2017-03-23 / Front Page

How safe is Leelanau’s water?

DEQ inspector says municipal systems safe
By Patti Brandt Burgess
Of The Enterprise staff


PAUL WHITEFORD, utilities supervisor in Suttons Bay Village, takes a water sample from the No. 2 well located at Bahle Park. The village has four municipal wells that serve village residents. PAUL WHITEFORD, utilities supervisor in Suttons Bay Village, takes a water sample from the No. 2 well located at Bahle Park. The village has four municipal wells that serve village residents. Anthropologist and author Loren Eisely once said, “If there is magic on this planet, it is contained in water.”

But magic won’t keep water in Leelanau’s four municipal water systems free from bacteria, lead, sulfates and a host of other things that can lead to serious health issues.

It requires continous monitoring and frequent testing.

All public drinking water systems in the state are regulated by the Michigan Safe Drinking Water Act and monitored by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.

Municipal systems in Leelanau County include village-operated systems in Empire, Northport and Suttons Bay. Municipal water users in Elmwood Township are served by the Grand Traverse County Department of Public Works.

They all seem to be working well even as the Flint water crisis directs attention at municipal water systems across the state.

“The county has excellent drinking water,” said Brad Slater, a district engineer for the DEQ water program.

It’s a mantra that is echoed around the county.

“We’ve had excellent water, we’ve had excellent reviews from the region and the state,” said Chris Holton, superintendent of Northport’s public works department.

Slater’s coverage of Leelanau County includes annual inspections at Empire and Suttons Bay and twice yearly visits to Northport.

Northport is visited every six months because it is the only system that uses chlorine. In addition, a new well installed two years ago that replaced one that had been in use since 1932 is tested quarterly for radium because it is new.

Suttons Bay Village installed its present water system in 1986, replacing one that was built in the 1940s. The village operates four wells that are all tested at different times according to a schedule mandated by the DEQ, said Paul Whiteford, utilities supervisor in Suttons Bay Village.

“We have one of the better water systems around and we want to maintain that the best we can,” said Whiteford, who collects and submits water specimans.

Empire’s water system, installed in 1913, is the oldest in the county.

The Elmwood Township system is overseen by Jamie Wade, the district engineer who covers Grand Traverse County. That system also has chlorinated water, but the chemical is added in Grand Traverse.

Yearly visits are made to each public system to make sure that all of the state’s regulations are being met.

“The Michigan Safe Drinking Water Act is critical to health and there’s a lot to it,” Slater said.

It’s also an opportunity for DEQ engineers to talk to local operators about any concerns or issues they may have.

“We stop in, take a look and make sure they are are operating the way we would like them to,” Wade said.

Local operators do monthly water sampling, checking for things like bacteria and chloride, with reports all going to the DEQ for oversight.

Whiteford said the Suttons Bay system is chlorinated twice a year in the spring and fall, with water mains flushed in a process known as “scrubbing the pipes.” The process is a proactive way to get rid of any coliform bacteria that may be lingering in the pipes, he said.

“If you have coliform, then they start testing for other things,” Whiteford said. “And if you’re going to get coliform, you tend to get it in the warmer months.”

Annual checks are done for hardness, chloride, flouride, iron, nitrogen, sodium and sulfates.

Public systems are also checked every three years for metals such as lead and copper, pesticides, herbicides and a long list of volatile organic chemicals that include benzene, styrene and toluene.

Slater said the testing guidelines apply only if nothing is found in the water.

“If we have something going on we’ll have them sample more often,” Slater said. “If there are exceedances of a level allowed by Act 399, actions are taken. You don’t just leave, you deal with it.”

That could mean sampling the water more often, providing treatment to bring levels down, or even putting in a new well.

The standard applies to levels that may still be in the safe zone, but are on the rise, Slater said.

“If we had a climbing level that was still below the limit we would take action,” Slater said. “It’s not like you wait until the alarm goes off.”

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