Investigating Water: So What Happens When Water Turns Black?

May 15, 2007


Water, of all the natural resources upon which we rely, is perhaps the one that we take most for granted. We turn on our faucets and out it comes, clear and cool and always there.

But when something goes wrong, when we turn the tap and the water comes out discolored, we are instantly connected to this most necessary substance in a way that is elemental and eyeopening. So it was in Madison, Wis., three years ago when many residents started noticing unsettling problems with their water. In some homes the water from faucets ran nearly black. Strange black chunks settled to the bottoms of water glasses and could be seen frozen into ice cube trays. Toilets and showers became clogged with the gunk.

Suddenly, water in Madison was no longer something to take for granted. People wanted to know, first of all, what was in their water. Was it safe? Where did the water come from anyway? And who was in charge of making sure that the water got to our homes clean and drinkable?

As the Wisconsin State Journal's science and environmental reporter, I pursued the answers, finding much about the littleknown but vitally important inner workings of the public utility charged with providing and caring for Madison's drinking water.

The picture that emerged was disturbing. A story that started with residents complaining about discolored water flowing from their faucets would eventually turn into a four-part series called "Water Worries" that found numerous contaminants, including viruses, in the deep aquifer from which the city draws its drinking water. My investigation revealed an aging and decrepit water system that increased the perils of contamination, a renegade public utility that received little or no oversight from the city, and managers who were less than forthright about everything from carcinogens and bacteria in the water to the security of wells and water towers.

Madison seemed an unlikely place for such a story to surface. The city has long been known for its progressive politics and its environmental awareness. It regularly makes top ten lists of the best places in the country to live, for everything from schools to bike trails to the lakes that shine from just about any vantage point.

That reputation is largely deserved. I've lived in the city for 30 years and know well that Madison is a beautiful place to live and work and raise a family. And water defines the landscape, from the chain of lakes on which the city is built to the trout streams that beckon anglers just a ten-minute drive from downtown.

So it was a shock when, after just a couple weeks of nosing around the Madison Water Utility and the management of the city's drinking water supply, I started turning up information that seemed very much at odds with the community's squeaky clean resume.

I had plenty to report. But, in addition to revealing the results of my digging, I also wanted to explain to Madison residents where their drinking water comes from, how it gets to their homes, and how the utility that manages the water operates. Such a foundation seemed necessary if readers were to fully understand our findings. So the series turned into a blend of investigative and explanatory reporting complete with graphics and interactive maps and charts that brought to life the workings of a public utility that operates, like most utilities, with little or no attention from the public. Though they are in reality rich repositories of stories, such utilities are about as visible as the buried water pipes they oversee.

Until the spring of 2005, in fact, the Madison Water Utility operated in near obscurity. But then, residents from one of the city's neighborhoods started complaining about the dirty water coming from their taps. The discolored water, it turned out, was from the mineral manganese, a naturally occurring metal that can cause health problems if ingested in large enough amounts over a long period of time. Especially at risk are babies and people with liver problems.

Initially, I was assigned to do a story about manganese and about what the city's water utility was doing to combat the problem. What I discovered in that first story set off alarm bells. Even though it was turning up water nearly blackened by manganese and even though dozens of residents were finding black chunks of the mineral in their water, the Madison Water Utility was doing little at that early stage to alert its customers to the potential dangers of manganese. Instead, callers to the utility were being told there was no danger and that even if tap water was cloudy, it was alright to use.

I spent some time at the water utility's offices, talking to engineers and looking at maps. When I asked one engineer to explain the city's system of pumps and wells and how water reached homes, he insisted that the system with its pressure zones and 24 wells was too complicated to easily explain. I insisted that he try to help me understand. Over two or three sessions I developed a thorough understanding of what neighborhoods were served by what wells, how water pumped from the deep aquifer flowed through the city, and how the water was stored, treated and tested for contaminants.

But those early interviews only piqued my interest. After doing a December 2005 story about the utility's response to manganese, I proposed a project in which we would take a hard look at the city's drinking water and how it was being managed. I started filing open record requests, seeking water testing data for the previous five years for all 24 of the city's wells and all the records regarding public water quality complaints for the previous three years.

During my conversations with the utility's chief engineer, I heard him refer several times to an infrastructure study which had been completed the year before for the utility by a national consultant. The study had never been released publicly so I obtained a copy of that and spent several days studying the fat report.

