Del Sumner and his fellow water inspectors are again opening fire hydrants and flushing out water lines, at times releasing tens of thousands of gallons into yards and streets.
But Covington resident Scott Eavenson still remembers Georgia’s drought and the watering restrictions that followed it. When he saw what looked like a small stream flowing by his house and a Newton County Water and Sewerage Authority employee monitoring an open hydrant nearby, he had one question: "Why? Why was the man releasing so much water?"
The simple answer is safety, said Sumner. Keeping pipes clear of fine particulate debris, which can eventually clog pipes, and preventing the creation of potentially harmful chemical by-products are both achieved by regularly flushing out pipes.
Eschewing EPD Violations
Newton County Water Resources, the governmental body that produces and sells water from Lake Varner, received a violation from the Environmental Protection Division on Jan. 20, because there was too much haloacetic acid in the water.
One reason for the high levels was water vendors choice not to flush out water lines, in order to preserve water during the drought. These vendors, cities or water authorities, would routinely flush out their system of water pipes to remove any stagnant water in average years, said former water resources director Karl Kelley in February.
Haloacetic acid and other potentially dangerous chemicals form over time when chlorine, which is used to kill bacteria in raw water, combines with carbon and nitrogen compounds in the water. These naturally occurring compounds are the result of plant and animal material that seeps into the water source through runoff.
As the water remained in the pipes longer, this chemical reaction took place more frequently, which led to higher haloacetic acid levels and the EPD violation.
Maintaining Water Wellness
Normally, only the hydrants at the end of water lines are flushed, particularly those located in low-lying areas. Sediment tends to accumulate in these sections, as evidenced by the brown-colored water that initially flows from these hydrants. However, since the water system is tied together, one hydrant will draw water from a large surrounding area, which is also why the hydrant must be allowed to run for a while.
"We have 535 miles of pipe in our system. If we open a hydrant, it may seem like a lot of water, but we don’t flush every hydrant in that neighborhood," said Mike Hopkins, executive director of the Newton County Water and Sewerage Authority.
The minerals naturally found in water, the chemicals used to treat and other particulate matter that happen to get into the water supply eventually settle to the bottom of pipes, particularly in rural areas with low water use, Sumner said. These sections must be flushed more frequently, because sediment will not move through a system unless water use is high. Hopkins said the authority flushes about 25 hydrants per week.
Sumner said when the water finally starts to back up, residents will begin to notice an odor and then the water will taste different, because of the higher concentrations of minerals. That’s when residents will call their water vendor.
When an inspector flushes out a system, he takes samples every 15 minutes from a nearby spigot and tests those samples for their chlorine content. Once the chlorine content has reached the level that it has coming from the plant, the hydrant is turned off. A hydrant may need to be left open for half an hour or more than an hour. While they test on site, the inspectors also take a sample back to the water treatment facility for a second test.
Testing hydrants also ensures that they’re working, which is important information for the Newton County Fire Department.
Sumner, who has worked in the field for 16 years after a 25-year career in the automotive field, said technology is playing a bigger part in water maintenance. He said the location of all hydrants and water valves across the county are mapped out digitally, which can be helpful, particularly when plants grow over or debris covers a valve.
"We make sure the water is safe and good to drink," said Sumner. "I’m a family man and a homeowner and that’s what I’d expect from you or anyone else doing this job."
Sumner said residents sometimes ask if they’re going to be paying for the water released; they won’t. He said inspectors place meters on the hydrant to carefully monitor how much water is released and to make sure water pressure is sufficient. Low pressure can be a sign of a water main leak.
Sumner said his favorite part of the job is getting out in the field and meeting people, and he encourages curious residents to ask inspectors questions when they see them. The most important aspect is promoting safety.
"It feels good when your bosses, the homeowners, say ‘Thank You.’ Because all the homeowners are my bosses," he said. "But it’s not about me; I’m just a cog in the team."