Environment Report: Officials Worry Water Notices Are More Confusing Than Informative - Voice of San Diego

Science/Environment UNVEILING THE UNSEEN

Environment Report: Officials Worry Water Notices Are More Confusing Than Informative

A meeting of the San Diego County Water Authority. / Photo by Sam Hodgson

Two weeks ago, the San Diego County Water Authority notified thousands of customers across the region that San Diego’s main drinking water treatment plant wasn’t doing everything it was supposed to do to kill viruses and parasites.

We reported on this and rounded up other violations issued to local water agencies by state drinking water regulators.

A few water officials worried that the notices were likely to cause more alarm than necessary. Federal law requires that water agencies notify customers of drinking water issues.

The timing of the notification depends on the severity of the problem. A “tier 1” notice is an immediate problem in which public health is at risk. Agencies have 24 hours to provide notice and are expected to go to the media, post notices in public places or find some way to reach customers.

A tier 2 issue, like the one the Water Authority experienced, involves water with levels of a contaminant that exceeds standards or that hasn’t been treated properly but that doesn’t pose an immediate danger. The Water Authority’s problem was that its “treatment technique” wasn’t right because of a mechanical problem for about a day in April. Notice is supposed to go out as soon as possible, but agencies have within 30 days of the time they are issued a citation. The Water Authority’s problem happened in April, and the citation was issued on June 4. The public wasn’t notified until July 8.

The Water Authority hadn’t been cited for such a violation since at least 1995, if ever.

Because the Water Authority doesn’t deliver water directly to homes — it buys water from far away, then resells it to local water agencies — it “required extensive coordination to prepare for the notification,” the Water Authority’s operations director, Jim Fisher, said at the time. The Water Authority also requested an extension, so that its notification didn’t arrive over the July 4 holiday weekend.

The final type of violation is tier 3 and water agencies only have to notify customers of these more minor problems in the annual drinking water report card they send to customers.

Tom Kennedy, a Water Authority board member, worried that the notification that did go out would confuse residents.

“This sort of mailer may be confusing to residents and cause unnecessary concern, both through a misinterpretation of the actual health risks as well as concern over the delay in notification,” he wrote in an email to the region’s top drinking water regulator. “I would suggest that a more general notification through press releases, ads in local papers, or television may be a better way to manage the outreach.”

Mark Robak, an Otay Water District board member, was more blunt. He said he was “beside himself” because of the notification.

“People are up in arms about the safety of tap water for no reason!” he tweeted.

The Water Authority declined to comment.

State regulators said it’s “likely” that the issue for which the Water Authority was cited didn’t create a public health threat and that the water eventually met state safety standards before it left the plant. That’s because the water is treated several different ways, and only one treatment process partly failed. The water was still disinfected with other chemicals.

The water also had to pass through a plastic filter known as a membrane that, in and of itself, removes viruses and parasites. Unless those membranes failed — and they didn’t — there should have been no public health danger, said Brent Alspach, the director of applied research at the engineering firm Arcadis. He has advised the Water Authority on treatment issues but was not involved in the recent treatment plant problem.

“Unless they know there is a breach in the membrane barrier, it’s difficult to know how a pathogen would have passed through that treatment and into the drinking water,” he said.

The State’s Fire Plan

It happened so fast that people may not have realized it: Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a package of bills meant to help utilities prevent and cope with the financial fallout of wildfires. The bills have a number of features designed to help the companies weather utility-caused fires, which are considered inevitable.

One interesting feature is a requirement that utilities spend $5 billion to make their equipment less likely to start fires. This money, unlike money already spent on fire “hardening,” is not supposed to increase utilities’ profit margins. In the past, when San Diego Gas & Electric did projects to improve the safety of its equipment, it could pass those costs on to consumers along with a profit margin for its shareholders. That prompted criticism that SDG&E was focused on the wrong things.

As one of the bills put it, “The investor owned utilities will also be held to account by tying executive compensation to safety; investing a minimum of $5 billion in their lines and poles, without profit; complying with wildfire mitigation plans; and passing a safety culture assessment; all as conditions of participating in the insurance fund established by this bill.”

CALmatters’ Julie Cart breaks down the five things to know about the package of bills.

The Union-Tribune reports that former San Diego City Attorney Mike Aguirre is challenging the new law in federal court.

(Disclosure: Mitch Mitchell, SDG&E’s vice president for government affairs, sits on Voice of San Diego’s board of directors.)

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