From recreation and commerce to overall quality of life, water is top of mind.

Water is abundant in central Illinois, so we think about it frequently. We appreciate that it is plentiful… unless it is flooding our basements, overflowing the banks of the Illinois River or its tributaries, or surfacing through the ground due to a water main break. We enjoy boating in it, catching fish from it, swimming through it (even polar dives!), ice skating on it and enjoying a cool glass of it—and we are pleased it can be used to transport products efficiently to and from our area. Since water makes up nearly 70 percent of our body weight, 80 percent of our brain tissue, and 71 percent of the Earth’s surface (only 3.5 percent of which is freshwater), it is important that we keep water at the top of our mind.

The subject of water quality has gained significant attention recently—both nationally and locally—which reminds us not to take this natural resource for granted.

A Water Quality Failure
The issue in Flint, Michigan involving elevated lead levels in their drinking water certainly raised our awareness of potential water quality issues that could impact our health. With today’s improved treatment technologies and high-tech water sampling and analysis techniques, we would think these dangers would be limited to the history books. Numerous regulations have been instituted to protect both our drinking and surface waters, but there are still opportunities where these safeguards can fail, as was the case in Flint.

After more than a year of following the warning signs of the Flint water crisis, it was determined by some independent sources where the failures occurred. The problem was apparently two-fold, with the first failure being a change in the city’s water supply source from Lake Huron to the Flint River. Without an optimized corrosion control plan, the corrosive treated river water ate away at the lead service lines and other lead-containing appurtenances within the water system.

The second issue—and the one that prevented the problem from being detected earlier—was the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality’s lack of sufficient sample collection and analysis, plus the disposal of samples whose inclusion would have put the system at the “actionable level” for lead. The result of these failures has been a crisis for Flint residents, who have been drinking water with elevated levels of lead for over a year. The city has reverted to using Lake Huron for their water supply, but it will take some time for corrosion control chemicals to restore the protective pipe coating to prevent further leaching of the lead.

Drinking water sources in Illinois come from both surface water and groundwater, with 70 percent of the state’s population served by surface water. Most of central Illinois is served by groundwater wells, but the cities of Springfield and Bloomington use surface water. Illinois American Water’s Peoria District utilizes both surface and well water, including an Illinois River intake and three groundwater well sites.

Surface Water Conditions
In 1972, the Clean Water Act was passed by Congress with the intent “to restore and maintain the chemical, physical and biological integrity of the nation’s waters.” In general, within the nation’s freshwater lakes, little has changed since its adoption, indicating conditions are not improved to support fishable and swimmable lakes uniformly throughout the U.S. as mandated by the Act. On the positive side, the water quality has not gotten worse, possibly indicating the legislation has prevented further deterioration of freshwater lake quality.

In February 2016, the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (IEPA) Bureau of Water released a report on surface water quality within the state. Of the 119,244 stream miles in Illinois, it assessed 18,044 miles for at least one of six uses, including aquatic life, fish consumption, primary contact, secondary contact, indigenous aquatic life, and public and food processing water supply. The full report is available on IEPA’s website, but here are a couple of their findings.

First, 50.4 percent of the stream miles assessed were rated poor for supporting primary contact activities, such as swimming or other uses where there is prolonged contact with the water, with 16.8 percent rated good. Another important assessment factor is the ability for stream water to support aquatic life; 57.8 percent of the stream miles assessed in 2016 were rated good, and only 4.9 percent were rated poor. The IEPA reports that the assessed stream miles rated good for supporting aquatic life has improved from 34.7 percent in 1972 to 57.8 percent in 2016. Even better results were recorded in the state’s lakes, with 17.8 percent rated good in 1972 and 90.9 percent in 2016.

With surface water being used for many activities—including a source for some drinking water supplies—this improvement in quality is something to be celebrated. While all reports indicate more improvements are needed, at least the results being reported are mostly positive.

Groundwater Conditions
Groundwater is a primary source of drinking water for most communities in central Illinois, so preserving it is important to all of us. Many of our region’s wells are sand and gravel aquifer wells, with some groundwater supplies finding their source in deep bedrock aquifers. In an IEPA Bureau of Water Report dated February 2016, the latest count of groundwater-dependent public water supplies is 5,200, with 1,150 of them being community water supplies. According to the Illinois Department of Public Health, there are an additional 400,000 residences in the state that rely on private groundwater wells for their potable water.

Groundwater quality throughout the state has been monitored for many years, and the State of Illinois evaluates these results closely to protect groundwater supplies. Public water supplies continue to monitor their treated water on strict schedules, enabling them to detect variances in the water quality quickly to prevent major concerns. When variances do occur, they are typically minor in a groundwater supply, and adjustments can usually be made to the treatment system to meet the state’s water-quality requirements. According to the IEPA, community and private water well systems are the most vulnerable to contaminants and other water quality issues.

Industrial, agricultural and commercial activities and the use of pesticides, road salts, plastics, adhesives, paints, gasoline, etc. can produce contaminants harmful to groundwater. Monitoring is required for these potential contaminants—including nitrates, chlorides, SOCs and VOCs—to ensure safe water is provided to customers. Lead monitoring in the distribution system is also required, and many systems are utilizing an optimized corrosion control plan to prevent lead leaching from service lines or other appurtenances due to corrosive source waters.

Public water systems within the State of Illinois are operated by licensed operators who take their responsibility of providing safe, potable water to their customers seriously. So, if you detect a change in your potable water quality, reach out and make them aware of your concerns. Teaming with your water professionals in this manner can reassure you and help operators become aware of potential problems. iBi

Gary Davis is Group Leader, Municipal Engineering for Farnsworth Group. Email him at [email protected]