It seems as if environmental problems are popping up almost daily. Many are related to devastating natural disasters, but some which are pervasive are problems which are somewhat under human control. For this reason, some of the largest hot button issues are about contaminants in drinking water, and the way they affect children, who are the most vulnerable in the population. The concern over lead in the drinking supplies has erupted beyond conversation, with good reason. But, along with the horrible news are some encouraging moments of information.
Boston has had its share of controversy over lead in drinking water. It has also recently won awards for the excellent quality of its drinking water. Here are some vital statistics to help sort out the reasons why the city can be having its own water concerns at the same time it is receiving accolades for its successes.
Some Boston Schools Haven’t Tested Their Tap Water for Six Years
The Boston Public Schools has a testing program which complies with legal requirements for testing tap water. Of the 129 schools in the system, 91 use bottled water rather than tap because of concern over lead, and these schools have shut off their tap water drinking fountains and offer bottled water to students and staff. The remaining 38 still use tap water because testing demonstrated that the water from the fountains in the schools have acceptable lead levels. Matt Rocheleau, Boston Globe Staff writer, in his March 24, 2016 articles for the publication, noted that school officials in Boston are promising to improve their testing frequency. This, in light of the fact that the most recent tests found that three schools had excessive lead. One drinking fountain tested at seven times more lead than allowed by the state standard.
There are no pharmaceuticals in Boston drinking water.
In fact, the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority supplies 50 communities in eastern and central Massachusetts, and the water provided to them is free of pharmaceuticals. The source reservoirs, Quabbin and Wachusett, are very well protected and the John J. Carroll Water Treatment Plant uses an ozone treatment which is effective at destroying many if present. The water was tested using a laboratory capable of testing for 31 endocrine disrupting compounds, hormones and pharmaceuticals. Samples include both the raw water before treatment and the finished water after treatment. The testing had detection levels which were measured in nano-grams per liter of water, which equates to parts per trillion. The testing was a thousand to one million times more sensitive than those which are usually conducted for compounds which are regulated.
Boston’s water is treated with 8 steps before it reaches the tap.
The Massachusetts Water Resources Authority, or MWRA, describes the treatment process on its official state website. The water flowing from the Quabbin and Wachusett reservoirs enters the John J. Carroll Water Treatment Plant at Walnut Hill in Marlborough through the Cosgrove or Wachusett Aqueducts.
The 8 treatment steps include:
- Step 1: Ozone-this primary disinfectant inactivates 99.9% of Giardia
- Step 2: Sodium bisulfite-this removes ozone
- Step 3: Ultraviolet light-this second primary disinfectant inactivates parasites which are chemically resistant such as Cryptosporidium
- Step 4: Sodium hypochlorite-chlorine provides residual disinfection which protects the water as it travels through the pipe network
- Step 5: Sodium hydrofluorosilicic acid-fluoride is added for dental health
- Step 6: Aqueous ammonia-combines with chlorine to form monochloramine which provides residual disinfection
- Step 7: Sodium carbonate-this raises the alkaline property of the water for pH buffering which the minimizes the copper and lead which leaches from home plumbing
- Step 8: Carbon dioxide-this provides the final level of pH adjustment
The Boston Water and Sewer Commission provides an online map showing where private lead service lines exist.
Before 1950, it was common to have water pipes made of lead. Lead in Boston drinking water comes from older water lines made from lead. Because lead can cause significant health problems, the city has identified properties in Boston which are still served with lead pipes. These areas of indicated in yellow. Visitors to the City of Boston website can go to the Lead Service Map page and enter their address in a search box. Information on the map was gathered from property surveys conducted when the Automated Meter Reading system was installed, using physical inspections and direct customer information. Plans to update the records monthly, or as designated by the BWSC exist.
The city offers several resources for dealing with these pipes:
- Property owners having lead pipes may call (617)989-7888 to speak with Lead Hotline reps.
- An incentive program exists for helping owners replace their older pipes.
- Renters are advised to contact the person in charge of their building.
Water theft is a big problem for Boston.