After the first story on manganese, I started hearing from residents, dozens and dozens of them. Young parents called to tell me they worried about their children drinking the water, had stopped using tap water completely and used bottled water instead. Others called with stories about how poorly they had been treated by the water utility. And yet other calls came from workers within the water utility who wanted to provide me information about long-standing problems within the agency. One especially important source was a resident who first brought the manganese problem to the city's attention and ended up taking on the utility practically single handed.

All told, I spent nearly five months sorting through all of this material, interviewing sources, and traipsing around the city with flushing crews and engineers, learning about water and pipes and wells. I sat at many kitchen tables listening to residents talk about their frustrations with their water and the utility, including one elderly woman who showed me her laundry, turned brown by the water, and said, angrily, "If I wanted tan underclothes, I'd buy them that way!"

I spent hours interviewing the water quality specialist with the state Department of Natural Resources who was responsible for regulation of the Madison Water Utility and who also had a computer full of test and other data that proved invaluable because it allowed me to check utility data against data gathered by the regulatory agency.

This is what I found: • Although contaminants rarely reach levels beyond health standards, the aquifer is contaminated by numerous pollutants, many of them carcinogens. In four wells, manganese was above the health standards recommended by the EPA. In one well, which serves a major city high school, the levels of the industrial carcinogen, carbon tetrachloride, exceeded the EPA health standard in 2000. I found a study that had even identified viruses in the city's wells, something few people knew about. Using spread sheets, I analyzed five years' worth of test data for five contaminants, including three industrial carcinogens as well as manganese and iron, for all 24 of the city's wells.

Using this data, along with information from the utility engineers about which wells serve which neighborhoods, our graphic artist created an interactive map and a chart that allowed readers to click on the well closest to their home and read in a pop-up screen what levels of the selected contaminants were found in their well. It was the first time many readers, we learned, were able to identify the well that serves their home, let alone find out what was in the water.

• The unreleased infrastructure report proved a gold mine of information. We found that the utility's own consultant had warned the utility was neglecting to spend enough on replacement of aging pipes and wells and other infrastructure – a problem that plagues utilities across the country. In Madison, those aging pipes, some dating to the late 1800s, were in fact partly responsible for the manganese, which was building up inside the old pipes.

The utility, according to its own consultants, was spending only about $200,000 a year on replacing facilities such as wells when it should have been spending closer to $2.5 million. And it was spending $2.8 million on pipe replacement when it should have been shelling out closer to $6.5 million.

• Based on documents obtained through open records requests, interviews with sources inside the utility and with state regulators, we were able to confirm that utility officials had failed to track water quality complaints for two years (a violation of state law), had quarreled with the Department of Natural Resources about issuing a boil order because of bacteria showing up in well tests, had not reported a break-in at a water tower, and failed to report levels of carbon tetrachloride that exceeded federal health standards in one city well. Asked about that failure, utility officials blamed a typo in the water quality report in which the test result was supposed to appear.

Within three weeks after the series appeared, Madison Mayor David Cieslewicz announced a ten-point plan to protect the city's drinking water. The plan set performance standards for the utility's general manager and directed more spending on replacing pipes and wells.

The story continues to unfold. The water utility, for example, has announced plans to shut down two of the problem wells identified in the series. As part of his efforts to restore confidence in the water utility, the mayor ordered that consultant be hired to study the utility's operation. In a recently released report, the consultant pointed out many of the very findings that turned up in the newspaper's investigation – poor communication, flawed management, and a lack of willingness to be forthright about problems with the public water supply.

In the months after the stories appeared, residents themselves started to organize and to lobby the utility for more information and for more public involvement in decisions about everything from wells to testing.

Compared to the years prior to the State Journal's reporting on the utility, residents in Madison have become very aware of not only where their drinking water comes from but how it is managed. Hundreds have turned up for neighborhood meetings on the city's water problems and city officials, in the midst of an election season, are peppered with questions about water.

Those officials, from the mayor on down, know the city's residents – and the State Journal – are going to pay much closer attention to how this most precious of natural resources is cared for.

Ron Seely continues to cover water and other science and environment issues at the State Journal.

** From SEJ's quarterly newsletter SEJournal Spring, 2007 issue.



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