9:13PM Jul 2, 2019
municipal water system
safe drinking water
Welcome to the campus energy and sustainability podcast. In each episode, we'll talk with leading campus professionals, thought leaders, engineers and innovators addressing the unique challenges and opportunities facing higher ed and corporate campuses. Our discussions will range from energy conservation and efficiency to planning and finance, from building science to social science, from energy systems to food systems. We hope you're ready to learn, share and ultimately accelerate your institution towards solutions. I'm your host Dave Karlsgodt, I'm a principal at Fovea, an energy, carbon and business planning firm. In this episode, you'll hear my interview with municipal water system expert Melinda Friedman. Melinda is the founder and president of Confluence Engineering Group, LLC based in Seattle, Washington. She has more than two decades of experience providing services around source and distribution system water quality, regulatory compliance, comprehensive planning and optimize treatment practices. During this interview, Melinda helps to unpack what went wrong during the recent water distribution crisis in Flint, Michigan. She also lays out some of the friction she runs into between the sometimes competing goals of water conservation, and water quality and safety. While Melinda is primarily focused on municipal water systems rather than campuses, I hope you'll find that she brings an important perspective to some of the central issues all campus facilities and sustainability departments need to grapple with. With that introduction, here is my May 12, 2017 interview with Melinda Friedman. Melinda, it's great to have you on the campus energy and sustainability podcast today.
Thank you for having me. It's great to be here.
Well, Melinda, the genesis of this episode was based on a conversation you and I had about, what, five months ago now. And at the time, I knew you had been working in Flint, Michigan to help address the crisis they were having with their water distribution system. And that at the time was still very much in the headlines. There were lots of media reports of you know, truckloads of water bottles, and irate parents worried about lead poisoning, and definitely a political firestorm going on in that area. And I'm sure we'll talk about a few of those topics today. But what struck me from that conversation was that you were the first person to describe to me technically what had happened there. You basically had to describe how a municipal water system worked, in order to explain to me what had gone wrong in Flint. So perhaps you can start there and give our listeners a technical overview of what actually happened in Flint as an expert in the water field. And then we can take it from there.
Sure. So Flint, Michigan purchases 100% of their water supply from Detroit water and sewer. That water is treated from Lake Huron by Detroit and then sent through pipelines to Flint and many other municipalities around Michigan. due to budgetary problems and financial crisis in Flint that were long in the making. They wanted to find a less expensive water supply that they could have more control over. So along with other municipalities, they wanted to build a pipeline and bring Lake Huron water which is the same water treated by Detroit but bring it through a different pipeline directly to Flint into Genesee County and treat it themselves and distribute it. Now, that's a multi year process and in the meantime, an emergency manager was hired in Flint due to bankruptcy and financial problems to help manage the finances of the city. And since the pipeline was going to take many years to be built, and due to many political problems with Detroit, they were rapidly cut off from the Detroit supply. And the pipeline was not finished. So they needed a an interim supply of water. So naturally, they went to the Flint River. As a interim supply. The Flint River had served the city of Flint for many, many years prior to the 1960s. There is a treatment plant there that has been upgraded as recently as 2000. It's got some advanced treatment processes. And in fact, the city of Flint operates that plant 20 days a year as the designated emergency backup supply. So this was not a rogue treatment system that no one had ever used. This was a designated emergency supply. But what happened was because of the rapid cut off from Detroit, the pipeline not being built, they had to quickly go to the Flint supply. And the honestly, because it hadn't been used as a full time supply in many in many years, the operators, and folks were not quite able to control the water quality coming out of the treatment plan to the degree that they should have. So this caused a lot of changes in chemistry going out into the distribution system. One of the key issues with switching to the Flint River was the lack of use of a corrosion control chemical that's in the Detroit water called ortho phosphates, and ortho phosphates, create a film on the pipes on all the miles and miles pipes to prevent metals from leaching into the water. The Flint River has a different characteristics and and that idea was to use a different process called pH alkalinity adjustment to to prevent the leaching and not add the ortho phosphates. And that turned out to be a very big mistake, because the lack of ortho phosphates is what caused all the metals to come off of the pipes into the drinking water.
