Water’s incredible journey from Lake Michigan to your tap

by Craig Mattson

Substances tested for by Milwaukee Water Works

Imagine that you’re running to class, your mouth is dryer than a desert, and you’re in dire need of something to drink. Pressed for time, you are now consumed by the following dilemma…do you purchase bottled water that comes from some natural spring via the Cyber Cafe, or drink from the water fountain for free? Have you ever stopped and considered where Mount Mary College’s water comes from, and if water from the water fountain is really good for you?

Milwaukee Water Works is responsible for treating drinking water in Milwaukee. It serves 15 other outlying communities, providing wholesale and retail water treatment throughout the city. Mount Mary College water comes from Milwaukee, most of which is a retail purchaser of water from Milwaukee Water Works. This means Milwaukee buys water from Milwaukee Water Works, which stores the water in tanks, pressurizing and maintaining the water tank systems.

Lon Couillard, water quality manager for Milwaukee Water Works, compared the water treatment process to the working of a heart, drawing water in then pumping it out. There are two treatment plants used for Milwaukee water, one on Howard Avenue, the other on Linnwood Avenue. “Each plant has its own intake in Lake Michigan. They have to have a raw water pump to pull water from the lake. After water is treated, then it has to be pumped again, to pressurize it so it can then be distributed,” Couillard said.

He continued, “After treatment the water flows through pipes and is then stored in tanks. Now gravity will pull downward and water will continue onward to all uses; commercial, residential, and schools. When you see a large tank, like the one on I-45, with a company or municipality’s name on it, that’s their water.”

Before sending water into Milwaukee, the water goes through a nine-step process to remove chemical and microbiological contaminants.

The treatment of drinking water is done according to rules made by the Environmental Protection Agency, and must comply with state and federal regulations. The EPA requires tests for 93 substances. Milwaukee Water Works tests for these, and in addition monitors for over 500 other factors related to safe drinking water. According to the 2010 Annual Milwaukee Water Quality Report, Milwaukee Water Works fully complies with all federal and state drinking water quality regulations.

People living in Milwaukee in the summer of 2010 may remember the flood that sent water from our over-taxed sewer system directly into the lake. That year a total of 2,841 gallons of raw, untreated sewer water flowed into Lake Michigan. Should Milwaukee tap water drinkers be concerned?

Overall Lake Michigan water quality has improved since Milwaukee revamped its sewer system in 1994. Professor Val Klump, director of the Great Lakes Water Institute, says maintaining and improving the sewer system is imperative to keep lake water clean.

“Miwaukee has done a great job of cleaning up the sewer system. Milwaukee is a leader in this regard,” Klump said. But with sewer pipes getting old, they will need to be replaced. “It’s difficult to repair old pipes. In the future, we will have no choice.”

Dr. Colleen Conway, professor of chemistry at Mount Mary, is optimistic about Lake Michigan water. “The water is mesotrophic to oligotrophic, which means it’s fairly clean. I swim in Lake Michigan,” Conway said.

She continued, “The Milwaukee system does a marvelous job of treating the drinking water. We are drinking very safe water.”

Clean Milwaukee water that has come from the treatment facility will finally rely on clean pipes in the buildings it flows through. Some of the older buildings in Milwaukee have older pipes, and these may corrode over time.

Mount Mary’s original buildings, Notre Dame Hall and Caroline hall, were built in 1928 using galvanized steel pipes. Roger Reinert, building engineer at Mount Mary, said these occasionally become corroded. He’s had to have some of the old pipes replaced in these buildings. “We’ve gone and put in copper pipes, which don’t really corrode,” Reinert said. Most of the pipes that have been replaced were done when other plumbing work was needed. But it’s difficult to say exactly what percentage of pipes this includes.

“It’s not a simple question to answer. We’ve gone through and replaced different sections based on which work made sense at the time,” Reinhart explained. “We can’t really do an entire building all at once,” Reinhart continued, adding that a large percentage of the old pipes have already been changed.

Mount Mary’s newer buildings use updated water pipes, reflecting newer technology. Some of these buildings include Bergstrom Hall, built in 1964, Gerhardinger Center, which opened in 2004, and Bloechl Recreation Center, which opened for use in 2006. These more recently constructed buildings use updated technology, including pipes for drinking water.

According to the experts, people can feel safe drinking Milwaukee water. From the treatment plant, it’s considered one of the cleanest in the country. Lake Michigan, a habitat for wildlife, a resource for industry, and recently a center for research into fresh water technology also gives us plenty of clean drinking water. As long as the whole system is maintained, Milwaukee’s drinking water is considered top notch. So for now, go ahead and drink from the water fountain.

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