If you have followed the news as of late, it isn’t hard to find a story about a municipal water supply that is dealing with concerns surrounding lead. In our area, the news has reported elevated lead levels in the water in school districts in Newburgh and Newark, NJ. However, the most infamous of these case studies has undoubtedly been the crisis in Flint, Michigan, where dangerous levels of lead were found to have permeated the drinking water. Compounding the high levels was the realization that those entrusted to protect the water may have made decisions that compromised public health. As a water professional myself, the integrity of public water is an issue that I care deeply about. In my role as Chairman of the Dutchess County Legislature, I feel that it is of the utmost importance to make sure we are on top of this issue right here in our own community. Considering roughly one-third of Dutchess County residents rely on public water, it is incumbent upon the legislature, as representatives of Dutchess County, to educate the public on the safety of our water systems, and to ensure that actions in Flint don’t happen here in our own backyard.
At the July 8th meeting of the Dutchess County Legislature’s Environment Committee, Dr. Henry Kurban and the staff from the Department of Behavioral and Community Health (DBCH) accepted my invitation to present on the state of the 655 water systems that are under our purview in Dutchess County. As a quick overview, roughly 200 of the supplies are densely populated ones that primarily serve residents, which are regulated by the DBCH Environmental Health Services Division’s Engineering Section. 439 of the systems are monitored by the Division’s Water Enhancement Program staff and supply water to a variety of sites including residences, commercial facilities, camps, schools, and restaurants, just to name a few. The remaining 13 supplies are inspected by Public Health Sanitarians.
What we learned from the presentation was largely good news; of the 655 public water supplies that DBCH regulates, water quality monitoring has confirmed that 653 of these systems have no issues with lead, as any amounts found are well below the action level set by the NYS Sanitary Code. The two supplies with lead levels at the action level are small community supplies that service just over 200 customers combined. Already, these residents have been notified of the findings, and work is currently under way to address the issue, including consideration of corrosion control measures to protect pipes and solder from being dissolved by the water.
It is important to remember that when monitoring data indicates that a water supply has reached the lead action level, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the water is dangerous. Instead, upon receiving monitoring results that indicate the action level has been reached, the decision makers for that system are required to take action, such as notifying customers, working to reduce lead levels, and implementing measures to mitigate the potential health impacts should those levels be exceeded in the future. If there is anything we learned from the crisis in Flint, it is that you must take action before there is a problem. While many things went wrong in Flint, the failure of Flint was a failure to understand, properly review, and disseminate data which ought to have ultimately culminated in action. Our DBCH staff has proven that Dutchess County water supplies are in good hands.
I would like to thank Dr. Kurban and his staff for their diligent work and attention to this important matter. It is because of their work in monitoring, evaluating, and reporting data that we have not seen the kind of scare here in our public water that we have seen in localities across the country. In locations such as Flint, where lead contamination has taken hold, oftentimes testing didn’t occur in proper frequencies or locations and test results were not effectively communicated or acted upon. We are very fortunate in Dutchess County to have such dedicated professionals who are working hard to make sure that the integrity of our water is protected. Going forward, this is an issue that we as elected representatives of Dutchess County continue to make a top priority, and I look forward to working with my colleagues as we closely monitor the public water systems in our communities.