So the metal was already in the pipes and it had been in the pipes, it didn't come from the water itself.
That is correct the metals, the Flint distribution system having been built over the last hundred years, 94% of the pipes in the entire system going from the treatment plant to the homes are made up old unlined online cast iron pipes and those are filled with bumps and stalactites and stalagmites. Similar to like what you'd see in a cave, we call them tubercles in the drinking water industry. And then because of the time that homes and the city's were built, at the time, lead was used as a common piping material as a common service line material to pipe the water from the distribution system main to the home. And lead was used because it's a flexible, bendable material, the elevation of the street may not be the exact same as where you want to tap into your home. And you could actually sort of bend the pipe a little bit. And it was a convenient use and people didn't understand, you know, 50, 80 years ago the potential health effects associated with lead. So Flint, and many cities around the nation have thousands, hundreds of thousands ads actually estimated there's probably between six and seven million lead service lines around the nation right now. pipe and water into our homes.
But because they had used this corrosion control material, there was basically a biofilm covering the pipes. Is that what you're saying?
Yeah, it's not about well, there's biofilm everywhere. But the corrosion control the ortho phosphates creates a film and a phosphate based film that keeps the metal stim more stable on the pipe surface and prevents it from leaching into the water and being carried to the customer. So when you took that ortho phosphate away, the pipes had to rehabilitate, they had to react to this change in chemistry that was coupled with I would say lack of control of the pH and alkalinity coming out of the Flint plant at the time, which might have offset some of that metals release. But that was a secondary problem that occurred with the change.
Got it. So when the public found out about this, how did that further aggravate the problem
Yep, so it started with discolored water, all the iron coming off at the pipes. That was the first indication and the water that was coming into the homes did not smell good. Because of everything coming off of the pipes. people assumed that was because it's Flint River water, Flint River water, which runs through the city they thought does not smell good. It has you know discharges, industrial discharges and you know other contaminants in the river water. So they people naturally thought and this is a very common misperception that the source water problem what everything that was at the tap that was so no actually disgusting, the discolored water, the smell that all of that that was all stuff coming off of the pipes that is accumulated we call them legacy deposits, they are accumulated on all pipes everywhere.
Got it. So even though we're here in Seattle, and we get river, or we get water right out of the Cedar River, which is basically a protected area, you can even go hiking there. And I always, you know, have this vision of this pristine water that we get to drink. But maybe I shouldn't feel so comfortable in that thought,
Well, this... Yes, the Seattle we have a fabulous water source here between the Cedar River and the told you're right, these are protected watersheds. You know, this is basically snow melt very high quality water that only requires minimal treatment. However, our pipes, our pipes, we have a lot of online cast piping, traveling for miles and miles here as well. One good thing, though, is in the Pacific Northwest, because of the time that our cities were built here, lead was not really used as commonly. So we really don't have lead service lines here in Seattle. And in the Pacific Northwest, they're just very uncommon. They're little stretches of pipe called lead goose necks or lead pigtails that might connect your copper service line or your galvanized service line to to the water main. But very uncommon to have huge lead service lines. But because we do have a line cast iron pipe, and people might have galvanized piping, you might see discolored water coming out of your top occasionally. And that's just due to reaction of the water with the materials on the pipe.
Got it. Okay, well, so back to Flint. It sounded like after people did figure out, you know, the water started smelling and changing colors, then people obviously stopped using the water and how did that further aggravate the issue?
Yeah, so a couple issues there, it delayed the the remedy to the problem more specific kentley. Because the way they solve the problem was to switch back to Detroit water right, just stop treating it from the Flint plant go back to the original water where we knew the chemistry would be stabilized with the pipes. But by that time, no one would use the water. So we couldn't draw the fresher, properly treated water into homes and get that we have to have the ortho phosphate, those these chemicals have to react with all of the piping service every nook and cranny every bend out your tap. And if nobody's using the water, we can't draw these now properly treated water back into the homes to get the chemical reactions back the way we want them. Another significant problem with Flint, which is not necessarily unique to Flint, but maybe more exacerbated in Flint is that city and the entire infrastructure for the city was constructed back in the heyday. And for you know a population of its peak of about three to 400,000 people, even before the disaster with the leaving of the General Motors and the decline in auto manufacturing in this country, the population of Flint is down to about 90,000 people. So you think about the size of the pipes and the infrastructure that was built it is now you know, at about a third third of its capacity is being used. That creates much longer stagnation times, takes longer for water to move through the system more reaction time with the pipe walls and more difficulty in maintaining the chemical conditions we want to get to the top.
