Not Like Flint

Published 10:54 am Tuesday, May 10, 2016

AHOSKIE – There’s an old saying, “You don’t miss your water until your well runs dry.”

These days, the adage could be tuned up to also reflect the undesirable stuff that’s in the water – such as in Flint, Michigan, where the public water supply has become contaminated as a result of a government cost-savings measure.

Closer to home, drinking water sources have become contaminated by everything from coal-ash ponds and illegally dumped chemicals, failing septic systems and, in many coastal areas, salinity (salty water) drawn in when too much groundwater is pumped out. Sharp declines in the region’s groundwater levels have also grabbed attention.

Richard Spruill is an associate professor of geology (hydrology) at East Carolina University. Spruill said the complex aquifer systems that underlie the coastal plain are tapped extensively by municipalities, industries, agriculture and individuals, creating lots of problems.

“The biggest challenge seems to be a fair and equitable allocation of water resources based on regional differences in the resource of water itself,” Spruill said.

Spruill addressed this and other topics on Thursday prior to speaking before the Eastern Section of Professional Wastewater Operators Committee meeting hosted by the Town of Ahoskie. The meeting featured Water Works supervisors from across the Roanoke-Chowan area; speakers from the Wooten Company (engineering); the Washington (NC) Regional Office of the 21 counties in the state’s Department of Environmental and Natural Resources; and, included a tour of the Ahoskie Wastewater Treatment plant led by plant supervisor Stewart White.

The Flint water crisis began in April 2014 after the Michigan city changed its water source from treated Detroit Water and Sewerage Department water from Lake Huron and the Detroit River to the Flint River.

Because officials failed to apply corrosion inhibitors, the town’s drinking water had a series of problems that culminated with lead contamination, creating a serious public health danger. The corrosive Flint River water caused lead from aging pipes to leach into the water supply, causing extremely elevated levels of the heavy metal.

“Almost everybody east of I-95 in North Carolina consumes groundwater as our main source of water,” Spruill said. “But there are some exceptions.

There are a few cities across North Carolina’s coastal plain that take their drinking water supply from surface water, or water on the surface of the planet such as in a stream, river, lake, or wetland.

Spruill says examples of that are like Greenville, which draws about 22-and-a-half million gallons a day from the Tar River; Kinston, which partners with several neighboring small towns as members of the Neuse Regional Water and Sewer Authority, and draws from the Neuse River – a switch from ground water to surface water; and Wilmington that relies on a combination of the Cape Fear River and groundwater supplies.

“Everybody else throughout the coastal plain is using groundwater,” Spruill said.

For surface water-dependent communities, the biggest issue is drought and how that relates to flows in their respective river systems. For those relying on groundwater, the concern is often other big users. Operations in this region that pump water from the ground face little regulation covering the effects on other users.

“We don’t have the issues Flint has because Flint’s issues are related to trying to treat water from a river and despite this region having two rivers (Roanoke & Chowan) that bisect it; we simply don’t have those kinds of issues in coastal North Carolina,” he explained.

The big difference, Spruill states, is that with groundwater supplies, the resource is more likely to be mismanaged. Spruill said that’s the case across the coastal plain and beyond, up and down the East Coast.

“The key is that we have built – and maintain – incredible water treatment systems,” Spruill remarks. “(The newer ones) are capable of removing impurities … in our larger communities, and that’s especially true here, we collect our sewage and treat the water; and our wastewater treatment plants are capable of producing higher quality water than what was served to the people of Flint for a while.”

Spruill says there’s no place in North Carolina where wastewater is consumed that has been treated; it’s all discharged.

“Flint is not an example of using wastewater,” Spruill said. “It’s an example of using river water without proper treatment; more importantly, after water is treated at a plant it has to be distributed out to communities, and if the finished water transmission lines (underground plumbing) are antiquated and have a lot of lead in them then that water interacts and produces contaminants that will be exposed to humans. That was the case in Flint: a new treatment process passing through antiquated distribution systems. We don’t have those kinds of problems. We might have an older home with some lead solder in the pipes that could get in the water.”

Because the aquifers used here are hundreds of feet below the land surface, Spruill says nature has a way of filtering the rainwater as it makes its way into the local aquifers.

“Some of the water we consume out here in the coastal plain from our wells is over 10,000 years old.” he acknowledged. “It’s been passing through so many clay layers and sand layers that it’s almost perfect. Many towns take water right out of the ground, add some chlorine for disinfection and sell it to the customers, so we’re blessed with incredible aquifers.”

Spruill cautions that in the future, with more coastal development, there could be water issues. The closer we get to the coast, the more likely some of our aquifers are to be salty. Saltwater intrusion required construction of reverse-osmosis treatment plants such as a new one built in Pasquotank County, south and west of Elizabeth City.

“We drill wells 400-450 feet deep and we bring up salty water, and we take the salt out of these deep wells with the reverse osmosis filtration system,” Spruill explains. “It can be done and it can be done in a cost-effective way.

“We have an almost unlimited amount of water available to us in the coastal plain of North Carolina. But we still have to conserve it, recognize that it’s undervalued, and the cost of its treatment will have to go up in the future if we don’t manage it properly. This is not a ‘Flint story’ at all; in fact, ours is just the opposite,” he concluded.