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City water undergoes advanced treatment

If someone asks Bowling Green residents what they think of the city’s drinking water, they are bound to get a response similar to four-year resident Emily Selega’s.

“It’s gross,” she said, adding that the reason she thinks that way is because she has heard unofficial stories about it from others.

But the truth is that every drop of water hitting a dry mouth, dirty plate or sweaty body in Bowling Green goes through several hours of state of the art treatment that makes store bought filters seem like child’s play.

The advanced treatment is necessary to combat a host of contaminants regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency, including chemicals and microorganisms such as viruses.

Residents who visit the Bowling Green Water Treatment Plant, which is located about nine miles outside of the city at 17549 West River Road, are greeted by plant superintendent Bill Ash. Ash said showing off the facility and its ability to provide the best quality water available is the most enjoyable part of his job.

The process of providing safe drinking water to Bowling Green and surrounding communities — the water is also utilized by Haskins, Grand Rapids, Portage, Westin, Jerry City, and other areas of northern Wood County — begins at the banks of the Maumee River where the plant is located.

Daily samples of the Maumee’s water quality are taken. When the water is of exceptionally high quality, it is screened for debris such as branches and fish, and then pumped into the city’s 170 million gallon reservoir located behind the plant.

While in the 25-foot deep reservoir, the water goes through a series of aeration stations. Basically, adding air in the stations ensures the consistency of the reservoir water by eliminating dead zones where the water has a different temperature or consistency.

The water enters the plant through an intake in the reservoir where an oxidizer is added to control the formation of zebra muscles and other organic contaminants. The time between the reservoir and the plant is about 15 minutes, and is usually controlled by the force of gravity.

Then, a binding agent is added to it, which causes particles such as leaves and salt algae to stick together. The water has an additional oxidizer added to it, and then undergoes a gentle mixing process aimed at causing the particles to stick together. This is known as “flocculation basins.”

After that, the particles drop out of the water in a settling tank during a process that takes about one to two hours.

The water is then softened to eliminate minerals such as calcium and magnesium. The particles from the settling tank and minerals from the softening process are stored in waste lagoons for later use in the local agriculture industry as fertilizer.

Fluoride is added in small doses to promote dental hygiene. The water is treated with carbon dioxide to reduce the water’s acidity — which has been increased in the initial treatment phases.

After this initial screening and softening process, the water finally reaches the plant’s rapid sand filters to remove further fine particles. These are cleaned regularly.

While, according to a study done by the Environmental Protection Agency in 2000, many of the former treatment processes are used in a significant number of water treatment facilities similar to the plant, the next steps of the process are fairly unique to the Bowling Green area, including ultraviolet disinfecting and granular activated carbon filters.

“We have mega Brita filters here,” Ash said, referring to the activated carbon, which is most often found in bottling or medical companies that need extremely clean water. “We take it one step further, like the beer companies.”

The water flows through a series of activated carbon filters, which were being used in 21.1 percent of treatment plants similar to Bowling Green’s in 2000. The carbon is designed to absorb organic contaminants and control taste and odor. It is regenerated on an annual basis.

After that, the water flows through a pipe along a series of ultraviolet ray bulbs, similar to those used in tanning beds, but much more powerful. The system is designed to render inactive the problem of damaging microorganisms such as cryptosporidium, which killed 100 and injured more than 400,000 in Milwaukee in 1993.

When asked if there is anything unique to the plant’s process, Ash mentions the ultraviolet disinfecting first, and with good reason. According to the 2000 study, it is used in less than 0.1 percent of plants similar to Bowling Green’s.

After the water undergoes those unique treatments, it is disinfected with chlorine, and then pumped in to a 2 million gallon underground reservoir known as a “clearwell,” which keeps the water moving before it is pumped out in to the local community.

Once pumped out of the plant, excess water is stored in elevated towers found throughout the area, including one located along Campbell Hill Road near Carter Park.

“The idea of the towers is for pressure, more water for high peak demands, and fire protection,” Ash said.

While showing off the process used by the plant may be enjoyable to Ash, ensuring that the water treated at the plant meets the standards set out by the EPA, which instruct Ash to extensively regulate a complicated list of contaminants, is a headache.

The contaminants Ash and water treatment officials across the nation like him must stifle include organic and inorganic chemicals such as lead and carbon tetrachloride, disinfectants such as chlorine, microorganisms such as viruses, naturally occurring radioactive substances such as uranium, and byproducts of the water disinfecting process used to eliminate such contaminants.

Several of the contaminants Ash filters out must be kept below one thousandth of a milligram per liter and others must not be present at all.

For more information on what contaminants must be controlled, at what levels, and the current condition of the city’s water, citizens can visit the EPA’s Web site at www.epa.gov/safewater/.

In 2003, the facility had trouble keeping the amount of nitrate at acceptable levels. Nitrate is an inorganic chemical that is used in fertilizer and runs off of agricultural fields in to a water source (such as the Maumee River).

A lack of precipitation during the winter, followed by a deluge in the spring, led to an exceptional amount of runoff from fields around the Maumee, which originates in the Fort Wayne, Indiana area. The plant was aware of the problem before they were cited for violating EPA regulations.

“We prolonged not pumping the water from the river in to the reservoir until we didn’t have any choice. Typically you don’t see that type of runoff event. That was the first time in like 15 years that that type of event happened,” Ash said.

Nitrate levels were 20 percent higher than the maximum contaminant level set by the EPA during the months of January and February of 2003. The EPA could not be reached for more information on the seriousness of such an increase, but indicated the reason for monitoring the level of nitrate on its Web site.

“Infants below the age of six months who drink water containing nitrate in excess of the maximum contaminant level could become seriously ill and, if untreated, may die. Symptoms include shortness of breath and blue-baby syndrome,” the site said.

Nitrate found in water can also be caused from the leaching of sewage systems and erosion of natural deposits.

The plant Ash watches over is staffed every minute of the year, ensuring that any problem arising in the treatment process is addressed immediately.

“Even Christmas, New Years Eve and Thanksgiving day,” he said.

Some problems may require extensive action, such as a terrorist attack.

“We have a contingency and emergency management plan that addresses a variety of issues such as trucker’s strikes, mechanical breakdowns, natural disasters, or terrorist activities,” he said.

Plans for future upgrades to the facility include more carbon filters within the next few years, and a plant expansion leading to

an increase in output of around 1.2 million gallons a day late in 2005.

The increase in output will be obtained by the installation of a new multi-tech filtration system that will address bottlenecks of the present treatment process. According to Ash, improved service extends well in to the future.

“The city of Bowling Green constantly looks to improve or maintain water treatment quality and capacity. Plant expansion and updated process controls are constantly being updated and investigated to ensure drinking water will be available to meet constantly changing and more restrictive standards,” he said.

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