At Greenlife Grocery on Asheville’s busy Merrimon Avenue, filtered water from the store’s FreshPure water dispensing machine is in high demand. Shoppers sometimes line up to fill multiple jars and jugs. According to store manager Lou Phillips, prices range from 39 cents a gallon for reverse osmosis-filtered or deionized water to 99 cents a gallon for high-alkalinity water.
But is filtering or purchasing drinking water really necessary — or better for you than what comes from the faucet? The answer, says Katie Hicks of the nonprofit water advocacy organization Clean Water for North Carolina, depends on the source of your drinking water and how you assess the risk of possible chemical or biological contamination. On the whole, though, Hicks says, “People are usually surprised to learn just how little guarantee there is that water coming out of the tap will be perfectly clean and safe.”
Water users, Hicks continues, should check with their water supplier for data about water quality and safety, since that information can vary widely from one municipality or water system to the next. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency requires public water systems to provide an annual report to their customers.
At her own home, Hicks is hooked up to Asheville’s municipal water supply. Asked whether she uses any sort of filtration system or bottled water herself, Hicks responds, “No. I drink it straight from the tap.”
Under local control
Like Hicks, over 124,000 people in Asheville and Buncombe and Henderson counties draw their water from the city of Asheville’s water system.
Jade Dundas, the system’s director, oversaw municipal utilities in the Midwest for over 20 years before moving to Asheville to take the city’s top water job in 2015. Asked what lured him to the Southeast, Dundas pointed to the superior quality of this area’s water. “This is by far the best water that I’ve been responsible for, because the source is so pristine,” he said.
Since then, Dundas has focused on day-to-day system operations as a legal battle for control over the city’s resource raged in state courts. On Dec. 21, North Carolina’s Supreme Court reversed an earlier appellate court ruling, finding that the city should retain ownership of the system.
That’s good news for customers of the system, Hicks says. “As we’ve seen from the example of the water system in Flint, Mich.,” she explains, “the governance of public water systems does have an impact on health.” Flint’s system gained national attention in 2016 when state and federal officials declared a state of emergency after a change in the city’s water source and its treatment methods resulted in high levels of lead in drinking water. The number of Flint children with elevated blood lead levels may have doubled between 2013 and 2015.
One important factor in Flint’s water crisis was the financial crisis that preceded and precipitated it. Flint operated under the control of state-appointed receivers rather than locally elected leaders between 2011 and 2015. Noting that local control of water treatment provides consumers with greater accountability and transparency, Hicks says, “You can’t really separate how the water is governed and managed from what’s actually going to be the end result.”
According to a footnote in the Supreme Court’s ruling, the Asheville water system is a significant asset: “As of June 2014, the city’s water system consisted of a sizable watershed; two impoundments; three water treatment plants; 29 treated water storage reservoirs; 1,661 miles of transmission and distribution lines; at least 40 pump stations; and certain intangible assets, including, but not limited to, approximately 147 trained and certified employees, numerous licenses, wholesale water supply contracts, contracts for the supply of goods and services and revenue accounts containing more than $2,218,000 that are held for the purpose of ensuring repayment of outstanding bonded indebtedness.”
In a statement released after the Supreme Court’s decision, Asheville Mayor Esther Manheimer said, “This ruling ensures that Asheville can continue to own this great water system and continue to provide safe drinking water for years into the future.”
Don’t panic over new advisories
At each of the city’s three water treatment plants (the North Fork and Bee Tree reservoirs east of the city, and the Mills River treatment plant to the south), the water is tested three times every day, according to city spokesperson Polly McDaniel. The Water Resources Department conducts additional testing at different locations throughout the system on a regular basis and as needed after work on the waterlines.
Replacing pipes or making emergency repairs requires workers to reduce the pressure in the lines, which can create the conditions for contamination, McDaniel explains. Beginning Jan. 9, the city added a new boil water advisory protocol to its customer notification practices. Whenever the water pressure drops below a certain level, the city will issue an advisory to let customers know that additional testing is underway.
According to a media release from the city, “A boil water advisory does not mean that the water is contaminated, but that the possibility exists.”
Because of the new protocol, customers will likely see many more notices for possible contamination, McDaniel says, but that doesn’t mean the system is less safe than before.
Whereas a boil water advisory indicates that there is a possibility of water contamination, a “boil water notice” indicates that contamination has been detected.
During either type of notification, a notice or an advisory, the Water Resources Department offers these guidelines for customers in the affected area: “Boil tap water vigorously for at least one minute before using it for drinking, cooking or any consumption. This includes water used for dental care, making ice, food preparation or any other consumption purposes. It is not necessary to boil water for showering, laundry or other nonconsumptive uses. Continue boiling water intended for consumption purposes until the advisory is lifted. Advisories can last from 24 hours to several days.”
McDaniel recommends that water customers sign up for citizen alerts on the city’s website. The link is at ashevillenc.gov. Customers who register will be notified of alerts via text, email and telephone.
