Water providers, environmental groups welcome new rule on bacteria

hduncan@macon.comMarch 3, 2013 

If you’ve got potentially harmful bacteria in your drinking water, you should probably figure out where it’s coming from.

Although that doesn’t sound like a groundbreaking concept, it’s a new feature of federal drinking water rules announced at the end of last year. The federal Environmental Protection Agency has revised its 1989 total coliform standard. Drinking water systems will have until 2016 to comply with the changes.

The old rule required water systems to report to customers when more than 5 percent of water samples contained any total coliform, a group of closely related bacteria. The new rule will require follow-up for the first time: an investigation of the bacteria’s source and a plan to fix any problems found.

“We think it’s a positive change,” said Tony Rojas, Macon Water Authority executive director. “If you’re not trying to figure out what your problem is, what good is the notice to customers?”

More water testing will be required than in the past for small water systems with poor compliance, and for the first time monitoring will be required at some seasonal water systems at parks and campgrounds.

Although the EPA estimates the rule will cost about $14 million annually, the change was welcomed by many water providers and environmental groups for two primary reasons: protecting the public more, while needlessly scaring it less.

Having to report any total coliform results to consumers was controversial among water providers, because even the EPA acknowledges most total coliform aren’t harmful. They are used as an indicator that a pathway might exist to allow harmful bacteria into a drinking water system, because they are common in the feces of warm-blooded animals. But they can also occur naturally in water and soil or on plants.

Under the new rules, water systems will use total coliform testing to gauge when further study is needed. But they won’t have to immediately report to their customers unless they find E. coli, a type of coliform bacteria with a clearer link to pathogens that cause illness.

The Macon Water Authority exceeded the total coliform threshold in 2010 because it had conducted some of its monthly sampling in an area where the Macon-Bibb County Fire Department had been testing fire hydrants. During hydrant testing, large amounts of water are flushed through pipes, often dislodging particles that had been clinging to the sides.

Mark Wyzalek, authority lab and environmental compliance manager, said state environmental officials told the authority that hydrant testing is a common source of the kind of total coliform violations that don’t actually represent a public health problem.

Under the new rules, the authority would not have had to issue a special notice to customers about those results, he said. (The authority worked out procedures with the fire department to avoid the problem in the future.)

Ted Jackson, manager of the drinking water program for the Georgia Environmental Protection Division, said state officials have not yet evaluated what the new rule will cost the state or local communities. He said it is too soon to tell which types of water providers will be most affected.

But the EPA estimated that most of the costs of the new rule would be borne by small water systems that serve fewer than 4,100 customers, as these tend to have more frequent total coliform and E. coli violations.

EPD district manager Todd Bethune said smaller systems may have more violations partly because there are more of them and they may be less likely to have highly trained operators.

In Middle Georgia, water systems with bacteria-related problems during the past decade mostly have been very small systems that were not completing regular testing. For example, the water system for the Rolling Hills trailer park in Peach County received repeated EPD orders for its failure to test its water for bacteria, among other problems. In Monroe County, the water system for Twila Faye’s Tea Room exceeded total coliform limits twice in 2007 and 2008, resulting in an EPD consent order. Both have since tied onto larger public water systems and have had no further problems.

Wyzalek said the new rule may actually reduce costs for larger water utilities because they won’t have to mail as many notices to their customers.

“It’s shifting the expense to the investigation, to something that really tells us if there’s a problem in the system,” Wyzalek said. “Probably a lot of systems have just done sampling and reported it and walked away from it.”

To contact writer S. Heather Duncan, call 744-4225.

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