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Could the water issue in Flint happen in my system?

June 29, 2016

By Dr. Delvin DeBoer, PE, AE2S Special Projects Engineer

The drinking water quality issues in Flint, Michigan have drawn the attention of the national news media. According to the City of Flint 2014 Annual Water Quality Report, in May 2014 the City began distributing Flint River water treated at the Flint water treatment facility. Prior to that time, Flint distributed treated water received from the City of Detroit, and decided to switch to the Flint River treated water for economic reasons. The Flint River was to be a temporary water source, since the City of Flint was to obtain Lake Huron raw water from a pipeline being constructed by the Karegnondi Water Authority, scheduled to be completed late 2016.

During the summer of 2014, customers in some areas of the city experienced “rusty” water, likely released from cast iron pipe degradation in the distribution system. The City also experienced total coliform and E. coli violations in August and September 2014, and a total trihalomethane violation in December 2014. In response, the City moved to decrease water age in the distribution system, optimized the ozone treatment process, and installed granular activated carbon in the filters at the water treatment plant.

The issue that sparked the recent national media attention was elevated blood lead levels found in children by a study by the Hurley Medical Center in Flint. Subsequently, a research team headed by Dr. Marc Edwards, an engineering professor from Virginia Tech and expert in lead and copper corrosion, found elevated lead levels in water samples collected from Flint households. Further studies by Dr. Edwards’ team found that the Flint River treated water was more corrosive than the Detroit water. News accounts and professional reports generally agree that changing water sources caused a substantial change in water quality in the Flint distribution system. Dr. Edwards’ group linked high chloride levels relative to sulfate in the Flint River treated water to its increased corrosivity relative to the Detroit treated water.

Additionally, the Detroit water contained an orthophosphate corrosion inhibitor, whereas the Flint River treated water did not. These water quality differences likely increased iron release from cast iron piping and lead from customer service lines and premise plumbing. To mitigate the corrosion issue, Flint switched its water supply back to Detroit treated water in October 2015, and began dosing additional orthophosphate to the water to inhibit lead corrosion.

This incident should draw the attention of public water supply professionals. A likely question might be “Could something like this happen in my water supply system?” Perhaps more to the point, “What water quality changes could occur in my system that might cause issues with my customers?” Potential water quality issues might be revealed to customers through a change in taste, odor or color, or may not be sensed by the physical appearance of tap water.

Water quality factors that can affect corrosivity toward iron, lead and copper include temperature, pH, disinfectant types and concentrations, the concentrations of various anions such as chloride, sulfate and bicarbonate, and corrosion inhibitor concentrations. Whenever the values of these parameters change substantially in a distribution system, the water may become more or less aggressive to metals. It is not unusual for untreated ground water in the upper Midwest to be corrosive. Most water systems with corrosive ground water have addressed that issue in response to compliance with the Lead and Copper Rule, most commonly by pH adjustment or by treatment with a corrosion inhibiting phosphate chemical. Systems using corrosion inhibitors must be careful to provide a consistent residual of the corrosion inhibiting chemical, since inhibitor concentration changes or loss of the inhibitor concentration could activate the metal surfaces to corrosion.

The quality of surface water sources varies more widely than ground water. For example, surface water temperatures in the upper Midwest can vary from close to freezing to 25 degrees C. This change in temperature impacts chlorine decay in the distribution system, with potential influence on the corrosion process. Temperature changes also can affect the active concentrations of phosphate chemicals, especially the reversion of polyphosphate to orthophosphate that occurs if polyphosphate or blended poly/orthophosphate chemicals are applied. As illustrated by the Flint experience, if a system anticipates switching to a new supply (or considers blending water from multiple sources), the potential exists for a change in corrosivity or the release of deposits that coat metal components, and an evaluation of this change is warranted. Changing forms of disinfectant (free chlorine versus chloramine) can also affect corrosivity. These source water or disinfectant changes will frequently trigger attention to the Lead and Copper Rule sampling requirements, especially if the system has been on reduced monitoring.

The Flint experience also alerts the water supply industry to the presence of corrodible metals, (such as iron, lead or copper) in water distribution systems and premise plumbing. Even though systems may have an effective corrosion control program that minimizes the risk of exposure to the customer and complies with the Lead and Copper Rule, asset management initiatives should consider the benefits of removing, replacing or lining (where appropriate) corrodible metals to mitigate the potential risk of metals release. Perhaps the direct implementation of this idea is to complete a lead service line replacement program or a cast iron pipe lining or replacement project.

Finally, the Flint experience raises the importance of protecting water quality in the distribution system. Beyond appropriate treatment at the water treatment facility, cross-connection control, flushing programs, preventing stratification in water towers, and maintaining appropriate chlorine residuals are among the tools that public water supply systems employ to ensure water quality is maintained in the water distribution system. If you have questions about water quality, your distribution system, or the Lead and Copper rule, please contact Dr. DeBoer at

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