Today is Earth Day. Every year on April 22, trees are planted, litter is cleaned up, and awareness for the issues plaguing the planet are raised, in honor of the holiday, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2020. The first Earth Day was on April 22, 1970. Environmentalists took to the streets with concerned citizens and pop culture icons, like poet Allen Ginsberg, who were asked to speak on behalf of Mother Earth.
The 1970s saw the passage of the most comprehensive environmental legislation in U.S. history, including the Clean Air Act, the Water Quality Improvement Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Toxic Substances Control Act, and the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act. In addition, just eight months after the first Earth Day, Richard Nixon approved the creation of a new organization tasked with monitoring the nation’s natural assets: the Environmental Protection Agency. You can find more facts about earth day at DO Something . ORG.
I manage a company that spends every day inspecting and cleaning water storage tanks and towers. Our goal is to save treated drinking water by performing required inspections without draining storage tanks. We use underwater cameras that allow us to enter the water system, inspect the tank, and produce a comprehensive report on its condition without disrupting water service. Over the years our “no water loss” inspections have saved tens of millions of gallons of treated drinking water.
Earth Day makes me think about what could be and how we could do more. In 2019 we inspected 651 potable water storage tanks and towers, but we only cleaned 105 of them. and that is a very typical year. Even on one of our best years in 2017 we inspected 863 facilities but only cleaned 95. There were hundreds more that needed to be cleaned but the decision was made not to clean the tank.
To understand why we only clean a fraction of the tanks that need to be cleaned and why that is a big deal, I need to give you a brief explanation of how water systems work. Your drinking water comes from ground water (aquifers), or from rivers and lakes (surface water). The most common disinfectant used is chlorine if it is from surface water it is also processed through different media at a water treatment plant. After the water has been processed it is pumped into a storage facility like a ground storage tank tank (GST), or an elevated storage tank (EST), where it sits and waits until you use it at your tap (60 Second Video Click here).
A few states have rules that require water storage facilities to be inspected every year but very few require tanks to be cleaned. Texas Administrative Code 290.46 (M)(1) requires all potable water tanks to be inspected inside and out annually. I guess it was assumed that when the inspection showed the interior floor was covered with sediment the utility would take action to keep it clean. That is not what is happening. Water regulations that keep us safe are much too complex for this article. The short answer is, as long as water testing is negative for coliform the water is deemed to be safe. Coliform is what is looked for to determine if microbes can live in the water. When it is not found the water is deemed safe to drink. About 7 years ago new rules under the Revised Total Coliform Rule (RTCR) required some additional monitoring of total coliform’s and E. coli.
There are now also requirements for assessments and corrective action when monitoring results show that public water systems (PWS) may be vulnerable to contamination.
In this case if no other breach can be found a good look at the water storage tank would meet the requirements for an additional assessment. If the results of the inspection showed that sediment was covering the floor of the tank, cleaning the tank could be the corrective action needed. Unfortunately, the complexity of the Revised Total Coliform Rule does not result in most tanks not being cleaned. In Texas, tank inspections are required but tank cleaning is often put off due to budget constraints or because those responsible don’t understand the dangers that can lurk in sediment.
The problem is as simple as a game of Hide & Seek. When conducting the required water testing a sample of water is taken from a tap on, or near, the water tank. Coliform must be found in the water to know there is a problem. Only a few feet away sediment on the floor of the tank may be hiding the contamination. A host of undetected microbes including bacteria, protozoa and even viruses, can use the tank sediment to get a foothold in the tank. Often left undisturbed for years, these contaminants continue to grow until they overpower the disinfectant in the tank. They can then be detected through required water monitoring but the damage is already done. The water system is compromised when testing finds too much Coliform in the system. Then boiled water notices are sent out to protect public health.
Sediment covering the floor of water storage tanks is a breach. It is as bad as a hole in the roof. Sediment can let almost any microbe or parasite that may have just passed through get a foothold in the water system, grow and become a public health problem.
Tank inspections are required in some states. However, even in those states tank cleanings still require a sales pitch unless the water system is compromised and testing finds too much Coliform in the system. That is often when we get the call.
Many well managed and well funded water utilities keep their water tanks and towers cleaned. This is why I came up with the tag line “Your zip code should not determine your water quality”. The fact is, like many other things in life, where you live affects almost everything, but it should not affect your water quality in the United States. Smaller systems that are not well-funded just need additional information about why keeping water tanks clean makes such a big difference. When tanks are clean the cost of disinfectants like chlorine goes down. The system is healthier and less likely to get a RTCR violation. In this case doing the right thing actually saves money and makes maintaining regulations easier.
This small, overlooked part of the world affects millions of people. Keeping tanks clean is just basic housekeeping and should be the standard at every public water utility. Unfortunately, it is not the first thing thought of when violations occur. The knee-jerk reaction is to add more disinfectants. However, when the maximum residual is reached, the decision is often made to change disinfectants. This just adds up to more time and money wasted if the tanks have not been properly inspected or kept clean.
Thanks for staying with me this far. This is where I decided to DO SOMETHING.
The Ron Perrin Clean Water Tank Project Inc. was established to educate water utility managers about the importance of keeping tanks clean. Help me get water utility managers to think about cleaning storage tanks FIRST instead of Last or not at all! We are producing a documentary, promoting our blog and creating literature on the importance of keeping tanks clean. Our non-profit is registered and can be supported through the SMILE program at AmazonSmile. Search for the “Ron Perrin Clean Water Tank Project Inc.” and you can round up the change on your Amazon Purchase to allow us to get the change and help us DO SOMETHING that needs doing. Together we can make a change by improving water quality for more people.