City Staff Offers Assurances, Household Tips During Townhall on Saline's Water Quality

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"Our water is tested. We are having an aesthetic issue. It is not visually pleasing to see that water, but it is tested and safe," said Larry Sirls, Director of the Saline Department of Public Works.

About 20 people, including staff and council members, attended the town hall. Another 20 watched on the Zoom call and 10-15 watched on Facebook Live.

City leaders in attendance include Mayor Brian Marl, City Manager Colleen O'Toole, Department of Public Works Director Larry Sirls, water production and wastewater quality superintendent Bill Briggs.  Also in attendance was Kristen Schweighgofer, Washtenaw County Health Department's Environmental Health Director. From the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy, Mark Joseph, Brian Thurston and Sean Brown attended.

Briggs is the third person to hold the water/wastewater superintendent job in recent years, following Steve Wyzgoski and long-time employee Bob Stull. After Wyzgoski resigned Dec. 18, it took nine months for the city to find Briggs. Briggs explained the city's water production process. 

The City draws its water from several wells. The water is pumped to the water treatment plant, built in 2005, where it initially goes through iron filters. Then it goes through the reverse osmosis units for softening (removal of calcium and magnesium). Flouride and phosphates (to prevent pipe corrosion) are added to the water.  It's then pumped into the storage towers and distributed through the system.

Briggs said the staff does frequent testing at the water plant. There is daily testing for iron, PH, phosphorous, fluoride and chlorine. There are 12 tests each month for residual chlorine and bacteria - two more than required. There are also weekly quality tests for PH, alkalinity, phosphates - though they are only required every two weeks.

City Manager O'Toole said there were no existing violations in the monthly or daily testing. There were no samples exceeding action levels for substances like lead or copper.

To help understand the discolorization issue and to make residents feel safer, the city began a residential resting program, inviting residents to collect discolored water and bring it to the city, which tested for PH, hardness, iron and chlorine. There were 29 samples collected. One of those samples was significantly outside the targeted range for hardness, another was outside the targetted iron/residual chlorine range, O'Toole said. The city is investigated both and found a solution for the former issue. The latter remains under investigation.

"Otherwise there were no results of concern," O'Toole said.

O'Toole also announced the launch of a program with the Washtenaw County Health Department to offer free lead and bacteria testing for residents who have recurring problems with drinking water discoloration.

"It is paramount to us that residents feel safe and confident in their drinking water, so we will be offering lead and bacteria testing for free for residents who have been experiencing recurring water discoloration," O'Toole said.

To start, that program will be offered by city invitation.

Briggs said that before 2005, the water wasn't treated to protect the pipes. Many of the pipes in the city are 100 years old.

It's then pumped into the storage towers.

Briggs said the cause of the discolorization is the pipes.

"(The DPW) is trying to get rid of that with the flushing program," Briggs said.

DPW Director Sirls described the water distribution system and the recent flushing efforts. Sirls said the city has about 50 miles of water main, mostly made of iron. The two water towers hold the water pressure and provide storage for the system.

Sirls said it's best practice in the industry to flush the system twice a year. The city does it in the spring and fall.

Sirls acknowledged that the pipes are old and rusty.

"We do have a lot of rust build-up. The system has expanded over the years and it serves more people now than it did 10 years ago," Sirls said.

The hydrant flushing program concluded Oct. 21. Sirls said the DPW and attempting to shift to a more proactive maintenance program. One element is a valve-turning program going out for bids next week.  Valves control the flow of the water system.

"An asset inventory on our valves will help us confirm that everything that should be on is on," Sirls said. "If there's anything in the system that needs to be repaired, we'll have that data to build a better, more reliable distribution system."

Sirls said Monday at the city council meeting that the water flushing system has done its job. Since the flushing program completed Oct. 21, the city has received three complaints about discolored water. He said it's not unexpected.

"With the system's age and the pipe material, we will periodically get some complaints, but I am happy to say the complaint level went way down, which is what we were expecting," Sirls said.

He offered some tips for residents experiencing discolorization:

  • If you get discolorization, don't run your water if don't need it immediately. If you do need the water, run your water for a lower level in your home, from the hot tap only, in a sink/washtub without a screen or aerator.
  • If it doesn't clear up quickly, report it to the city. The city could engage in responsive flushing in certain areas of the city.
  • Monthly dead-end flushings will be reinstated. That was a practice that was stopped in recent years.
  • Inline filters can keep water free of iron and sediment.
  • Galvanized piping in the home can be a source of discolorization.

Sirls said the DPW will be launching a water meter change-out program that would improve water quality and help the city better understand problems, from home to home. Sirls said the program would require a cross-connection inspection that will provide the city with information about the internal plumbing systems of homes. The program will also give city residents a new interface to help control their water consumption. The program also will provide alerts to both the city and residents when water consumption rises, which could help residents avoid costly bills from leaks.

Briggs outlined some of the water system maintenance and improvement projects the city has planned.

At the water plant the city is:

  • Adding a third high service pump in 22-23 and rebuilding existing high service pumps in 24-25.
  • Replacing the green sand media filter in 22-23.
  • Adding a third water tower in 2024.
  • Making improvements to comply with EGLE's lead and copper standards.