So Melinda, it's been a while since I've heard anything about Flint in the news. I know you've made some trips out there recently. But what's going on there now?
Well, basically, since October of 2015, they switched back to Detroit water, it's now under a different agency called the Great Lakes Water Authority. But it's the exact same water coming up Detroit. So the chemistry has greatly stabilized. But that has been due to a lot of flowing water opening hydrants all around the city to get water moving, getting people to use the water. In May of 2016. They did a whole campaign called flush for Flint, where they had homeowners open their taps and flush for I think it was a couple couple hours a day just to pulling water through their homes, as we said to get these important chemical corrosion chemicals and disinfectant residual out through the pipes into the homes. So with a stabilizing chemistry and improving water flow patterns, and we're trying to reduce water age, the chemistry is stabilizing the water quality is improved tremendously. All data show that all data that are being collected according to you know safe drinking water standards show that the water is equal to or similar to or even better in some cases, believe it or not, then other cities in the nation. Now of course, this increased flow, increase demand flushing opening hydrants flies in the face of probably what your listeners are most interested in, which is sustained ability and conservation. And that sort of gets to the heart of maybe where there's some, you know, a conflict between some public health and conservation goals.
No, absolutely. I remember in our conversation, the first time thinking about how much at odds, what you're doing is, I mean, I know you as somebody personally, being somebody who's very interested in conservation, generally, I go to these conferences, and there's whole tracks on, you know, topics around conservation, you know, low flow toilets, and trying to get landscape designs that don't require irrigation and all these things. And that's exactly the opposite of what you're talking about. If you want safety, it sounds like you need flow. And if you want conservation, you need not flow. So what do we do about that?
Well, guess that's definitely a challenge and a very interesting one, and, and probably very inspiring one for many professionals. I know in the drinking water world, you know, of course, my direct area of expertise is the stability of pipe material, a biofilm of metals, from the treatment plant to the customers tap. But there are many other people that are working tirelessly on trying to combine these these mutual goals of sustainability and public health. And I know the industry is working towards there's programs that utilities can participate in called one water, where we're thinking more holistically about the water cycle, and trying to understand impacts and change behaviors. I think that one very interesting thing for your for your readers to and your listeners to understand is the impacts of conservation may not always be what they seem, you know, lower use lower use is is good in many ways. Because, you know, maybe there's less production at a water treatment plant means less pumping, less chemicals added, you might think that, but that's actually not always the case, there are these ripple effects that because there's less production, like I said, there's longer water ages in the in the pipelines, which means you might actually have to treat the water to be more stable, so that it can withstand longer contact times and pipelines, and be able to withstand warmer temperatures, since there's less flow in homes. So that might actually require more advanced treatment versus less treatment just because there's less production.
So you work primarily in municipal water system. So you're treating water can for a whole city or a whole region. But are there options for treating water more at the source like right at where it's being used rather than, you know, the entire millions of lines of web pipes this?
Right, right, right. Yes. And I think that is certainly a goal of of the one water and total water solutions where you would be tapping into no pun intended, more localized and on site water sources such as roof rainwater catchment systems, where you are trying to use more localized such a storm water rainwater catchment systems that could be treated and distributed more locally. So of course, that's a great idea, but public health permitting regulations, all of that for potable water has has not caught up with any of those ideas, and maybe could be viewed as barriers to innovation in that way.
So if I'm a facilities director at a campus, and I'm in charge of maintaining water quality within my campus, in some cases, some of the larger campuses actually treat source water. I mean, they may have wells or like Flint, pulling water out of a river, whatever. But a lot of campuses I know are using the local municipal water system. Are there things they can do at a campus scale, you know, when they have dozens to hundreds of buildings, especially just thinking about what's happening inside the pipes of the buildings, not necessarily the system getting the water to the buildings?