On the level
According to the city’s latest annual water quality report, which was published in March 2016, the system is required by the EPA to test for over 150 substances in drinking water. In 2015, 13 of those substances were detected. Some — such as trihalomethanes, haloacetic acid, chlorine and fluoride — are actually introduced into the water during the treatment process.
To test for lead, system technicians sample water throughout the year at 50 sites determined to have a risk of elevated lead levels. The sites include homes built before 1986, when lead solder was used in fitting copper pipes, and in areas where lead service pipes could still be present. None of the 50 sites exceeded the target action level for copper and only one exceeded the target level for lead.
To prevent corrosion that could result in pipes leaching lead into drinking water, the city adds sodium hydroxide, sodium bicarbonate and zinc orthophosphate to the water.
However, for four of the detected substances — strontium, chlorate, vanadium and hexavalent chromium — the EPA has yet to establish a standard safe level. Clean Water for N.C.’s Hicks says she thinks that’s a problem. What’s more, she continues, many of the standards that the EPA has established are “a lot weaker than what would actually be consistent with good health.”
Going to the well
Plenty of homes and some businesses in Western North Carolina aren’t served by municipal water systems. But because the state only began requiring permits for new well construction in 2008, no one knows how many private wells are in use in this area, says Tracy Shinn, who supervises the Buncombe County Health and Human Services’ wastewater and well permitting office.
Under current law, anyone wishing to drill a well in Buncombe County must file a permit application at 30 Valley St. in Asheville. The $300 application fee covers three on-site inspections — before, during and after well installation — and water testing, Shinn explains.
Once the well is completed, further testing isn’t required by law, but Shinn says he recommends annual water tests. Shinn’s office provides water testing for a fee that can range from $25 to $75, depending on what substances are selected for analysis.
If a problem is detected during testing, Shinn and his colleagues can often help troubleshoot the source of the issue. In the case of chemical contamination or a “gasoline” smell to the water, Shinn says, an old buried oil tank might turn out to be the culprit.
If a test shows bacterial contamination, a leaking septic tank could be the source, though Shinn says he’s seen a “vast array” of issues lead to a positive reading. “It could be a rodent nest around the wellhead. It could be ant colonies,” he says.
The N.C. Department of Environmental Quality recommends annual chlorine disinfection of wells; instructions for the process are available online at avl.mx/3c6.
Notes from the underground
Clean Water for N.C.’s Hicks points to concerns over contaminated groundwater at the South Asheville CTS Superfund site (see “Toxic Legacy,” June 1, 2016, Xpress) as an example of the types of hidden risks well users face.
“In North Carolina, there is no requirement to notify people if there is a known possible groundwater contaminant, so people on well water have to look for that information themselves,” she says. State law also doesn’t require disclosure of possible water contamination when property is sold, she continues, though a mortgage lender may ask for testing.
Concerns about possible well contamination in the area surrounding Duke Energy’s Lake Julian power station (“New State Law Limits Coal Ash Cleanup,” July 20, 2016, Xpress) are another example, Hicks says, of how vulnerable well users can be when substances turn up in their water. “Even when is there a nearby likely source, it’s very hard to get clear about where contamination is coming from,” she says.
On Dec. 13, Duke Energy received preliminary approval from state regulators for its proposed plan to compensate plant neighbors for well contamination believed to have originated from coal ash ponds. However, says Hicks, the plan doesn’t provide a remedy for some Lake Julian plant neighbors who are across the French Broad River from the facility.
Message in a bottle
Some of those Hicks talks to about water shrug off contamination concerns, declaring, “I only drink bottled water.” But, Hicks says, that attitude may reflect a false sense of security.
“Bottled water is regulated under the Food and Drug Administration rather than the EPA, so it’s actually less monitored and controlled than public water supplies,” she explains. In some cases, where a specific contamination concern exists, bottled water may be a better choice, Hicks continues, but it’s not automatically healthier or safer than what comes from the faucet.
Regarding home water filters, Asheville’s Dundas says the city “doesn’t promote” the use of home filters. If residents do choose to use a filter, he continues, they should make sure the filter is effective for the substance they wish to remove and that it’s properly installed and maintained.
“For example,” Dundas notes, “carbon filters remove chlorine. Those using filters need to follow the manufacturer’s instructions because if the filters are not maintained properly, they could potentially grow bacteria and introduce water quality concerns in the home.”
So whether you drink from a city-supplied tap, a well, a spring or even a plastic bottle, assessing the quality and safety of your water is probably more complex than any single test or consideration.
With a new administration taking over in Washington, Hicks notes, regulations that control source water and water treatment could change or even unravel. If that happens, she says, “People could have less information about their drinking water, what’s in it and what they can do about it. It’s important for people to realize where water comes from and to be ready to stand up and have a voice in protecting it.”
Here in the mountains, Hicks says, our abundant and pristine water supply sometimes leads us to take for granted “what a precious resource it is.”
“It’s much easier to protect our water than to try to clean up once it’s been contaminated,” she concludes. “We all need to keep an eye on what’s going on.”
First published by Mountain Xpress, Feb. 11, 2017