By Jared Mendenhall
It’s easy to take drinking water for granted. At least in Utah. For the most part, you turn on the tap and clean water flows. Drinking water, however, can be contaminated by biological, chemical, or radiologic agents. To help safeguard human health, the federal government sets standards for more than 80 potential drinking water contaminants.
Complicating this already complex regulatory feat is the fact that Utah has nearly 800 water systems that serve 500 people or less. These small drinking water systems draw from a variety of different sources under a variety of different conditions.
“Treating drinking water in the state of Utah is very dynamic. There are many drinking water sources. It comes from springs, wells, lakes or rivers,” says Michelle Deras, an environmental scientist with Utah’s Division of Drinking Water. “Each water source needs a different type of treatment but they all have to meet the same regulations.”
Deras is just one of the many employees at the Utah Department of Environmental Quality’s Division of Drinking Water that work to ensure the state’s tap water is safe and reliable. When things go wrong, as they occasionally do, she is on the frontline working to make sure residents continue to have access to fresh water.
Last winter, a small Southern Utah drinking water company faced a worst-case scenario. After falling out of compliance, the local sheriff paid them a visit at 1 p.m. on a Friday with a notice of violation.
This notice meant that the company needed to shut down. Right as staff and regulators were ready to take off for the weekend, the drinking water system faced an existential crisis.
Lucky for them, the Division of Drinking Water was already on its way. The engineers, scientists and staff at DEQ are public servants. Their mission is to safeguard Utah’s air, land and water through balanced regulation. They try to be fair. They look for sane solutions to the sorts of issues facing this small drinking water system.
“Instead of just enforcing an action on them, our director rallied as many team members as possible,” recalls, Deras. “The sheriff showed up at 1 p.m. to shut them down. At 4 p.m. we were there to help them figure out how to get restarted.”
With the sun setting below vermillion cliffs, Deras, along with the drinking water administrators, local health department officials and DEQ’s district engineer, got to work coming up with a plan to fix the compliance issues.
Deras started troubleshooting the system with a thorough inspection of the water treatment plant. Drawing on her years of experience in the private sector, she was able to assess whether they were using the proper chemicals and treatments.
Next, the team from DEQ, the water system and the local health department, worked through the weekend coming up with a plan to remedy the issues. Thanks in no small part to good old-fashioned hard work and some long hours, problems were solved and a disaster was avoided.
“We were able to work with the water system and we are continuing to work with the water system to make sure they can get into compliance and serve safe drinking water,” says Deras. “It’s my goal to help set them up for success. Because when they are successful, we all are successful. We are part of a team in protecting public health.”
To learn more about drinking water in Utah, visit the Division of Drinking Water home page.
I am a public information officer for DEQ and a former marketer and magazine editor. Follow me on Instagram @Jarv801.