Turn on a faucet and like magic, water appears.

At least, for many people, that might be as far as they think about where the water they use comes from.

But recent incidents, such as lead contamination in Flint, Michigan, have caused many to take greater interest in what happens to their water before it ever reaches their home.

Brown County has 5,926 households, according to a U.S. Census estimate.

Brown County Water Utility, with 4,131 non-municipal customers in the county, is the largest direct water supplier.

The second largest distributors are Nashville Utilities and Cordry-Sweetwater Conservancy District. Both redistribute water processed by other utilities.

Nashville supplies 1,311 customers with water from BCWU, and Cordry supplies 1,340 customers with water from Prince’s Lakes Department of Water Works.

Southwestern Bartholomew Water Corp. and East Monroe Water Corp. supply customers off State Road 46.

Monroe serves fewer than 300 meters in Brown County, board officer Jeff Cook said.

Southwest Bartholomew has 454 Brown County customers, office manager Kathy Ford said.

Some residents may use wells instead. The Indiana Department of Natural Resources Division of Water’s records, which date to the 1950s, show 492 wells in the county, though they do not show how many are still in use.

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Getting the lead out

One of the greatest water concerns raised nationally in recent months has been lead contamination.According to the National Institutes of Health, lead is toxic to nearly every human organ but primarily affects the central nervous system: the brain and spine.

The effects are most pronounced in a developing nervous system, so children are at the greatest risk.

All water utilities are required to take samples every three years from random customers to test for heavy metals such as lead.

Since sampling by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency began in 1991, samples taken from random Brown County Water Utility customers’ faucets have never exceeded the federal limit of 15 parts per billion.

In fact, none of the water utilities with Brown County customers have ever exceeded the 15 ppb limit since sampling began.

The most recent sampling period that ended in 2014 showed 3.5 ppb for BCWU.

The town’s most recent sampling showed 5.5 ppb.

East Monroe and Southwest Bartholomew showed 1 ppb and 1.5 ppb, respectively, in their most recent tests.

At 0.5 ppb, Cordry-Sweetwater had the lowest measure of area water systems in recent tests.

Darrell Baker, the operations and field service manager for BCWU, said the greatest risk for lead contamination comes from old plumbing in a home or facility rather than from the water distribution system itself.

That fact, according to the EPA, led to residential plumbing parts being included in the 1986 ban by Congress on the use of lead in public water systems.

One advantage for the Brown County Utility is that its infrastructure is fairly young, said administrative manager Ellen Masteller. BCWU began service in 1964.

The only portions of the water distribution system in Brown County that still hold any lead are the bases on some water meters, Masteller said. As BCWU’s meter replacement program progresses, those will gradually be phased out.

Nashville utility coordinator Sean Cassiday said there are no lead pipes in the town’s distribution system. Most of the water is conveyed through iron ductile and PVC pipes.

As town customers’ meters are replaced, what little lead is left in the system will be removed as well, Cassiday said.

Josh Hawley, the maintenance supervisor at Cordry-Sweetwater, said that once their 3.5-mile concrete supply line is replaced, their entire water distribution system will be PVC pipe. And if all goes as he plans, all of the meters in the conservancy district could be replaced by July 2017.

Further up and further in

Where does the water actually come from?

Most of Brown County’s water comes from a well in Morgan County, about three-quarters of a mile from BCWU’s water treatment plant, said Justin Hawley, the plant operator.

The utility also has three smaller wells on the property that were used by the original plant, he said. They keep those in working order but do not currently pull from them, as that can interfere with water access on neighboring properties.

From the well, the raw water is pumped into the plant and up through a large, cone-shaped vat filled with silica sand.

First, the water is treated with sodium hydroxide, which raises the PH, making the water more basic and allowing minerals to settle out.

As the water is forced through the sand in the vat, in a motion resembling a cyclone, the minerals leave the water and collect on the silica sand, Justin Hawley said.

That step of the process is part science and part art, he said.

Since he came to work for BCWU five years ago, Justin Hawley has fine-tuned the various elements of the softening process to ensure maximum mineral removal with minimal waste of sand.

After the softening, the water is brought back to a neutral PH with carbon dioxide and passed through a filtration system.

At this stage, chlorine is added in order to assist in the removal of excess ammonia present in the aquifer the utility’s well pulls from, he said.

The filters are composed of five beds of different grades of gravel, a bed of sand and a bed of anthracite — a high-purity coal that functions much like charcoal filters in household applications.

In addition to stripping out flavors and odors, the anthracite also removes remaining iron and manganese, Justin Hawley said.

After the filtering, chlorine is added again to maintain the sterility of the water as it travels to the far-flung corners of the county, he said. The addition is a carefully measured process, as the utility is subject to Indiana Department of Environmental Management guidelines that set both a minimum and maximum chlorine content.

In addition to the water from their well, BCWU also supplements the supply with water from Citizen’s Water in Indianapolis and Jackson County Water Utility, Masteller said.

That water is not re-processed by BCWU, but it is tested daily for chlorine levels at the entry points to the system, Baker said.

Like the water BCWU produces, the water coming from other systems has to be within the acceptable range set by IDEM, Justin Hawley said.

Big responsibility

In addition to being a Brown County resident who drinks the water he processes, Justin Hawley also is constantly aware of how many people his decisions at the plant affect.“It’s kind of stressful,” he admitted.

He remembers a time shortly after the new plant opened in 2012 that the water came out tinted. As calls came in, Justin Hawley said it really hit home how many people were affected by the discoloration.

“I didn’t like it,” he said. “From that point on, I’ve always tried to make sure that, if it’s coming out of here, I’ll stake my name on it.”

How can I be sure?

What if water tastes funny or looks funny, or a resident just wants to be certain it’s safe?

Residents can contact the Brown County Health Department with their concerns, whether they are public utility customers or get their water from a well.

Or they can get the water tested for themselves.

Element Materials Technology in Columbus does all the laboratory testing for BCWU, and the Brown County Health Department sends private samples there as well.

Michelle Gernentz, an administrative assistant at Element, said that the most popular test requested for private well water is for bacteria. However, the company also offers tests for heavy metals such as copper and lead, as well as for nitrates, arsenic and other contaminants.

Prices vary depending on the test conducted, but an E.coli test runs $50 and tests for individual heavy metals are $25, she said. The company often offers discounted rates if water is being tested for multiple contaminants.

The Indiana State Department of Health’s laboratory also will test submitted samples for the levels of some chemicals and bacteria. Currently, those include coliform bacteria, nitrate-nitrite and flouride levels.

Testing kits can be obtained directly from the ISDH at in.gov/isdh/20408.htm or by calling 317-921-5874. Each kit for each test costs $10, in addition to a $6.50 shipping and handling fee for the entire order, regardless the number of kits.

Amanda Turney, deputy director of the ISDH Office of Public Affairs, said the department is working on a process by which individuals can submit samples to be tested for arsenic, lead and copper as well.

The Brown County Soil and Water Conservation District offers water testing kits from Environmental Laboratories, said District Manager Allison Rubeck. The kits start at $25 plus shipping for a bacteria test and range to $99, including ph tests and heavy metal test kits.

Residents can pick up kits from the conservation district’s office at 802 Memorial Drive from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday through Friday.

Author photo
Ben Kibbey is a Brown County transplant from the cornfields of central Ohio. He covers county government, business, outdoors, sports and general news.