Well, I have to say, since my area of expertise isn't so much on how can they reduce water consumption and implement conservation and more sustainable practices. I'd like to address it maybe from the opposite side of here are the risks the public health risks of potentially taking that approach. waterborne disease in this country has from drinking water, you know, has declined so so significantly over the decades that now the number one waterborne disease or water based pathogen that is affecting the public is Legionella that is now you know, it's not so much cholera anymore. Cryptosporidium, Giardia, E.coli, other fecal bacteria, we know how to control and treat and try to prevent them from getting into the water system. Now the number one pathogen that is creating public health outbreaks and killing people is Legionella. And, in fact, that was the first public health crisis in Flint. 12 people in Flint died. 12 people died of Legionella during the crisis, versus what we really heard about was lead poisoning or this concern of lead release into the water. But 12 people actually died of Legionella and the Legionella did not come from the it's not an issue that it came from the Flint River, it's due to all the conditions every the loss of coin residual, the stagnant water, the change in the chemistry that allow the Legionella to proliferate at the ends of the systems and cause people to get sick. And this is the number one concern with large campuses and buildings and hospitals. If you are implementing conservation devices that are slowing down the use of water, inadvertently warming the temperature, loss of chlorine, you are creating potential breeding grounds for Legionella, we almost have a case that sort of an off, off color or off maybe not completely politically correct joke about leads buildings. We call them Legionella enabling enhancement devices. Because I mean, I think we're going to see a rise in Legionella. Over time as water consumption goes down. This isn't a but now Legionella is called an opportunistic pathogen meaning it doesn't normally infect healthy people it is present it is in it is present it is present but we normally Healthy People are not sickened by it. But it's a significant problem in hospital settings. It can be a significant problem because we're people were their immune systems are compromised or or otherwise more susceptible to disease. That's where we see Legionella illnesses and deaths, not because it's only present in those locations, but because that population is susceptible. So camp large campuses, buildings, hospitals, really need to consider protecting public health and in conjunction with conservation sustainable sustainability goals.
How do you protect against Legionella other than just flow?
Well, the key things are to maintain a chlorine residual, a disinfectant residual. And in fact, I know the the Bullitt center which has its own very fascinating and advanced treatment processes. While it recognizes that chlorine is a, you know, it's a undesirable chemical recognizes the need for there to be a chlorine residual in the pipes there as well. Now they're not permitted my understanding is they're not permitted to use they're very advanced system, they're still on municipal water. But for their advanced system, they will also carry a coin residual to the top and then have a carbon filter at the top to remove the chlorine prior to consumption.
I'm going to interrupt the interview here just for a second to explain the Bullitt center that Melinda is referring to here. This is a building in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Seattle not too far from Seattle University. It's a really impressive building, and it was built as part of the Living Building Challenge. I'll be sure to link to the website for the Bullitt center in the show notes so you can learn more about the project she's talking about.
So maintaining chlorine is hugely important as well as maintaining high water temperatures in the hot water. I think enough probably another conservation devices to turn down the temperature of your hot water heaters, right keep them people do that when you have children for anti scalding. But people also do that because it's saves energy to not be heating the water quite as hot. But to prevent and control Legionella, it really has to be above 140 degrees. So again, that just flies in the face of it trying to conserve energy, when we're thinking about one water solutions and and trying to treat look at the whole water cycle not just be in our silos of we do source water and we treat so sorted into drinking water versus all the wastewater problems. We have to also think about and one water the impacts of conservation and reduced production and output from the treatment plants. That also affects the wastewater side, less gray water going into our our wastewater systems are also constructed for a certain flow certain volume. And as we flush toilets less and use less water, that's less volume going into those pipes, that means more concentrated solids going into the wastewater treatment plants. And there are you know, this is all good stuff to be thinking for the future and to be moving towards the sure about our existing infrastructure. The we're sort of in this middle point where I think everything's struggling against against these changes.
