Health Department testing helps keep drinking water safe
Published 10:51 am Monday, December 15, 2014
Brown water. Dark particles floating in the water. Boil water notices.
For water district managers and officials with the Mississippi Department of Health, those are common problems for customers who receive their water from water districts.
“We get periodic complaints from people about the water color,” said Melissa Parker, deputy director of environmental health for the Mississippi State Health Department.
Water color and particles, however, are usually minor problems, she said.
Warren County’s five rural districts:
• Culkin, formed in 1958 and serves 12,000 customers.
• Eagle Lake, formed in 1965 and serves 650 customers.
• Fisher Ferry, formed in 1966 and serves 5,115 customers.
• Hilldale, formed in 1964 and serves 5,193 customers.
• Yokena-Jeff Davis, formed 1965 and serves 2,800 customers.
This is part 2 of a 2 part series on Water Districts.
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While the local water districts use different systems that use chlorine to kill bacteria in the water lines and filter systems to treat the water, water color remains a problem that requires additional treatment and filters.
“Typically, it’s aesthetic issues with the water,” she said. “It may be the local fire department has been fighting a fire close by and actually got some things stirred up in the line. They’re (the color and particles in the water) not particularly harmful, they just don’t look pretty.”
If the health department gets complaints about water color, she said, health officials will coordinate a solution with the water district operator or send a staff member to the district to investigate the complaint and take water samples to test for bacteria.
“Color is influenced by iron,” she said. “If you have a lot of iron in the aquifer, it can collect in the lines. Iron occurs naturally in the aquifers, and most water systems use agents to sequester that iron, which means it keeps it on the sides of the pipes instead of floating in the system.”
Brown water is a familiar problem for Hilldale since the water district was formed in 1964, board president George Hunt said, adding, “that’s been a problem with the Forest Hill aquifer from the get-go. It was not treated early on. After awhile, as the district built, we improved our treatment systems.
For information on drinking water tests and standards:
Mississippi Department of Health website: msdh.state.ms.us
Bureau of Public Water Safety:
“We put in sand filters to take out as much iron as we could. It depends on the volume of water you’re producing. You can only treat so much.”
He said the district is now pumping from another aquifer, and the color problem is there also, adding the system is experimenting with a new treatment system that has proven successful in eliminating color and improving overall water quality.
For water districts, tests are a part of doing business, whether it involves testing water samples after a waterline breaks or the periodic health department tests to assure water quality.
A boil water notice is a different matter. When a district issues a boil water notice, it means a break in the water line or a problem with the treatment process is threatening water quality, requiring customers to take the extra precaution of boiling their water before drinking it and using it to cook, or find another source of water.
The health department has set guidelines for issuing boil water alerts, including a form that can be sent to the media to alert the public. Locally water districts use a variety of methods, including telephone banks, putting the warnings on the district’s website, door hangars and press releases.
Although most water districts issue boil water notices through several different avenues, Parker said there is no law requiring water districts to notify customers except when the order is issued by the health department because the water is contaminated.
“But at every training that we do, from board members to district operators, we tell them to notify the public when they have a boil water notice,” she said. “If we discover they have not, we will contact the water association and we provide assistance to them through media outlets for them if they request it.”
After the problem is repaired and the system is stabilized, she said, water system officials are required to take samples from the affected area and send them to the state’s lab for testing.
“The number of samples they have to take is determined by the number of connections affected by the notice,” she said. “They are taken at different points in the area. We have a formula for determining how many samples are needed.”
She said it takes about 18 to 24 hours before the test results are known.
The health department also tests water from each water district in the state regularly to ensure the systems are free of bacteria.
“Bacterial water samples are taken each month by the water districts and submitted to our lab for analysis,” Parker said. “The technicians look for total coliform bacteria, which is an indicator organism, and that indicates pathogenic organisms could be present. If they find it’s positive for total coliform, they go a step further and determine if it is positive for E. coli.
“E. coli is also an indicator organism, and that is more serious and requires action to be taken on the water system’s part pretty rapidly if you find E. coli.”
The health department also tests water systems every five years to let system operator know what the physical and chemical aspects of the water.
“These are aspects of the water that are not regulated, (and) they don’t have any health aspects, but they do have effects that can result in aesthetic problems with the water, so the operator can note if the content changes,” she said.