For 72 hours earlier this month, residents in Toledo, Ohio were told not to use the city’s water because of toxic algae bloom. It’s a story that gave many a renewed appreciation for being able to turn on a faucet and drink what comes out.
In Warren County, Bowling Green Municipal Utilities is in charge of the treating the water and delivering it to the community.
Doug Kimbler, superintendent of treatment plants, took us on a tour last week so we could get a better idea of what actually goes into the process. We started by overlooking the source: the Barren River on the east side of downtown. Then, we briefly stepped inside.
“We have two pumps actually running in here right now, it’s fairly hot day for Bowling Green. We’ll probably produce somewhere between 21 and 22 million gallons of water between Bowling Green and Warren County for the day,” said Kimbler above the din of the pumps.
The pumps bring in the water and any large objects are removed. Back outside, we walk up a stair case to a series of outdoor tanks, where anti-oxidants can remove organics like algae bloom.
“Mostly what we have here is naturally occurring,” said Kimbler. “We’re very fortunate to not be in a situation such as Charleston, West Virginia where [they] have chemical plants up stream. We really don’t have a lot of industry up there, so we do see organic runoff from farms, but that’s about it, and it makes for a much more easily treated water source.”
The next step in the water treatment process takes us back indoors, inside an ornate building brick building from 1928 with wrought iron handrails and terrazzo floors. We pass a display of the equipment that at one time was used to monitor Bowling Green’s water supply.
“This equipment was last used in February of 1975. We actually have a date on it. It reached its end of life at that time. This panel, which is about 5x5, has been replaced by one computer screen that does a hundred times more work that this panel would ever have done,” said Kimbler.
Before we reach that computer screen, we see the next step in the treatment process.
“We’re continuing into the filter gallery. The filtration takes the water that we’ve treated in the sedimentation basin and runs it through a layer of anthracite coal. And this acts just as it’s described – as a filter to remove any floating particles that are left.”
Past the filter gallery and into the next room comes the high-tech part. A series of computer monitors and a big flat screen in the middle, a colorful representation of BGMU’s entire system.
“With this monitor we can see what’s happening in our treatment plant," said Kimbler. "We have a schematic that simulates what’s happening out there with different readings. It shows us the flow rates that’s going through the plant, the turbidity levels in the plant and the amount of chemical in the plant that’s being fed in at any one time as well as the flow rate going out of the plant.”
A few feet from the computer monitors, there’s a large sink sitting below a half-dozen faucets. Kimbler says it’s a way to test the water at several different stages of the process. Kimbler says they conduct about 1.2 million tests per year.
At BGMU’s downtown headquarters, we spoke to Water Systems manager Mike Gardner . He’s been there for 13 years and says algae bloom are nothing new.
“The problem has really come to light here more recently because, frankly, the [Army] Corps of Engineers started sampling for it and looking at it. It’s not necessarily a new problem at all,” said Gardner.
The Army Corps of Engineers have issued several advisories this summer for several Kentucky lakes, including Barren River Lake. The advisories come when concentrations of toxins in algae bloom rise above a certain level. John Brumley, an environmental scientist with the Kentucky Department of Water says those levels are much smaller than what was seen in Ohio.
“We’re talking amplitude of 10-times more than what we normally see around lakes around Kentucky,” said Brumley.
Back at the treatment plant, Doug Kimbler says any time there’s an incident, like the toxic algae bloom in Toledo or January’s chemical spill in West Virginia, his crew comes together to analyze what happened.
“It just brings it home to us, that even though these operators at these water plants are doing the best they can, sometimes they’re overwhelmed by external events and we want to make sure they keep that in mind at all times,” said Kimbler.
Sometimes, he says, there’s no way to control those external factors, but with constant testing and evolving technology, they can try to minimize the risk as much as possible.