All right. So before I get a bunch of hate mail, you're not saying we shouldn't do these conservation efforts, you're just saying these are problems we need to be thinking about
Exactly. These are opportunities for innovation. These are opportunities for bright people to get out there and continue to address so that we can move towards the right solutions.
All right, well, so now that I've stuck a stick in the hornet's nest of sustainability, I'm going to go into a topic that maybe even will drop more ire. So let's talk about bottled water, bottled water versus tap water. Somebody who just listened to what you just described might say, Oh, well, I'm never drinking tap water. Again, I can die from Legionella, I can get lead poisoning and it's everywhere. Set me straight. Is that what I should be taking away from this conversation?
No, absolutely not. This nation has the best, best drinking water supplies. You know, in the world as us and many other nations that do do a lot of work, a lot of regulation, a lot of monitoring, to make sure that the water is safe to drinking, it's I am total tap water person, I drink the tap water everywhere I go, I do let the water run. And until it's cold coming out of my tap. That's very important. If you just trap that water and use it for watering plants or watering your garden, fill the bathtub and use it over time however you if it just pains you to let it go down the drain. That's totally understandable. But if you let the water run until the water is cold, you've pretty much just eliminated most of the risk opposed by any of the service lines or the or your home plumbing or the or the material, you're getting cold water fresh from the water main and you should be in good shape with a good chlorine residual.
Great. So we're not all going to die,
we are not all going to die and everyone should be drinking their tap water. Bottled water is regulated in a very different manner. People falsely believe that it is more pure bottled water is allowed to have five micrograms per liter of lead in it, it is allowed to have it. Now the newer understanding since Flint is that no, there's no safe level of lead and the blood. Five micrograms per liter in the water may or may not translate to a certain level in the blood. But certainly, bottled water is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration by the FDA, not by US EPA and the Safe Drinking Water Act. So it's a product, it's a product that is manufactured delivered, often it's just tap water that maybe is put through an activated carbon process and then bottled and delivered and it has its place in terms of portability, but certainly should you know my mind should not be your your source of drinking water.
So could we design a system where we could just treat drinking water at the source? Is that something that's viable? Or what are some of the barriers that would keep us from being able to do that?
When, you mean at the top?
Yeah, so say I'm at a campus and I'm thinking about uses of water beyond just drinking? Well, and I guess that brings up another conversation about, you know, what's the difference between drinking and cooking with water versus taking a shower in it or using it in your toilets? Or to wash your hands? Are there nuances there I need to think about?
Yes, and I think that in terms of conservation sustainability, it is, you know, it's obviously ridiculous that we flush our toilets with purified drinking water, but clearly cooking and bathing and drinking all possible uses where it can be inhaled or absorbed through the skin, we want to make sure that water is all treated to the highest standards, but certainly flushing toilets and watering our lawns. And that's where many utilities are working towards building infrastructure, you know, purple pipe reuse water, where where water can be treated to a lower standard and then distributed for non portable uses. Certainly California, and utilities all over the nation over the bright water, we have that here to where we're trying to take reuse water that can be used for non portable purposes in our homes, and then parts of the nation or even looking at direct possible reuse, which is makes people cringe sometimes without is taken wastewater and treating it to drinking water standards where you would direct possible reuse. So you know, we're moving in those directions in some places. But to your question about treating right at the point of use. Well in Flint, Michigan, they're there, every home right now has a water filter, because until we can demonstrate that lead is completely stabilized, the recommendation has been to filter at the point of view, so at your kitchen tap. But for buildings and campuses, it gets a little tricky, because under the Safe Drinking Water Act, any facility that serves 25 or more people 60 days a year is considered a public water system, if they put some treatment on. So if you're just purchasing city of Seattle water, your University of Washington, you're just purchasing Seattle water, of course, you're serving many more than 25 people six days a year, but just pass through through your system, you are not a public water system. But as soon as you alter that chemistry in any way, whether it's adding a little more chlorine, put through UV disinfection, even a filtration device, you are then considered a public water system and have to comply with all elements of the Safe Drinking Water Act.
Wow. So even if it was an elementary school or even a large apartment complex, you'd run into that limit, is that a good thing or a bad thing? Or what which we think about that?
