From the Democratic presidential debate to national news coverage, the Flint, Michigan, water crisis has received a wave of media attention and forced cities across the country to re-examine their water supplies.
During the Jan. 31 state of the city address, Joliet Mayor Bob O’Dekirk was asked whether the Flint’s water crisis had lead city officials to consider the overall safety of the tap water residents are drinking. O’Dekirk dismissed the concern, saying the city is constantly working to ensure the safety of its water supply. One group taking action to prevent the people of Joliet from suffering the same fate as residents of Flint is the city’s public utilities department.
Public Utilities Director James Eggen said the city wants to reassure those living and doing business in Joliet that they are in good hands.
“The city of Flint, from the information we’ve been able to ascertain, changed their water source from Lake Huron to the Flint River, and they adjusted their treatment process,” he said. “One of the critical pieces of the treatment is the chemicals that are added after the water filtration, and that’s the phosphate that needs to be added to the water.”
Phosphate has minerals, for example, that help to build up a coating on the inside of pipes, whether it’s iron pipes or in the case of Flint, lead pipes.
Because Joliet is an older town, Eggen said the city does have some lead pipes in its system.
“The water chemistry is different than the treatment process for Flint, Michigan,” Eggen said. “We’re on a groundwater system, so we’ve got a higher hardness on our water.”
Eggen said the city has protection from the natural occurring hardness of the water, adding that they also feed phosphate as a corrosion inhibitor in city water.
In December 2015, the Joliet City Council approved a contract to purchase phosphorus that would be applied after water filtration.
In February 2015, phosphorus removal planning was backed by city officials, allowing the city to adhere to new environmental regulations.
Eggen said Joliet is looking at how it can adapt to new measures that have been introduced.
“We’re going to have to do some enhancements in our wastewater treatment plants to determine the most economical alternative for the city,” he said.
Every three years, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency requires Joliet to complete copper and lead testing on water. That requirement is the same as other big cities, such as Flint and Chicago. For its copper and lead testing, Joliet typically collects samples from kitchen faucets inside homes at select locations and sends those samples to the Illinois EPA.
“Any facility at the point where the water is added to the distribution system, we have to provide sampling at those points,” Eggen said.
Joliet has 11 water treatment plants and well locations are scattered throughout the city, according to the public utilities director. The treatment plants mostly coincide with the placement of the city’s water supply, which Eggen said comes from deep wells.
“Just by the nature of having wells, you have to spread out,” he added. “You can’t have them all concentrated in one area. We also do additional sampling over the course of the month throughout the distribution system.”
The city last provided copper and lead water samples to the Illinois EPA in 2014; it passed.
Moving forward, the Illinois EPA determined that the gravel wells of Joliet’s water supply could be more susceptible to synthetic organic contamination, or man-made compounds, according to 2015 Joliet Drinking Water Quality Report. It does not, however, consider the bedrock wells to be susceptible to other types of contamination.
The findings in the report are based on a number of criteria, including monitoring conducted at the wells, monitoring conducted at the entry point to the distribution system, the available hydrogeologic data on the wells and the land-use activities in the recharge area of the wells.
“The water level of the aquifers continue to drop and there are concerns by some experts that wells will go dry in the future,” according to 2015 Joliet Drinking Water Quality Report. “It is a reality that the groundwater supply will need to be supplemented with an additional surface water supply. The addition of surface water supplies then allows for new contaminants to be introduced into the water system.”
In 2017, Joliet is again expected to provide a minimum of 50 water samples to the agency. City staff typically will provide and send out 70-80 samples, allowing the Illinois EPA to review what’s collected.
Additionally, Eggen said the city officials put together an annual water quality report for its Joliet customers, summarizing new developments.
“That’ll be going out in June this year,” he said. “We are going to expand and do an additional write-up – different from last year – to address the issue of what’s happening in Flint, Michigan.”