In the distribution system, the city is:

  • Going to perform more flushing of the pipes on dead ends.
  • Assess and maintain valves (as previously noted)
  • Replace the meters.
  • Paint the Henry Street water tower.
  • Replace the lining of a Michigan Avenue water main in the spring of 2022.
  • Replace water mains on Maple, Marlpool and Forrestbrooke in 2023; North Ann Arbor Street, and the main connecting Bennett Street and the water plant in 2024; the Six Trails Loop and North Industrial Drive in 25-26. 

The work to replace the mains on Highland, Hillcrest, and Lawson is almost complete.

Along with capital projects, the city may also consider policy changes. O'Toole, as Mayor Brian Marl recently did, said the city may consider limiting irrigation run times or promoting a smart-meters for irrigation systems.

Adrienne Young, a resident of the Torwood subdivision, said she's never had issues with brown water because she has an inline filter. However, they've been changing the filter every four weeks and the filters are getting darker and darker. She asked if her filters could be tested.

Sirls said he believes the distribution system in the Torwood subdivision may have been impacted by construction projects recently. He said he would like to know if the filters improve in the coming months. Mayor Marl said he believed the Torwood/Saline River Drive area was "ground zero" for complaints in recent months.

Another resident told the panel she couldn't find a water softener that worked with the city's hard water.

Erik Grossman, a former city DPW employee, said that in the 70s and 80s, the city DPW would flush every six weeks on a Thursday night. By 1987, they went to two nights every six weeks. In 2000, when the industrial park tower came online. In 2005, the iron-removal and reverse osmosis systems were added to water production. In the fall of 2005, the DPW began unidirectional daytime flushing.  Grossman said that reverse osmosis caused the water to become "more aggressive" and caused problems, including copper staining in houses. 

He posed a question for EGLE.

"The RO water, when it sits, it will pull carbon dioxide out of the air and cause the water to become more aggressive. I am thinking that's what happens in the individual hydrants- that the PH (level of seven) might be dropping (down to a level of five). I think that's very corrosive inside the hydrant. I wonder if (EGLE) thinks that's a logical conclusion." Grossman said.

Grossman said he believes there is a lot of air in the city's water system.

"Air is possibly lending CO2 to the water system and making it more aggressive in certain parts of the system," Grossman said, asking for EGLE's opinion.

Sean Brown, of EGLE, agreed that water treated with reverse osmosis is more aggressive. He said he's seen nothing in the data to suggest PH levels far off expectations. Mark Joseph, of EGLE, agreed the data showed nothing abnormal with PH levels.

Grossman said he noted certain areas of town, like Wildwood, where water is more likely to sit in lines, experienced more iron in the water. Grossman said he thought the system had a few "dead zones" where the water comes from both directions. He said air collects in these spots - and pointed to Hawthorne Way as one of the dead zones.

"In there, there's quite a growth of iron bacteria. It's not harmful bacteria. When we flush it out, there are flocks of iron that come out," Grossman said.

Sirls noted that Hawthorne Way was one of the areas the DPW has identified for more frequent flushing.

Former City Councillor Christen Mitchell noted city council voted recently to put $400,000 in federal money toward the Rec Center. She said more federal money was coming and asked council to look at infrastructure priorities.

City Manager O'Toole used Mitchell's question to invite residents to participate in upcoming strategic planning sessions, which will help council prioritize during budget deliberations.

Mayor Marl said infrastructure improvements and maintenance are and will continue to be key priorities for the city.

David Jenkins asked that, if construction results in water issues, what the city will do to prevent future projects from resulting in unacceptable water quality.

O'Toole answered that the city has explored the idea of bringing in a third-party service to directly monitor "operations affiliated with large construction projects." She said she hoped the individuals at Pulte Homes, who are building Layher Farms and Huntington Woods, will work with the city on that concept. She said the city doesn't have the staff to monitor construction activity on a daily basis.

Resident Brian Lambert asked what increased flushing will cost the city. Sirls said he didn't anticipate extra costs other than the water that is used. Another resident asked why lead testing is done infrequently. Briggs said the lead and copper testing schedules are mandated by the state. He said if test results were in exceedance of state and federal standards, more frequent testing would be required.

West Bennett Street resident Cheryl Plouffe said she believes her home was built in 1957. She thinks the water line from the city to her home is the original one.

"When the city flushes lines, should I anticipate iron coming into my home?" Plouffe asked. 

She said she didn't notice extra water content in the system until this spring or summer.

"What has changed for that iron content to go up so much higher?" she asked.

Sirls said there was a hydrant flow test near West Bennett Street early this summer, which he said "was probably terrible to do without notification." Briggs said the original water service line could still be galvanized and that it will deteriorate over time. He said one of the reasons phosphates are added to the water is to prevent corrosion of the lines.

"If it's a galvanized line, as it ages, it's just going to get worse," Briggs said.

Bassett Drive resident Marie Baldwin said there has been a lot of brown water and main breaks in her area this year. She asked about plans to replace lines in her neighborhood. Sirls said he doesn't have plans beyond what was announced at the meeting.

O'Toole said the city's capital improvement plan covers the next five years and that Bassett Drive is not currently on the plan. She said with a major upheaval in staff, she anticipates major changes in the capital improvement plan over the upcoming year.

One resident asked if the city planned to create a dashboard of water test results. There did not appear to be any dashboard in the works. However, the city's water quality/wastewater ad hoc committee does report a scorecard to city council in the second agenda of the month.

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