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State orders Fircrest to chlorinate water by March

Fircrest Public Works employee Tim Piercy collects a monthly water sample Wednesday from one of seven sample collection stations by Fircrest Park in Fircrest. The city has to add chlorine to its water after it had four hits of coliform in the tests over a 12-month. The total coliform is not a major public health risk, but the tests mean there is a potential for more serious bacteria to enter the water source.
Fircrest Public Works employee Tim Piercy collects a monthly water sample Wednesday from one of seven sample collection stations by Fircrest Park in Fircrest. The city has to add chlorine to its water after it had four hits of coliform in the tests over a 12-month. The total coliform is not a major public health risk, but the tests mean there is a potential for more serious bacteria to enter the water source. lwong@thenewstribune.com

By early next year, chlorine will be a regular addition to the city of Fircrest’s water supply after coliform bacteria were found in multiple samples.

While chlorinated water is the norm in neighboring Tacoma, Lakewood and University Place, news that the disinfectant was needed in the suburban city of 6,500 residents didn’t go over well recently with its elected leaders.

“Our quality of water is a rarity,” Councilman Matthew Jolibois said at a Dec. 8 City Council meeting.

He and others on the council were reluctant to agree to the addition of chlorine to the city-managed water system, but they had little choice.

After four failed water quality tests, the state Department of Health notified the city it must add chlorine by this spring or face consequences that include “red tagging” the system. If that happens, businesses with Health Department permits could be forced to shut down.

“Whoever has food-service establishments in the water service area would have been told their permit was pulled,” said Brad Harp, manager of the water resources program for the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department.

The city planned to notify residents this week about the chlorination and plans to hold public meetings.

From what we’ve been able to see so far, the city’s done everything they can to try to identify the sources of the problem and they haven’t been able to nail it down.

John Ryding, state Department of Health regional engineer for water systems

The mandate likely will be unpopular among some folks in Fircrest, a city that prides itself on its drinking water and whose most visible symbol to outsiders is its water tower.

People take the purity of their water seriously here. Last year, a group of residents petitioned the council to stop adding fluoride; the council ultimately voted to continue with fluoridation. And Fircrest is one of only two large water systems in Pierce County that don’t currently have regular chlorination.

There is no immediate health risk from the total coliform in the water, officials say, but its presence could signal problems in the future.

The bacteria were found in the city’s water on four separate occasions over a 12-month period. State law requires action be taken if there are four water-quality violations in 12 months.

Fircrest added chlorine and flushed the system to kill the bacteria after the failed tests, but it can’t pinpoint how the coliform entered the water supply, Fircrest Public Works Director Jerry Wakefield said.

The city has approximately 2,800 connections to serve residents, and relies on underground aquifers to fill its five active wells.

These deep wells are the reason for the city’s good water quality, Wakefield said.

“When you look at the chemical makeup of the water and the bacterial makeup of the water we pull from the ground, that raw water is below all of the maximum contaminant levels for what we test for in water,” Wakefield said.

“It’s a natural resource. We don’t have anything in the raw water that requires us to add anything.”

The city’s water is tested monthly as required by state law. Results are shared with the state Health Department, which regulates water quality.

Water is tested for three bacteria: total coliform, fecal coliform and E. coli.

Total coliform bacteria are common in the environment (soil or vegetation) and are generally harmless, according to the state Department of Health. The other bacteria have a greater public health risk.

However, the presence of total coliform in Fircrest’s water supply indicates that dirt or other vegetation is entering the system, and that is a concern, said John Ryding, state Department of Health regional engineer for water systems.

“From what we’ve been able to see so far, the city’s done everything they can to try to identify the sources of the problem and they haven’t been able to nail it down,” Ryding said.

Chlorine is by far the most typical disinfectant that is used across the nation.

Brad Harp, water resources program manager, Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department

In regard to chlorination, he said: “I can understand that people might be sensitive to the taste and to the odor, but we are trying to protect the water from the microbiological problems that it has been having. This is a protective barrier to protect the health of the users of the water system.”

The state Health Department regulates approximately 380 water systems in Pierce County, ranging from large municipal-run systems to small-scale homeowner association systems.

Fircrest and Mt. View-Edgewood Water Co. are the only large-scale water providers that don’t add chlorine to the water, Ryding said.

“Chlorine is by far the most typical disinfectant that is used across the nation,” Harp said. “It’s an easy one to enter into the system, and it keeps treating the water while it is in the pipes.”

Fircrest hasn’t determined yet how it will add chlorine, but officials say it will be a carefully calibrated dosage. The state has set a March deadline.

The city already uses chlorine to flush its system when bacteria are present. It most recently did so in November.

Once the city starts adding it on a regular basis, it’s not likely to stop, according to health officials.

“The city of Fircrest has been very fortunate over the years that they’ve had this high level quality of water,” Wakefield said.

Chlorine won’t change that, he said.

Brynn Grimley: 253-597-8467, @bgrimley

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