Most Americans don’t worry much about drinking water. We turn the faucet on . . . and water pours out. But, how good is that water?
That issue has been in the national spotlight because of the recent, somewhat scary, story of Flint, Michigan, which is grappling with high levels of lead in its public water system.
Flint is a community of just fewer than 100,000 located about 20 miles northwest of Detroit. Until about a year ago, its water source was the Detroit water system, which gets most of its water from Lake Huron. In 2013, the Flint City Council voted to contract with a competing water system. Detroit retaliated by cutting Flint off almost immediately. Once on its own, Flint began pulling water out of the local Flint River.
That water was much more acidic in pH. The acidic water, once it flowed through Flint’s pipes, began eating off the corrosion layer coating many of the water pipes throughout the community.
The stripping of the corrosion exposed lead, either because the pipes were themselves made of lead or lead was used to solder the pipes together. The result was to infuse Flint’s water with high levels of dangerous lead. Lead is highly toxic and can result in seizures, brain damage and retardation, in particular among children.
Republican Michigan Governor Rick Snyder and many local officials are battling accusations that the Flint water situation arose because the town is poor and predominately minority in population. President Obama has called the Flint situation “inexcusable”. Snyder has recently appointed the biggest critic of the Flint situation, Marc Edwards, a professor at Virginia Tech who highlighted the lead contamination, to a committee to come up with a long-term solution.
What about Idaho’s drinking water? Is it safe? Do we have Flint-like issues?
I spoke with Barry Burnell, the Water Quality Division Administrator for the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality.
He noted that, in Idaho, 95% of drinking water comes from underground sources with only 5% originating from surface resources like lakes, rivers and streams. He said our ground water is “pretty good”.
In Idaho we have over 2,000 local water systems, ranging from large water companies and municipal water systems to small operators serving a subdivision or group of houses. All operators of water systems in Idaho are licensed (or must be associated with someone who is) and required to meet water quality standards.
Idaho does have some water systems with high levels of lead, mostly in Silver Valley above Coeur d’Alene, where the lead derives from mining activities and naturally occurring lead. When the levels are excessive, local water systems must treat to make the water safe.
Burnell further points out that the rest of Idaho is not off the hook, as most Idaho homes built before the mid-1980s have lead pipes or lead soldering material as part of the plumbing system. Usually they are not a significant issue if the water is fairly alkaline and, thus, not eroding the corrosion covering the lead in the pipes.
Luckily, the vast majority of Idaho ground water tends to be alkaline, rather than acidic, thus not likely to cause a Flint, Michigan, issue. The primary part of Idaho where we have acidic ground water is a limited area on in North Idaho on the Rathdrum Prairie. There, the water is treated to balance out the pH level to avoid excessive corrosion.
Burnell emphasizes that Idaho has a pretty aggressive water quality monitoring system to deal with water contamination.
Water samples are tested regularly and fed into a DEQ database. When water systems have results that violate quality standards, DEQ gets involved, as do the local departments of health. The goal is to deal with acute conditions immediately and chronic problems as quickly as possible. Burnell noted: “We have enough safety built in the system to make sure our staff are doing their job.”
He noted that DEQ has only had to shut down one water system for being unsafe in the past 10-12 years. That was a trailer park in the Boise area where testing showed unsafe level of volatile organic compounds which primarily derive from industrial pollution. DEQ shut off the system as unsafe to drink or bath in and provided bottled water as the alternative. The issue was resolved by the trailer park hooking into another water system.
Burnell did confirm that DEQ does issue “boil orders” from time to time for particular water systems, usually from bacterial contaminates. But, such are only used when the water is otherwise drinkable.
This relatively rosy picture does not mean Idaho does not have any water quality challenges.
Two areas of concern with Idaho water are arsenic and nitrates.
Arsenic predominately derives from two sources, the breakdown of some types of rock formations and from fertilizer run-off. Kootenai County, Washington County, Gem County, Boise County, Owyhee County and Jefferson County have relatively high levels. Those levels require ongoing treatment of the water to offset that contaminant.
Parts of Idaho also have high levels of nitrates. Nitrates derive from human-controlled sources such fertilizers, human sewage and animal manure. The Idaho Department of Water Resources has flagged the Twin Falls area, Ada/Canyon area, Star area and the Marsing area near the Oregon border as spots with nitrate levels that are increasing. Right now the solution is to treat the water that contains excessive nitrates, but actions are being taken to reduce the inflow to the groundwater in the first place.
Another issue in Idaho is that many rural homes rely on individual wells that generally are not tested for water quality unless the owner takes that on themselves. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention encourages owners of private wells to check their water quality regularly. But, many simply don’t. Often, sub-standard water is only identified when the owner attempts to sell and the buyer’s lender requires a water test.