Berks Vital Signs

Water, water, everywhere, but is it safe to drink?

Part III

Aging infrastructure and changing regulations challenge local water systems

This part of the series contains four articles below:

  1. Aging infrastructure and changing regulations challenge local water systems.
  2. Community water systems versus private wells.
  3. About one-third of Berks residents have fluoridated water.
  4. RAWA to replace lead water lines in homes.

 

Aging infrastructure and changing regulations challenge local water systems

By Anthony Orozco
Journalist for Berks Vital Signs

November 4, 2019 – A hiker in French Creek State Park takes a swig from her canteen as she continues down a trail. A father boils water for pasta as his kid gets ready to jump into the shower after soccer practice.

Without a second thought, the people of Berks County expect safe, clean water to come pouring out of their faucets when they want it. But providing such a basic necessity requires a massive amount of work, technology and effort.

network of private, municipal and nonprofit entities are working individually and, more and more, collectively to ensure that need can be met. But aging infrastructure, a constant onslaught of potential contaminants, and other challenges threaten this vital resource.

“Aging infrastructure and the changing regulatory environment are some big issues,” said Leonard “Chip” Bilger II, executive director of the Western Berks Water Authority.


“Water Cycle Mural” created by students from Gov. Mifflin and Wyomissing High Schools, Western Berks Water facility

 

Thousands of miles of underground decades-old water mains and sewer lines stretch under Berks. Heavy use and annual freezes and thaws causes wear and tear.

“We need to make sure what needs to get fixed gets fixed; We need to make sure we are upgrading systems as necessary,” said Shannon Rossman, executive director of the Berks County Planning Commission.

Bilger said a community’s water system capacity and sewer system capacity may not mirror one another and can cause a number of logistical and physical problems. Water and sewer authorities are often separate entities but the Berks County Water and Sewer Association aims to bridge that gap, making sure coupled systems are on the same page or at least have clear lines of communication and planning with one another.

The county is also looking at expanding water services throughout the county, according to its draft 2030 comprehensive plan.

Adding development to Berks and expanding systems does not currently appear to be a logistical problem, as long as those developments are near existing infrastructure, Rossman said.

Beyond the physical machinery of water systems, meeting new and evolving water regulations is a hurdle for suppliers.

Recently implemented or updated regulations such as the Revised Total Coliform RuleDisinfection Requirements Rule and the Uninterrupted Service Plan mandate has caused some headaches for some community water systems, according to Bilger.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed updates to the 1972 Clean Water Act in August, which could also mean more testing and more rigorous standards for water that will inevitably mean more work for water authorities.

“The new regulations are difficult for all of us and very difficult for the smaller suppliers,” Bilger said.

He noted that only emphasizes the need for suppliers, conservation groups and the general public to be mindful of protecting local water.

“We’re okay with that; we support protecting public health,” Bilger said of more stringent testing. “But if we have better water coming into the (water treatment) plant, the easier it is to work with and to pass those tests.”

 

Community water systems versus private wells

By Anthony Orozco
Journalist for Berks Vital Signs

There are nearly 80 community water systems in or near Berks County, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). These range in size from Reading Area Water Authority’s 87,000 customers to 30 customers in the Miller Mobile Home Park near Boyertown.

More than 250,000 people in Berks rely on community water systems.

Leonard “Chip” Bilger II, executive director of the Western Berks Water Authority, estimated that large water systems like Western Berks and the Reading Area Water Authority have a combined 10 million gallons of water to spare on any given day.

Berks does not appear to be in any threat of a water shortage, at least for the time being, according to water suppliers, state and local officials.


Blue Marsh Dam

The Western Berks Water Authority draws its water from an intake along the Tulpehocken Creek downstream of the Blue Marsh Dam. The watershed comprises approximately 175 square miles of agricultural, wooded and suburban areas. The watershed extends north to the southern slope of the Blue Mountains beyond Strausstown and Shartelsville and west to the Myerstown area.

 

But a substantial number of Berks residents, between 30 and 40 percent, get their water from wells, according to various state and local organizations.

That estimate is more than twice the national average of 13 percent, an estimated 43 million people, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

Drawing potable water from the ground is a centuries-old tradition in Berks but private wells are just as susceptible to contamination as any other water system. Beyond the occasional strong smell of sulfur sometimes associated with well water, bacteria, heavy metals and waterborne illnesses are potential serious problems for well water. It is incumbent on well owners to regularly test their water supply.

The state mandates that on-lot septic tanks be cleaned once every three years, something that irked Cumru township residents in recent years. The mandate’s purpose is to protect groundwater.

An especially wet year has kept groundwater levels near record highs, though Berks’ official observation well has to reach deeper to hit water than any other county observation well in the state.


Photo courtesy U.S. Geological Survey: Berks County observation well — Wesner Road, Blandon

 

About one-third of Berks residents have fluoridated water

By Anthony Orozco
Journalist for Berks Vital Signs

The inorganic compound fluoride has been added to community water systems in the U.S. for decades as a means of public oral healthcare.

According to the CDC, of the 80 or so water systems in Berks, 10 are fluoridated:

  • Bern Township Municipal Authority
  • Fleetwood Borough Water System
  • Maidencreek Township Water Authority
  • Mount Penn Borough Municipal Authority
  • Ontelaunee Township Municipal Authority
  • Reading Area Water Authority
  • Shillington Municipal Authority
  • West Reading Borough Water
  • Western Berks Water Authority
  • Wyomissing Water Authority

Combined, those water systems serve more than 152,600 people, around 36 percent of the county’s population. Some people in Berks even give their children fluoride supplements in lieu of access to fluoridated tap water.

Fluoride is regulated in community water systems and according to the CDC, fluoridated water can help reduce the risk of cavities by 25 percent. Around 75 percent of Americans have fluoridated water, according to the CDC.

While some households and groups oppose the uninhibited consumption of an un-prescribed chemical, the levels of fluoride added to community water systems is not considered high enough to cause any adverse health effects. There is no scientifically valid evidence to show that fluoride causes cancer, kidney disease, or other disorders.

A 2016 Berks County Community Foundation survey found children in Reading were more likely than their peers around Berks to choose bottled water over tap water. The survey found nearly 79 percent of Reading children drink bottled water rather than tap, whereas 46 percent of children in Berks overall do the same.

There is a cultural component to the concerns over tap water, according to the survey.

A lot of people don’t drink tap water because they grew up in a region where the tap water wasn’t safe, the survey found.

 

 

RAWA to replace lead water lines in homes

By Anthony Orozco
Journalist for Berks Vital Signs

In September, Reading Area Water Authority executive director Bill Murray received preliminary approval from the authority board to create a new program to replace some water service lines that contain lead. The lines connect two dozen Reading residences to water mains, according to Murray.

“Every three years, we do lead testing and reporting,” Murray said. “Three years ago when we did the last one, we looked for lead service lines and didn’t find anything. But we recently found some.”

Murray said replacing a service line can cost between $3,000 and $6,000, depending on the length from the house to the water main.

The pilot program aims to show how the authority can replace these lines.

“People just have to call us up and we’ll get it done,” Murray said.

To inquire about the program, contact RAWA at 610-406-6300 or info@readingareawater.com.

 

Click here for the home page of this series about water.