By JOY BROWN
Toledo’s water crisis has prompted the inevitable question: What if it happened here? What if Findlay’s water was in some way compromised, either by algae or sabotage? Are there plans in place to minimize the fallout?
“I don’t think any of us in the region would’ve been prepared for several days of no access to our own system’s potable water,” Mayor Lydia Mihalik said Monday.
But city and county officials said a number of steps are taken to avoid contamination when collecting Findlay’s water. They also said the city’s water storage, distribution and treatment methods make such a crisis unlikely.
Water Superintendent Jeff Newcomer on Monday said there is algae in the city’s two upground reservoirs, which combined hold about 6.5 billion gallons of untreated water. The water is pumped into the reservoirs from the Blanchard River. Rainwater adds to the supply.
Water treatment workers regularly conduct visual inspections of reservoir algae using a black-and-white disk that helps determine clarity levels.
However, Newcomer said testing has never confirmed detectable levels of microcystin, the toxin that contaminated Toledo’s water this past weekend. Part of the reason for that is the city’s quick response to occasional algae blooms in Reservoirs 1 and 2.
Just last week, for instance, the city used copper sulfate to treat the algae in about half of Reservoir 2, the city’s largest reservoir which typically feeds the smaller reservoir. The transfer pipe is closed when such treatment occurs.
“The worst part about us treating the reservoirs is the fishermen hate it,” Newcomer said. “They say it ruins their fishing. But I always say the reservoirs were built for the City of Findlay’s drinking water and fishing is just an added bonus.”
For the past year, microcystin testing for Findlay has been conducted by the city of Oregon’s water treatment plant. About two years ago, Findlay entered into a partnership with Oregon, Ottawa County, Carroll Township and Clyde to share in the testing costs, Newcomer said. Each place takes a turn buying the $600 testing kits and then submits their own untreated water samples to Oregon for analysis.
Findlay also tests its treated water weekly and sends the samples to the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency. Newcomer said based on those results and on visual monitoring at the reservoir, he and his staff are in frequent contact with EPA employees to ensure their testing and algae prevention measures are sound.
In addition, the city’s sewage treatment plant tests the Blanchard River daily for phosphorus levels. The city is selective about when it draws water from the river. Newcomer said if workers see farmers fertilizing, applying nitrogen or using “any kind of chemical application,” the city won’t pump water from the river.
If there is a heavy rain, they’ll “let the river flush out five days before we turn the pumps on,” he said.
“I’m not saying we won’t ever have a problem, but we’re trying not to,” he said.
“By us having two reservoirs and having the transfer valve shut, I’m hoping if we ever did have a problem with the reservoir that we’re using, we can switch reservoirs and hopefully that problem’s not there, too,” Newcomer said.
The city also uses “powder-activated carbon here at the treatment plant that hopefully would take care of that if we do have a problem,” he said.
The fact that the reservoirs are large is an asset in more ways than one, Newcomer said. The smaller Reservoir 1 covers 187 acres, and Reservoir 2 covers 640 acres.
“The old adage is, ‘the solution to pollution is dilution.’ We’re pretty fortunate that we have that amount of water in those reservoirs,” he said.
If the city’s treated water became contaminated, “we would probably have to do the same thing that Toledo did,” and prevent people from using it, Newcomer said. “We don’t have another system we can tie into.”
Mayor Mihalik said she contacted Hancock County Commissioner Phil Riegle on Saturday, requesting that he speak with county Emergency Management Agency Coordinator Lee Swisher about planning in the event of such an emergency.
Swisher said the state’s emergency guidelines include mutual aid planning, outlined by the Ohio Water/Wastewater Agency Response Network and the Ohio Fire Chiefs Association.
Newcomer also has a copy of a draft plan, compiled by the Ohio EPA, to provide guidance for communities. It is titled “Public Water System Harmful Algal Bloom Response Strategy.”
“You don’t realize until you can’t use it how much you rely on it,” Newcomer said of drinking water.