I you know, I think it depends on which side of the equation you're sitting on. I think in general, it's probably a good thing that there are some some there's some standards in place that require folks to consider you can't just be changing the water chemistry and serving it to the public without approval without certified operators and without Department of Health, approving and ensuring you know that that your practices are, are up to speed, there's so much opportunity for you could overfeed a chemical and poison people, you know, you could connect it improperly and create a cross connection where you know, non portable water can get into the system. And under certain pressure events. There's so many opportunities for truly creating an onsite on premise poisoning event that it's very important that people are aware of and not just casually installing these treatments systems. Now public schools, many public schools have their own private wells, and they're already our public water systems. And they they know about these things. But with issues like lead and copper, the lead and copper rule where schools and other locations have had to install on site corrosion control treatment to prevent letting copper leaching into the water they have had to become public water systems.
Well, so I can totally understand that. We want to prevent poisoning events. On the flip side, I suppose this is a pretty big barrier for people trying alternative approaches. I mean, right now, it sounds like our entire system setup for large scale municipal water systems. And all the safety rules and regulations are kind of designed around that concept. But as we move into too, you know, ways we can use less water as a society, which is sort of a necessity, I mean, it's going to have to happen, especially in areas like California or Arizona. We're going to have to figure this out. And
No, you're No, you're right, you're absolutely right that this is where the industry needs to needs to catch up with the reality of our stressed water resources. And the need for more localized use and distribution needs to catch up with the regulatory structure and our actual physical infrastructure that's out there. And there's going to be pressures coming from from all directions.
Melinda, as we wrap up this episode, perhaps you can give our listeners just a few key takeaways that they can think through as they're navigating some of these issues that you've raised today.
So I guess one of the key takeaway messages is it that the longer the water sits in the pipes, and the warmer it gets. On the cold water side, the longer it sits there, the less you use, the warmer it gets, the more time it has, the more reactions it has with all the metals on the pipe with the bacteria inside the pipe. And the more that leeches into the water, and can come out your tap. So while a point of views filter could address a lot of that, then we're relying on homeowners and untrained professionals to properly change out those filters and dispose of them to ensure that public health is protected if they are left in place. Whether it's the you know, table top picture type filters, or the filters that go right on or tap, those are sitting at room temperature, they are breeding grounds for bacteria, and they are accumulating metals. And if they are not properly treated and replaced and then disposed of it's another product that now needs to be produced and disposed of. We can do more damage to our public health and safety than maybe just drinking the tap water and letting it flow in the first place. This is a really fascinating time to be part of to be an engineer in the in the drinking water industry. And to be thinking about our aging infrastructure, there's hundreds of billions of dollars of improvements that would need to be spent to upgrade our pipelines, our treatment facilities or pump stations or storage facilities. And it's really a fascinating time and a great opportunity for for engineers and other broad thinking people to get involved and help re redesign reconstruct and as we're moving into newer facilities and newer infrastructure rethink how can we better balance the need for safe, reliable pressurized treated water. But with lower consumption, lower chemical use, more conservation oriented coming at more localized and point of view sources.
It's really interesting to hear the many parallels between what you're talking about with water systems and what I see in energy systems as well. And in both cases, it's seems like we can no longer just make incremental changes to the systems, but we really need a holistic rethinking of how they're set up in the first place. I'll be really interested to catch up with you again in another six months or a year and see how things are turning out in Flint or some of the other cities where you're working around the country. But before I let you go, are there any organizations or materials that you could recommend to our listeners, especially on the solution side of things?
Yes, definitely. The American Waterworks Association, that's our industry organization. nationwide. There's lots of information for free on their website, you could look up total water solutions is one sort of group of packages and publications. Another one is the one water concept where they're really trying to look at opportunities to look at the whole water cycle and meet all these sometimes competing, but all equally important objectives.
Great, well Melinda and it was really great to have you on the show today. I'll be sure to get those links to those organizations in the show notes. And thanks again for coming on the show.
Thank you for inviting me to to speak with you. It's been really interesting and and I learned a lot and caused me to think about things in a new way too.
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