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Energy & Environment

Water Chief Talks Up Charlotte's Drinking Water Quality

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CharlotteNC.gov
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Charlotte Water director Barry Gullet addressed the Charlotte City Council Monday.

Ever since lead contamination in Flint, Michigan’s water began grabbing headlines, people have started wondering about their own tap water.  Water systems around the country have tried to reassure customers it’s safe.  

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Here in Mecklenburg County, Charlotte Water is increasing testing and adjusting water treatment as it responds to concerns about water quality.

Barry Gullet is the head of Charlotte Water, which supplies 834,000 customers around Mecklenburg County. He’s been hearing worries, too.

“We have great water here in Charlotte,” Gullet told the Charlotte City Council Monday. “All this negative publicity, though, is causing me a lot of concern about our customer confidence in that water.”

So Gullet has been making the case for Charlotte Water, in presentations to the Mecklenburg County Commission, town boards, and this week, Charlotte City Council. He says the utility is putting more water-quality information on its website, adjusting water treatment, and expanding testing.

“We’re doing some things in Charlotte Water to try to get out in front of that and make our customers understand a little bit more about why their water is safe and to help them feel comfortable with it,” he said.

In his presentations, Gullet is talking about what happened in Michigan - and why it can’t happen here.

When Flint changed its water source, the chemical makeup of the new supply corroded old lead pipes, which contaminated the water.

“Lead dissolves in water when there’s not a corrosion control process in place. We have a control process in place here, and it works quite well,” he said.

There’s another major difference between Flint and Charlotte: Thousands of houses in Flint are served through lead pipes. Not so in Charlotte Water’s 4,000 miles of lines.

“I can’t say there are no lead pipes in Charlotte. We believe there are very few lead pipes in Charlotte. Last year, we documented four,” Gullet said.

When Charlotte Water finds them, they’re replaced, as are other old pipes found during routine maintenance.  Most of the pipes have been what are called goosenecks - flexible sections of lead pipe installed in the 1920s that connect each house to the water main.

Lead pipes and old pipes aren’t really an issue in Charlotte - about 60 percent of houses in the county were built after 1990. But this year, Charlotte Water will increase testing for lead and copper in tap water, a spokeswoman said this week.

Charlotte Water is planning other adjustments as well. On Monday, the City Council approved plans to spend $851,000 on new equipment to adjust the water’s pH. That would continue to fight corrosion, while also preventing issues like one that cropped up last summer.

In August 2015, a chemical Duke Energy was using to treat coal at its Catawba River power plants showed up in the water supply. In the warm weather, it reacted with chlorine, which is used to disinfect water. That created a “disinfection byproduct” called trihalomethane, or THM -  which raised red flags.

Charlotte’s water remained safe, but officials scrambled to fix the problem. Duke eliminated the chemical it was using. Charlotte Water flushed the system and stepped up plans to adjust water treatment.

“As our system continues to grow, reaches farther out into the county, and we install larger pipes, the time water spends in the pipes gets longer and longer so we have to manage that, because that gives the opportunity to create more of these disinfection byproducts. So we looked at ways we can help offset that with our treatment process.”  

The new process is in testing and could be introduced in late 2017.  

Meanwhile, Gullet also wants to make water quality data easier to find. Federal law requires annual water quality reports. The 2014 report is on Charlotte Water’s website now, and the 2015 report is due in late May. But he says once a year isn’t enough. Gullet and his staff now are putting more on the web, from blog posts to test results.

Gullet also faces another challenge, which he discovered at recent community meetings:

“I have been surprised at how many folks have said, ‘I don’t drink the water.’ And so I ask them why. And a lot of the response that I get is, ‘Well, where I’m from, we just never drank the water,’” Gullet said.  “And so I want to get the message out that the water here in Charlotte is great and it’s good water and you should drink it.”

You can do your homework at CharlotteWater.org

RELATED LINKS

Drinking Water Monitoring Data on Charlotte Water's website

Jan. 8, 2016, Charlotte Water blog, "Do you trust us to deliver you clean and safe drinking water?"