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Perspective On: A Municipal Water Lab

Connie Schreppel, director of water quality at Mohawk Valley Water Authority, oversees a 2,100-square-foot water quality lab, a 300-square-foot laboratory located in a treatment plant as well as the operations of the less-than-typical Adirondack watershed lab.

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Safeguarding Our Drinking Water

The Mohawk Valley is a region of New York State that surrounds the Mohawk River, the largest tributary of the Hudson River. North of the Mohawk and Hudson rivers lies the Adirondack Park, the largest park and National Historic Landmark in the contiguous United States.

The source water for Mohawk Valley Water Authority (MVWA)—a utility company in Utica, NY, that treats and delivers potable water to the surrounding area—originates in the Adirondacks. This water gathers in the streams and creeks of a 373-squaremile Adirondack mountain watershed and drains into the West Canada Creek, which carries the water to the New York State-owned Hinckley Reservoir.

“Our watershed team monitors these streams and the reservoir,” says Connie Schreppel, director of water quality at MVWA. “Their testing includes but is not limited to routine water chemistries, plankton and algae analysis, and monitoring for waterborne protozoa such as Giardia and Cryptosporidium.”

In addition to keeping an eye on the water source, Schreppel and her team monitor and test the water as it travels through a water treatment plant and more than 600 miles of water mains in the distribution system, which provides potable water to customers’ homes and businesses.

“The main function of the MVWA water quality laboratory is to ensure that our 129,000 customers are provided with safe potable drinking water that meets or exceeds all drinking water standards and regulations,” says Schreppel.

Organizational structure

Schreppel oversees a 2,100-squarefoot water quality lab and the 300-square-foot laboratory located in the treatment plant. She also oversees the operations of a lessthan- typical lab, what she refers to as the Adirondack watershed lab.

To run the three divisions, she manages a staff of 15 that ranges from lab technicians to field specialists and scientists to water treatment plant operators.

“Most of the staff in the water quality laboratory is specialized in biology with minors in chemistry,” she says.

“The treatment plant staff is licensed by the State of New York and is required to complete a laboratory skills course as part of their training. They are also required to take 30 hours of continuing education training, including a laboratory refresher course, every three years.”

Schreppel herself has an undergraduate degree in laboratory technology and is a registered medical technologist through the American Society of Clinical Pathologists. After working five years in a clinical microbiology lab, she decided to work in water quality and pursued her graduate studies in environmental science. She also holds a New York State Grade 1A Water Treatment Plant Operators license—a certificate required for those who operate or supervise a drinking water facility.

“The MVWA water treatment plant operators are trained in laboratory operations and are motivated to produce the best-quality drinking water,” Schreppel says. “Recent advances in water treatment plant instrumentation and laboratory equipment have allowed our staff to use their ingenuity to further optimize water treatment. They have worked diligently to enhance the traditional processes and continue to ask how a process could be improved with the use of new tools. They are not encumbered by ‘that is the way it has always been done.’”

Processes

In order to service their clients— residential areas, hospitals, nursing homes, four colleges, state prisons and manufacturing facilities—with water that is free of pathogens and vectors, officials at MVWA carefully planned suitable treatment processes.

MVWA’s filtration plant began operations in 1992 and chose direct filtration as the main treatment process. This process adds a chemical coagulant—in this case, alum and a non-ionic polymer— to the source water that is then passed through filters for removal. Chemical coagulants help particles aggregate and form larger masses that are more easily removed in the filtration process.

Filtered water is then disinfected using free chlorine. Later, lime and soda ash are added for corrosion control, followed by fluoride for its dental benefits.

“The treatment plant laboratory has gone beyond performing basic analyses such as alkalinity, hardness, color, turbidity, pH and the traditional jar test [and] has incorporated the use of streaming current monitors, coagulant charge analyzers, particle counters, UV254 analyzers and gas chromatographs into the routine to better understand the true picture of the treatment process and look for improved approaches to water treatment,” Schreppel explains.

The team at MVWA has created Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) monitoring screens to illustrate the data generated as the water travels throughout the process and into the distribution system. This real-time information, which is also saved, creates a database that’s available for water quality assessment.

“By utilizing these laboratory tools, staff are better equipped to look at a more complete picture of the water’s true quality and quickly determine if the chemical dosing adjustments are being made in the right direction,” Schreppel says.

She adds that increased exposure to such instrumentation and data has served to broaden the staff ’s knowledge and has empowered them to make decisions that improve overall plant operations.

Once the water is ready for consumption, it goes through the distribution system—a network of pipes buried underground that is continually monitored.

Each morning, trained laboratory staff travel throughout the areas served by the water system and monitor the levels of chlorine disinfectant throughout the piping network.

They also collect samples for bacterial and chemical analyses and visit meter stations and pump houses throughout the distribution system to gather these water quality monitoring samples.