This isn’t a simple matter of running off with someone’s store of bottled water. This is a different issue. The BWSC charges rates for water consumption by reading water meters. Apparently, the BWSC loses thousands of dollars each year when water thieves tamper with or bypass their water meters. Because water rates are higher when paying customers cover the costs for those who don’t, the BWSC has a Revenue Protection Division in place which is dedicated to locating illegal connections and eliminating water theft. Here’s how the BWSC discovers it:
- Meter readings are lower than previous readings
- Consumption is lower than average levels
- Access to inspect water meter or water service is refused
There are somewhere close to 88,000 active water accounts in Boston.
Boston provides potable water to residents, schools, hospitals, businesses, institutions and industries. There are approximately 636,790 city residents, and double that during the daytime when the city fills with workers, students, tourists, shoppers and other visitors. The city purchases water from the MWRA, which is distributed via 29 active delivery points, which are metered.
Tap water is delivered through 1,018 linear miles of pipe system.
The pipes in the water system range from 4 to 48 inches in diameter. There are also 17,193 valves and 13,184 hydrants. Four major service networks exist:
- Southern Low Service-serving Boston proper, South Boston, sections in Roxbury
- Northern Low Service-serving Allston, East Boston, Charlestown
- Southern High Service-serving Brighton, Dorchester, Hyde Park, Roslindale, sections in Jamaica Plain, sections in Roxbury, sections in West Roxbury
- Southern Extra-High Service-serving sections in Jamaica Plain, parts of West Roxbury, Hyde Park
- MWRA Northern High Service-serves a small area of Orient Heights in East Boston
Each year, a minimum of 17 miles of pipe is renewed, rehabilitated and replaced. The older cast iron pipes are replaced and the designated sections are cleaned and lined with cement. This program is expected to continue, extending until 2010, when a new Water Distribution Study will be completed.
Boston’s water has tested below the Environmental Protection Agency’s Lead Action Level for more than 10 years.
Frederick A. Laskey, Executive Director of the MWRA wrote an online letter to water customers to alleviate fears brought on by the Flint, Michigan drinking water issue. He noted that 2,300 water samples have been tested over the last five years, and 98% of those were below the level required by the EPA. The water systems is successful due to aggressive protection measures. The reservoirs are patrolled each day by the Department of Conservation and Recreation. The water is treated aggressively at the treatment plant before it reaches the public. But some homes still may have lead services, and it is the goal of the MWRA to reach those approximately 28,000 and eliminate the lead services.
The Boston Water and Sewer Commission was honored during National Water Drinking Week
The Boston Water and Sewer Commission, the BWSC, was established in 1977. It provides water and sewer services to over 2.2 million people every day. The BWSC was honored during National Drinking Water Week in 2016. The honor came in the form of two awards from the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection:
- Regional Recognition Award for outstanding performance as a model public water agency and exemplary efforts in every area of water treatment and distributing in 2015, including the Lead Service Replacement Program
- Citation for Consistent Performance for continued excellence in safe drinking water delivery in 2015
Boston has the largest and oldest water and sewer systems in New England. For this reason, Boston property owners are encouraged to replace any existing private lead water service their properties may have. The BWSC offers the Lead Replacement Incentive Program to help property owners with the process.
Boston won the 2014 American Water Works Association award for best tasting tap water.
The association is comprised of 50,000 water professionals who make up a network of those who work to keep water supplies healthy. The association held its conference in Boston that year, which brought an extra measure of honor to the state. Experts note that the reason the water tastes so good is because of the watershed. In the years between 1985 and 2012, conservation land was purchased by the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority. The land in the watershed area feed the reservoirs which are the sources for water in Boston. These two reservoirs, the extensive Quabbin and large Wachusett, are located miles to the west of the city. The forests surrounding these reservoirs naturally filter the snow and rain water which collects into the two major reservoirs. When it finally flows to Boston, it really doesn’t require much filtering, so chemical cocktails to purify it are not necessary. This is not true for other major cities, and those chemicals account for the poorer tasting water. Daniel Moss, an advocate for sustainable stewardship of shared community resources, wrote about the Boston award in the June, 2014, Yes! Magazine.