHAEFER
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In The Region:

Unless you have a private well, wherever you live in Northeast Ohio, you're probably using tap water to wash dishes, bathe, even make your morning coffee. Most U.S. public drinking water is safe – certainly a lot safer than it is in countries where water treatment may still be in the Dark Ages. But as independent producer Karen Schaefer reports, keeping up that high standard is becoming a lot more expensive.

LISTEN: Clean drinking water doesn't come cheap or easy

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There was a time – not that long ago – when typhoid outbreaks like those that killed thousands in Haiti after the hurricane were also killing residents in Cleveland. In 1903, nearly 500 people died from unsafe drinking water. The last case was in 1935.

"Chlorine has been one of the biggest ... advances in human health in the history of mankind," maintains Alex Margevicius, Cleveland’s water commissioner.  

He’s standing in a corridor at the Baldwin Water Treatment Plant on Cleveland’s east side.  It’s one of the city’s oldest water treatment facilities, built in 1925. He says Cleveland started adding disinfectants early on.

"We added chlorine in 1912, because we were having cholera and typhoid outbreaks. And chlorine was the first thing that we did to make sure we had better water.

Since then, public water treatment has come a long way. Once a year, Cleveland opens one of its water treatment plants to the public. Baldwin plant manager Frank Woyma, who’s worked for the city water department since 1991, says for many visitors, it’s an eye-opening experience.

"Most people are just amazed at what it takes to make drinking water." 

Lake Erie origin
The process starts with water from Lake Erie, pumped from one of four water cribs located several miles off-shore. The first treatment step is to siphon the water into huge underground settling tanks treated with alum, to sweep out larger sediments. Then it’s sent through cleaning filters, made of crushed coal and sand, that remove the finer particles.

"At 55 million gallons of pumpage a day," Woyma says, "it takes about 8 hours for a drop of water to get from one end to the other."

The final process is to add chemicals that disinfect the water to be sure there’s no lingering bacteria that could make people sick. It’s a practice all water treatment plants follow. Even so, in 1993, an outbreak in Milwaukee of the bacteria cryptosporidium killed more than a hundred people.

Alex Margevicius says it was a wake-up call to the industry.

"The U.S. EPA came under a lot of criticism. You’ve got all these rules and still something happened. People died. So the U.S. EPA and the water industry and American Waterworks Associations said, 'Can we do better?'"

The safety of tap water in Cleveland and many other Great Lakes cities now exceeds federal drinking water standards. By law, those federal standards are updated every six years. But there’s a new class of contaminants under review; trace amounts of pesticides, prescription drugs and consumer products like shampoo and fragrances are showing up in water across the U.S.

Gabriel Eckstein, a law professor at Texas Weslyan University, says, "Science suggests that aquatic species are being harmed."

Some pesticides, even in tiny amounts, can disrupt growth hormones in amphibians and cause deformities. Eckstein says, so far, there’s no scientific evidence of impacts to human health. But he says cities like Cleveland aren’t likely to adopt new technologies – like reverse osmosis – that could remove these worrisome chemicals from drinking water.

"They’re not thinking about it  because the technology, even though it is there, is expensive. It's extremely expensive."

The U.S. EPA is now studying the possible health risk of more than 200 trace contaminants. The results could inform future drinking water decisions.

Even without regulatory changes, the cost for treating drinking water is going up, as chemical costs rise.And if you’re thinking bottled water may be a better alternative, Frank Woyma says, think again.

"It’s our water they put in the bottle. They may run it through a charcoal filter, but if you leave that bottle out in the sun, it’s going to grow bacteria in it."

Karen Schaefer's series on Northeast Ohio water quality - Drink, Fish, Swim – is supported by a grant from the Burning River Foundation.

(Click image for larger view.)

Listener Comments:

I think it's important that every city incorporate a water sampling station to ensure the city has analyzed the quality of water running through consumers home and businesses.Water is an important necessity and cannot be fooled with.


Posted by: Water Sampling Stations (http://www.american-mc.com/) on August 13, 2013 3:08AM
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