Senior Manager, Water Resources Philadelphia Suburban Water Company
As Senior Manager of Water Resources with the Philadelphia Suburban Water Company, Mr. Luitweiler oversees a source water protection program for nine stream and river sources and 83 wells in southeastern Pennsylvania. He and his staff monitor and work in partnership with watershed organizations, farmers and others to help protect and improve water quality. Mr. Luitweiler is Chairman of the Technical Advisory Workgroup on Source Water Protection for the American Water Works Association. He has served on the Source Water Protection Working Group for the National Water Advisory Council. Mr. Luitweiler received a B.S. degree in Civil Engineering and a M.S. degree in Environmental Engineering from Drexel University. He is a registered Professional Engineer in Pennsylvania and a member of the American Society of Civil Engineers. He has written numerous papers and articles on water treatment and source water protection.
Philadelphia Suburban Water Company is an investor-owned water utility serving almost 1,000,000 people in communities north and west of Philadelphia. We supply an average of over 100 million gallons of water a day from 9 surface water treatment plants and more than 60 wells. About 75 percent of that supply is derived from local streams and rivers. The watershed areas above our intakes encompass some 1,000 square miles, which vary in land use from urban to suburban to rural. The company’s watershed protection program has worked with the agricultural community to address water quality issues through co-operative, incentive-based partnerships.
Water Resources and Farming
Mark Twain once observed that in the American west, “whiskey’s for drinkin’, water’s for fightin’.” Water suppliers and farmers have not always seen eye-to-eye on the allocation and management of water resources. Today, other interests are coming to the table staking claims for water that sometimes trump the interests of both water suppliers and farmers: endangered species, biodiversity, fisheries, and recreation. At the same time, building dams and reservoirs is becoming increasingly more difficult. Even in the Philadelphia region, where we get more than 45 inches of rainfall in an average year, public policies are creating constraints on water resource development and use that threaten the reliability of water supplies whenever a significant dry spell occurs. Restrictions on water supply facilities are considered in the name of achieving sustainability, curbing development and controlling sprawl.
Environmentalists, public officials and the news media argue that land use must be tightly controlled not only to maintain water quantity, but also to protect water quality. The message fits neatly with a groundswell of public opinion in support of acquisition of open space by government, and preservation of rural land and landscapes. However, folks who just moved to a new house built on a cornfield so that they could look out their windows on a Wyeth landscape do not always have a high level of tolerance for the realities of working farms. Odors, dust and noise may become sources of irritation and friction. Hunting of deer or geese may become taboo. And God forbid that the farmer across the road should even consider selling his land to a developer whom would ruin the view, clog the roads and crowd the local schools. Americans in general want to live in Mayberry and look out on a Disneyland farm. They will fight for this vision of utopia in the name of clean water if that is convenient. However, while the stated or implied message is that we need to protect our drinking water from contamination, the fact may be that the landscapes we cherish are polluting those sources. A study conducted by the U.S. Geological Survey in Chester County in the 1970s and 1980s to examine the impact of suburbanization on water quality found that water quality actually improved in certain areas where landscaped suburban yards replaced tilled agricultural fields.
The Clean Water Act focuses on making waters “fishable and swimmable,” not on protecting drinking water. It also focuses almost exclusively on point source discharges, though most smoke-belching factories disgorging streams of toxic ooze into our waterways are gone. Lakes and reservoirs and reaches of stream are now often listed as “impaired” on the basis of low biodiversity of aquatic organisms. These impairments are often attributed to non-point sources of sediment, nutrients or agricultural chemicals. Environmentalists, lawyers and government agencies may try to address these “impairments” with the new tool of Total Maximum Daily Loads, but this program appears to be headed toward generating more conflict and controversy than concrete results.
Some water suppliers have been actively engaged in source water protection for decades. This does not always mean buying and closing off to public access vast tracts of land. It may mean knowing the watershed and wellhead areas, being alert to threats, acting to reduce risks of contamination, and working in partnership with landowners to protect and improve water quality. These efforts may be aided by provisions of the 1996 amendments to the Safe Drinking Water Act that require states to inventory and assess potential significant sources of pollution for every water supply source. This huge task is just getting underway in Pennsylvania, and it will not be completed for years.
Many conservation districts and other agricultural agencies have also been engaged in watershed protection activities for many years. Congress passed a farm bill in 1996 that was dubbed the Freedom to Farm Act. Among the goals of this legislation was reduction of farmers’ dependence on government support payments and an increased focus on resource conservation and protection. As is often the case with laws and regulations, things have not worked out exactly as intended. The share of net farm income from government payments has increased from less than 15 percent in 1996 to almost 50 percent in 2000. The resource protection provisions of the 1996 act may show more promise.
