By Bart Fischer, Sr Public Administrator and Greg Johnson, Director of Water/Wastewater, WSB
People often don’t think about drinking water. They turn their tap on or buy a bottle of water and move on with their day. But safe, clean drinking water is vital to a community. In recent years, communities have been faced with many water challenges ranging from contamination to drought. In honor of Drinking Water Month, Bart Fischer, Sr. Public Administrator, explores these challenges with Greg Johnson, our Director of Water/Wastewater.
Q: What are some of the biggest challenges communities face in terms of drinking water supply management?
A: It seems that the biggest challenges are always unexpected and are mostly out of our control. Between drought and contamination issues, cities are learning to expect the unexpected.
In recent years, one of the biggest challenges has been water supply. Last summer, many communities across the U.S. experienced severe drought – resulting in higher demand for water. Some communities were on the verge of running out of water and couldn’t keep enough water in their water towers to provide adequate water pressures and fire protection. The drought really tapped a lot of communities. A shortage of water supply is causing many communities to explore water reuse options and alternative water sources while trying to conserve water at the same time.
Q: Yes, it was certainly dry last summer. What are some creative ways cities are working to solve the water shortage issue?
A: Weather patterns are cyclical every year, but the number of extreme weather events has an impact on water supply. Many communities are exploring new water sources, water reuse systems, and educating the public on the need to conserve water. Twenty years ago, we talked a lot about water conservation efforts. Since then, our appliances such as dishwashers, faucets and washing machines have become more efficient, but there are still ways individuals and communities can work together to conserve water.
Q: There have been a lot of articles in the news about PFAS – how do they get into our water supply and how can we mitigate it?
A: Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, commonly referred to as PFAS, are synthetic chemical compounds that are found in water, air and soil. They are widely used chemicals found in commercial and industrial products that break down very slowly over time and are sometimes called forever chemicals because they don’t stick to sediments in the groundwater and get filtered out naturally in the environment before reaching ground water sources. PFAS are being detected more frequently than in the past, mainly due to lower laboratory detection limits. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) studies indicate that they can be harmful to our health when consumed at concentrations that are above the EPA and Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) recommended health risk values and for extended periods of time. Environmentalists are working to better understand the risks and impacts these chemicals have on our environment and people. The good news is that technology has advanced, and we can detect, mitigate and reduce the level of PFAs in our drinking water supply.
Q: So, are the presence of any PFAS dangerous?
A: Not exactly. A big challenge for communities is that many residents assume that any trace of PFAS in their drinking water means that their water is contaminated. The public may not understand maximum contaminant levels, health risk limits, or concentrations – they just know that there’s something in their water that they should not be drinking. Technology has advanced, and we’re now able to measure down to the parts per trillion for many contaminants. This was not the case in the past. MDH has established recommended health risk limits and health indexes that account for the most commonly detected PFAS compounds in the environment. The associated long-term health risks and understanding these maximum levels is important for the general public to understand what is dangerous and what is not.
Q: What can communities do to ensure their residents feel safe drinking city water?
A: It’s about education. MDH is creating a statewide PFAS online dashboard that will soon be available to the public. Seeing any trace of contamination in water could cause concern for residents without any baseline knowledge or understanding of safe PFAS levels. Proactive community outreach can help alleviate any potential resident concerns in the future.
In general, water supply is deeply impacted by mother nature and human activities. WSB’s team of water and wastewater engineers support our communities when the unexpected, anticipated, specific or special circumstances arise. Learn how we support our communities’ water needs here.
Bart Fischer has over two decades of experience in public administration. Throughout his tenure, he’s worked in five Minnesota communities as the city or assistant city administrator. Bart joined our firm in 2019 as a senior public administrator and focuses on lending his public service expertise to our clients.
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Greg Johnson is the Director of Water/Wastewater at WSB with over 26 years of water and wastewater engineering experience in project planning, design, and construction administration of water treatment facilities as well as with groundwater and surface water supplies, water storage structures, water distribution systems, wastewater treatment facilities, and lift stations.