For 25 years, Brad Harp has kept close tabs on the purity of the drinking water supplied by Tacoma and 1,500 other public water systems in Pierce County.
And yes, there really are that many to track, from neighbors who share a well to the 316,000 people who drink what Tacoma Water pipes in.
Harp, the program manager for water resources at the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department, monitors the supply and quality of drinking water across an assortment of social and geologic situations.
This requires him to be adept at helping handle water troubles including arsenic infiltration in the east, seawater in wells on the Kitsap Peninsula and lead-leaching connections in old Tacoma neighborhoods.
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Over a cold glass of tap water one March morning, Harp discussed the challenges of his job.
Q:What are some of the differences folks have with their water supply between living in Tacoma and living elsewhere in the county?
A:You have Tacoma water, which is huge.
It serves, like, 300,000 people. It serves water all the way up to Covington and out to South Hill, even outside the city of Tacoma because they have contracts with other entities that get their water.
And then you go all the way down to public water systems, which maybe just serve yourself and your neighbor. Anytime you cross a property line, you serve water to somebody else, you become a public water system. …
The biggest problem that we run into at smaller water systems is financial viability. They don’t have enough money to operate their system. That would be to replace a new pump in a well, or fix some pipe that breaks or leaks somewhere out in their system, or even to take water quality samples on a regular basis. Just getting them to figure out the cost of running their system and how they collect money is huge.
Q: What are some of the different concerns that folks in different parts of the county might have about their water sources?
A: Down by Eatonville, the water sometimes has arsenic in it. The geology dictates the water quality you get.
In Gig Harbor, certain areas have seawater intrusion problems, and you literally can’t drill a well there because the water quality is such that there’s so much saltwater, brackish water.
There are some areas where you have to drill pretty deep and you spend a lot of money. Up in the Bonney Lake area, up on the plateau, you’re probably drilling a well that’s maybe 200 or 300 feet to be safe to get water. Whereas if you’re in the Parkland area you can probably drill 50 feet and get plenty of water.
On the other hand, if you’re in the Bonney Lake area and you’re drilling a deep well, you’re probably looking at iron and manganese in your water quality. In Parkland, you have to worry about what people put on their lawns and a failing septic system because the water is so shallow it can be impacted much more quickly than if you have a deep well. So, again, it’s geology-dependent.
Wells are fairly expensive to put in. You’re probably paying $40 to $45 a foot just to drive the casing in the ground and put a pump there.
Q: You’ve said Tacoma’s water supply, between its wells and the water at the Howard Hanson Dam, is plenty ample. So why did folks stop watering their yards during the summer droughts?
A: Conservation is always a good thing. You don’t want to waste water, because you don’t know what’s going to come down the path in the next week.
We could have an earthquake and Tacoma Water loses all its well water capacity. The casings break or the water table fluctuates. When we had the Nisqually earthquake in 2001, the water in the well that served the Orting Soldiers Home dropped about 20 feet because of that earthquake. They were one of the ones that were sucking air in their well.
You don’t want to be cavalier about your use of water. You want to make sure that people are aware that conservation is a good thing. You never know what’s going to happen.
A:What was the Health Department’s role in addressing concerns that old gooseneck connections were putting lead into Tacoma water?
A: There really isn’t any lead in Tacoma’s water.
It was the way they handled the lead issue. They jostled the pipes where all those lead goosenecks were, and then all the scale that was attached to those goosenecks over the years dislodged and went into the water supply of those particular houses. When they took the water quality test, it got all that scale and stuff.
Well, that normally doesn’t happen. I’m not aware of any water system in Pierce County that has a lead problem from supply issues. …
Because of Flint (Michigan), it’s in people’s minds. We were highly aware that we needed to be real careful about what we said and how we said it to make sure people could understand what was actually going on, versus the actual (absence of) lead in the water supply. I know we were getting calls all the way back from New York about what was going on, from the media, because, of course, Flint.
The best thing that came out of that was, one, what’s the process for taking water quality samples and how do you communicate that to your customers about when it is you’re doing and what it is you’re doing. The other good thing that came out of that was how we worked together as a public health agency and the water systems on how we deal with issues like this.
Q: As a homeowner, how would I know if something was off in my water?
A: If you’re on a larger water system, you should be getting something in the mail every year. It’s called a consumer confidence report.
Bigger water systems are supposed to mail that out to every one of their users. It gives them an annual update on what water quality is, what they’ve found through the year, if there’s any kind of abnormalities, what they did to address that. It tells you the chemicals they’re testing for, that are required, and what some of those results were.
Anytime a person is interested in water quality, they should just call their water purveyor and say, ‘Hey, I notice that’ — hypothetically — ‘there’s a funny smell’ or ‘my water’s discolored,’ or ‘I’m not getting any water.’ They should feel free to ask.
Q: Obviously, there are things in my water, like chlorine, that I’m going to smell that aren’t bad, correct?
A: We like chlorine in water. Chlorine is probably the most widely used disinfectant in the nation right now. It works great.
The good thing about chlorine, it disinfects in the pipes too. It’s not just a one-shot disinfectant. It stays in the pipe and keeps disinfecting. …
Most people after they drink their water for a number of years, you can smell the difference if something changes. It’s like driving your car. You can tell if there’s all of a sudden there’s a little rattle that isn’t right. You’re tuned in. I would definitely call the water purveyors and ask what’s going on.
Q: In your house, do you filter your tap water?
A: No. I live in North Tacoma, right in the Proctor District. I do let my water run, just as a matter of course, when I get up in the morning.
I’ll let it run for 30 seconds just to clear the lines. My house is a 1909 construction, but we recommend that for everybody.
If water sits in the pipes long enough, the oxygen leaves and you get kind of a stale taste. If anything comes out of my home pipes that’s in the water lines, then it gets a chance to get out. So no, I don’t use a water filter.
People think that water’s just H20. That just doesn’t occur naturally on the earth. There’s stuff in there. There are all sorts of minerals and stuff in there. …
I think some people think that the naturally occurring stuff in your water isn’t a good thing. Well, it naturally occurs, some stuff, in your water that we’ve been drinking for hundreds of thousands of years and we’re fine.
I personally don’t see a need for a water filter at all.