Incentives are now often available for farmers to adopt best management practices that protect soil and water resources, and for water suppliers, farmers, government agencies and environmentalists to work in partnership toward these goals. Sometimes our interests are aligned, sometimes they pull in opposite directions and require compromise. Almost always, there will be more to gain from co-operation than confrontation, between water suppliers and farmers. A classic example is resolving inherent conflicts between “crop protection” and “source water protection.”
Crop Protection and Source Water Protection
With the help of irrigation, fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides, crops are protected from drought; disease and pestilence like never before. The world’s farmers have doubled their production in the past 20 years. With 5.8 billion people in the world today, the average person enjoys 15 percent more food than the population of 4 billion did twenty years ago. Chemical manufacturers have produced an array of products for this purpose.
While farmers use pesticides for crop protection, water suppliers look to source water protection to ensure the safety of their product. Even water suppliers with sophisticated treatment capabilities see source water protection as a means to control treatment costs and as an important element in a multiple-barrier approach to providing safe drinking water.
New drinking water regulations, new analytical methods, and an appetite for attention- grabbing news continually raise the expectations of consumers. Many herbicides and pesticides were first regulated in drinking water in 1991 and 1992. In 1994, the Environmental Working Group published a report called Tap Water Blues, which recommended that triazine herbicides be phased out by September 1996. In August 1995, the same group reported finding 1 or more of 9 different herbicides in samples from 29 of 30 cities in the Midwest, some at levels above the drinking water standards.
Dr. David Rail, the founder of the National Toxicology Program, was quoted in a press release put out with this report, saying, “Current law allows the public to drink water with levels of these weed killers that exceed federal health standards for months at a time.” Never mind that the standard was based on chronic rather than acute exposure, and appropriately applies to average, not peak concentrations. There is nothing like pesticides in streams or in drinking water to incite public concern.
The Kansas City Missouri Water Services Department operates a 240 MGD water treatment plant that supplies about 600,000 people. The source is the Missouri River. Atrazine has been the primary herbicide of concern during spring run-off. Kansas City monitors atrazine levels with immunoassay tests, and when the level reaches 1.5 ppb, they begin feeding powdered activated carbon. In 1995, the costs for powdered carbon were $170,000.
The city of Springfield, IL operates a 48-MGD water treatment plant that serves about 144,000 people. The plant is supplied from 4,200-acre Lake Springfield with a 265- square-mile drainage basin, much of it farmland. In April 1994, over 6 inches of rain fell in less than 48 hours. Atrazine levels exceeded the MCL of 3 ppb for months. Powdered activated carbon was used to reduce the herbicide levels in the finished water. They also started a sampling program on Lake Springfield. The Lake Springfield Watershed Resource Planning Committee, formed in 1990, has representation from farmers, conservation districts, homeowners associations, banks, government agencies and the water utility. The committee encouraged better practices by farmers and worked with the Illinois legislature to provide a 50 percent tax break on land taken out of production for filter strips.
Seven years ago, PSWC started monitoring intensively for herbicides and pesticides in spring runoff using immunoassay tests. Some of the grab samples collected on our watersheds exceeded drinking water MCLs for agricultural herbicides, particularly atrazine. These levels are rarely seen at our intakes, and powdered carbon treatment can usually deal with the levels we encounter. However, PSW was also interested in controlling the contaminants at the source. The Penn State Co-Operative Extension Service, NRCS and Bucks County Conservation District instituted a program three years ago to pay farmers on the Neshaminy Creek watershed to switch from triazine herbicides. The EQIP program paid $5 per acre, and PSW paid $3 per acre for a total incentive payment of $8 per acre. An education program was also implemented. Over the past three years, we have seen a reduction of almost 70 percent in the peak levels of atrazine in the Neshaminy Creek after spring runoff events.
Sediment, Nutrients, Pathogens and Natural Organic Matter
Herbicides and pesticides are not the only concern of water suppliers. Sediment is the largest (by volume) source of impairment of water resources. It is a major issue for water supplier and agencies that own and maintain reservoirs. Accumulating sediment eventually fills drinking water reservoirs and may require dredging at great expense. Conservation Districts promote practices that control field erosion by minimizing tillage and utilizing crop residue. Livestock grazing on stream banks may also contribute to stream bank erosion.
Sediment is a concern to Philadelphia Suburban Water Company at our 4.4 billion gallon Green Lane Reservoir. Farmland on the watershed and other earth disturbance activities contribute to heavy silt loading during heavy rains. Sediment also carries nutrients, particularly phosphorus, into streams and reservoirs. During just one 2.7 inch rainfall event in March 1995, nearly 1600 tons of sediment were carried into the reservoir from just one of two main tributaries.
Phosphorus usually accompanies sediment, and it promotes blooms of blue-green algae that promote eutrophication of the reservoir and can severely deteriorate water quality. The same rainfall event in 1995 deposited almost 900 pounds of phosphorus in Green Lane Reservoir.