Inventory, maintenance, hiring

MVWA’s workload varies. The team performs a variety of experiments from 1,000 microbiological tests to about 30 tests for Giardia and Cryptosporidium sp. to 1,000 routine wet chemistries each month.

“The treatment plant laboratory performs a wet chemistry battery of tests twice each day as well as jar tests and other diagnostic tests for process control,” Schreppel says. “The water quality laboratory is also engaged in method development research involving flow cytometry, PCR and toxicity testing.”

With such a wide range of tests, the lab team must ensure that all the processes are running smoothly and the materials needed to run the tests are available.

Schreppel’s staff handles the inventory for all the materials required to run the water quality lab, the treatment plant and the distribution system.

“Our clerk processes the requests for the purchase of supplies,” Schreppel says. “I have final review and approval. Since we are a government agency, we must utilize competitive bidding for many purchases.”

Schreppel and her staff routinely use instruments such as pH meters, spectrophotometers, turbidimeters, total organic carbon analyzers, discrete and continuous flow analyzers for wet chemistries, and microscopes equipped with fluorescent filters and differential contrast microscopy.

In order to maintain this equipment, twice a year a private instrument maintenance company performs calibrations and maintenance checks on the instruments. For routine maintenance, Schreppel relies on the water quality staff who are assigned to specific equipment based on their areas of expertise.

“[They] are expected to perform routine maintenance on equipment and maintain quality control records,” Schreppel says. “This function is supervised and reviewed by the QA officer and myself.”

For their hiring needs, Schreppel counts on MVWA’s human resources director, who helps her find a qualified individual and process the necessary paperwork.

“Because we are a government entity and are covered by New York State civil service regulations, new job candidates must meet job criteria and are appointed provisionally until they pass a competitive civil service exam,” she says.

Challenges

According to Schreppel, the biggest challenges include making sure that each day the treatment plant provides the best possible water to customers and that the water meets all regulatory requirements.

This is especially tricky because of the aging distribution infrastructure. Many of the water mains are more than 100 years old and require diligent monitoring and analysis. But her staff, who are motivated and well-trained, know how to work with the older system to ensure that water quality is not compromised.

Additionally, like most public water systems, MVWA has practiced chlorination since the turn of the 20th century, when it was recognized that waterborne diseases could be eliminated or greatly reduced by disinfection.

Ironically, Schreppel explains, chlorination caused a problem of another nature. Like many other surface water sources, MVWA’s water supply is rich with natural organic matter (NOM). Growing research in the 1970s demonstrated that when chlorine is added to waters with a high concentration of NOM, the formation of potentially harmful and cancer-causing disinfection by-products (DBPs), such as trihalomethanes (THMs), increases.

New regulations, which will take effect in 2012, require significant reductions in DBPs.

“The staff must ensure that the maximum amount of organic matter is removed by our treatment process,” she says.

“The laboratory and treatment plant staff has been engaged in research for the past eight to 10 years and will be altering the treatment process with the addition of granular activated carbon into the treatment train next year. This will ensure maximum removal of the natural organic matter that can contribute to the disinfection byproducts.”

This is just one example of how the science of water treatment has changed in the 34 years that Schreppel has been in the water quality laboratory field.

“The water industry is now detecting chemical compounds in the parts per trillion and we must now deal with the implications of detecting endocrinedisrupting compounds and personalcare products in the drinking water,” she says.

“Another area of concern that has evolved since 9/11 is the security of the water system and the development of ways to quickly detect a contamination event, whether it is intentional or accidental.”

But it’s the challenges and everchanging nature of this field that intrigues Schreppel.

There is rarely a routine day, she explains. “Every day presents a new challenge that must be incorporated into the scheduled testing procedures. My staff also makes the job enjoyable; we have a relaxed and friendly atmosphere and strive for a team approach,” Schreppel adds.

She also believes that keeping up with new science and technologies in the field is the way to stay on top of unforeseen complexities.

“You have to stay well-informed concerning water issues and regulations. Participation in organizations such as the American Water Works Association (AWWA) and the Water Research Foundation (WRF) keeps you current, and these organizations offer educational and networking opportunities as well as showcase the latest in technologies available to the water quality laboratory,” she says.

For Schreppel, the challenges and the extra effort she puts in are worth the rewards of the job.

“It is staggering to realize that well over a billion people in the world lack safe water, over 6,000 children die every day and over 10 million children die before their first birthday due to waterborne disease,” she says.

“We must embrace the fact that only 3 percent of the earth’s water is freshwater, and we must diligently safeguard that natural resource because, in contrast to oil, it truly is the most important liquid resource needed for our survival.”

 

Published In

Hidden Treasure

Published: November 1, 2010

Cover Story

Hidden Treasure

Driven by the need for greater cost effectiveness and the desire to extract the most value from pricey assets, laboratory managers are converting their unused, excess and replaced equipment into cash.