Monday, December 24, 2012

The Washington Aqueduct Searching for the Best Possible Drinking Water

The Washington Aqueduct is a federally owned and operated by the Army Corp of Engineers. The Aqueduct consists of the Dalecarlia Reservoir and Water Treatment Plant, the Georgetown Reservoir, and the McMillan Reservoir and Water Treatment Plant. The Washington Aqueduct draws water from the Potomac River and treats it to provide finished drinking water to the water distribution companies that buy water from them. Thomas Jocobus, a civilian employee of the Army Corp of Engineers is the General Manager and the Aqueduct produces an average of 155 million gallons of water per day which it sell to the District of Columbia (about 75%), Arlington County, Virginia (about 15%), and the City of Falls Church, Virginia (10%).

The Washington Aqueduct is a very conservative organization reflecting its structure, management, and response to events of the past. Water systems consist of three systems: The first is the water treatment systems that draw water from the source and treats it to meet the US EPA Safe Drinking Water Act standards (SDWA). The second is the water delivery system that moves the water from the finished water storage through the water mains and throughout the community so that there will be on demand water and adequate water for firefighting. The third is the plumbing systems in homes and building that deliver water to your sink, toilet or shower.

Somewhere in the past the Washington Aqueduct had begun to view their mission as providing finished water that met all EPA SDWA requirements. After all, (unlike most water utilities that are regulated by state regulators) EPA Region 3 was their direct regulator and they were attentive and responsive to the regulatory requirement and deeply concerned about the quality and cost of the finished water they sold.  All the costs of the Aqueduct operations are directly passed on to wholesale customers. In the 1990’s something happened to remind the Aqueduct that really they are in the public health (and fire safety) business and that their operations could not be viewed separately from the water delivery and plumbing systems that ultimately brought water to the households and businesses that bought water  from the distribution companies. What happened was chloramine.
from DC Water

In 1994 amendments to the Clean Water Act SDWA resulted in changing from chlorine to chloramine for disinfection. The EPA issued regulations concerning disinfectionby-products formed when chlorine (used for a hundred years) reacts with organic matter in drinking water; the EPA considered these byproducts to be a potential health threat. Chloramines do not produce disinfection byproducts. The treatment process for the Washington Aqueduct was changed to add ammonia after primary disinfection to react with the remaining chlorine to prevent the formation of disinfection byproducts (haloacetic acids and trihalomethanes). When planning the chloramine project as advised by  EPA guidance manual the Aqueduct considered the possibility that the disinfectant change would increase the level of nitrification in the distribution system. Such an increase could cause a lowering of pH in the distribution system, increasing the possibility of corrosion. The Aqueduct put a plan in place to minimize the potential for nitrification and monitored for nitrification for six months following conversion. Unfortunately, corrosion was not caused by nitrification.  Shortly after the change, increasing pipe failures and levels of lead began appearing in the homes of Washington DC residents. It turns out chloramine-treated water picks up lead from pipes and solder and does not release it, resulting in elevated levels and deterioration of the pipes. Extreme lead concentration began appearing in Washington DC homes and water delivery pipe and plumbing systems began to fail at an accelerated rate.
Dr. Marc Edwards a MacArthur Prize winning professor of engineering at Virginia Tech ultimately  identified the cause and solution of the increasing incidence of leaks in copper water pipes. The lead problem was addressed by the Washington Aqueduct adding additional treatment steps to add orthophosphate and tightly control the pH of the water.  Orthophosphate controls corrosion in pipes, service lines, and household plumbing throughout the distribution system. It works by building up a thin film of insoluble material in lead, copper, and iron pipes and fixtures. This thin film acts a barrier to prevent leaching of metals into the water, but only works in a narrow pH range. Calcium hydroxide (lime) is also added to adjust the pH of the water to ensure optimal performance of the orthophosphate. In addition, DC WASA spent $97 million to replace a portion of 15,000 pipes and 2,000 full pipe replacements.

The change in the water treatment process prevents the finished water from dissolving lead in the water mains, solder joints, and fixtures. The changes in the operation of the Washington Aqueduct were more profound. The Aqueduct had to rethink the management of their relationship with their customers, how had they made a change in the water treatment without testing the impact on all the other water systems? That is unlikely to ever happen again.  The Washington Aqueduct's customers (District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority, Arlington County, and the City of Falls Church) entered into a memorandum of understanding with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that restructured the business relationship and created the Wholesale Customer Board and Technical Committee to oversee and approve Washington Aqueduct's operating and capital budgets and long term strategy.

The Washington Aqueduct’s official mission became to provide the “best possible” drinking water while: Minimizing any negative effects on the environment, being fiscally responsible to consumer who bear all the operating and capital costs through water rates, and anticipating and avoiding unintended negative consequences. The Aqueduct has been working with their Wholesale Customer Board to navigate the challenges that face drinking water utilities in our modern world; microbial water quality issues, trace chemicals and emerging contaminants in the source water, and water quality issues resulting from treatment and distribution.

Chemicals are everywhere in our modern world. The technology used for chemical analysis has advanced to the point that it is possible to detect and quantify nearly any compound known to human kind down to less than a nanogram per liter or parts per trillion (1/1,000,000,000,000). This enhanced analytical ability has allowed scientists to discover that trace levels of pharmaceuticals, potential endocrine disrupting compounds (EDC) and other emerging contaminants exist in surface water, have appeared in some groundwater and may persist in the water through conventional and some advanced treatment trains to appear in our finished drinking water. The Washington Aqueduct and its partners on the Wholesale Customer Board and technical working group expert panel from consulting, academia, EPA and other Water Utilities are working to develop a framework to make decisions and chart courses of action when faced with these challenges. The first and continuing challenge is to keep evolving the understanding of what is the “best possible” drinking water and remember to consider all consequences before taking any action. The Washington Aqueduct of today is unlikely to be the first water treatment operation to make any change, but is unlikely to be surprised by unanticipated consequences of any changes in treatment that are made in the future. 

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