Research is also focusing on Natural Organic Matter and Pathogens from agricultural and other sources. Natural Organic Matter from decaying leaves, algae, agricultural runoff and wastewater discharges will react with disinfecting chemicals used in the water treatment process to produce trace amounts of disinfectant by-products, some of which are thought to be potentially carcinogenic.
Water suppliers are particularly concerned about pathogens like Giardia and Cryptosporidium. Cryptosporidium is the organism that in 1993 was responsible for the largest documented waterborne disease outbreak in North America in Milwaukee, WI. These organisms form tough cysts or oocysts, which are very resistant to traditional disinfection water treatment processes. They must be removed by filtration. One important way to make sure they don’t slip through the filtration process is to keep them out of the streams in the first place.
Farming practices can contribute microbial pathogens to streams. Studies in Allegheny County in Western Pennsylvania found these organisms in a stream that runs through a small, well-run dairy farm. These results certainly do not represent the worst case. The big problem is really with young livestock, like calves, more than with mature animals. One infected calf can shed as many Cryptosporidium oocysts as 1,250 humans can. It is a good idea to keep sheds for calves away from streams and drainage swales, and to dispose of manure from these areas properly, preferably by composting or burial away from streams and waterways.
Monitoring water sources for Cryptosporidium is like looking for a needle in a haystack. Current methods are notoriously unreliable. However, for decades, water suppliers have used surrogate indicator organisms to assess the likelihood that pathogens might be present. One of the traditional surrogates is coliform bacteria. We have been measuring total coliform levels in our raw waters using the same methods for over 65 years. The long-term trend from these historical levels shows a significant rise in total coliform levels in the 1950s through the 1970s.
Now, we use a 12-month moving average of total coliform to look at trends in each of our sources. Using this technique, we can see differences between source, and also trends over time. In general, total coliform levels are higher in wet periods than in dry periods, probably reflecting a combination of influences including runoff, high water tables in septic systems, and sewer overflows from infiltration.
Water suppliers recognize that there are other sources of pathogens and indicator organisms besides agriculture, including wastewater from failing septic systems, wastewater treatment plant discharges, or accidental discharges from overflowing sewer manholes or lift stations. Wildlife, particularly waterfowl, also contribute pathogens to our waterways. Here we have a common interest with most farmers in our region. There is a real problem with non-native, resident Canada geese. These birds have multiplied from those introduced here decades ago by game managers. PSW has an active program to control the number of geese on some of our reservoirs with a combination of egg addling, harassment techniques, and controlled hunts organized by the Pennsylvania Game Commission.
Government Programs and Private Partnerships
The 1996 Farm Bill has provided opportunities to target resources available to the farming community to better address water quality issues. The Environmental Quality Incentive Program holds some promise, although with limited resources, to provide incentives to farmers to put in buffer strips and stream bank fencing. Likewise, the Conservation Reserve Program is being re-targeted to focus more resources on water quality protection.
Nutrient Management programs, especially when strongly supported by local agencies, can do a lot to reduce nutrient runoff, and, even more importantly, to reduce runoff of microbial pathogens.
Tax relief may be an important incentive for farmers, as in the case of the provisions in Illinois for filter strips. In many suburban communities in the Philadelphia area, the most profitable crops are housing and commercial developments. In many communities, farmers concerned with protecting their way of life and preserving their farmland in the face of rising taxes and encroaching development can take advantage of special, farm preservation tax rates. These programs often contain requirements for developing and implementing comprehensive conservation plans to protect water quality and the land.
Many water suppliers, including PSWC, support co-operative, voluntary partnership approaches to solving water quality problems. We would like to encourage farmers on our watersheds to take advantage of new and revised subsidy and grant programs like EQIP and CRP to assist in protecting water quality.
To keep cows out of streams, funding is available from a variety of sources to assist farmers in putting in stream crossings and stream bank fencing. The Perkiomen Chapter of Trout Unlimited and the Berks County Conservancy have worked with local farmers on these types of projects to protect miles of streams on the Schuylkill River watershed.
We would like to be able to work with farmers and agricultural agencies to find solutions to problems with pesticides in spring run-off, nutrients, sedimentation and pathogens in source waters that can be implemented cooperatively before less satisfactory measures are mandated by agencies like EPA. We hope that local successes may help build on the reputation of responsible stewardship, hard work, and service to mankind which farmers and water suppliers still share in the eyes of many in this country.
In an effort to provide wide-ranging views and perspectives regarding the practice of and issues surrounding agriculture, the Philadelphia Society for Promoting Agriculture (PSPA) seeks speakers representing a variety of perspectives. The statements and opinions they present are strictly their own and do not necessarily represent the views of PSPA.