A boy and his pagers. Ready to go to work, mid-90s
Some friends were complaining about chlorine in their water the other day. I sympathize. No one likes that taste or smell.
The state of Washington has these standards that public drinking water must meet, you see. If your water comes to you from one of the major island water systems it has to be tested daily for levels of chlorine as well as a lot of other things, especially organisms such as e. coli or cryptosporidium. Some bacteria are dangerous to everyone, and some are not so dangerous to a healthy person but are life-threatening to someone with a compromised immune system – people undergoing chemo, or people who are HIV-positive, for example.
If a system’s water does not test up to the required standards, everyone in the system is sent a letter telling them that the water is potentially dangerous. You might be asked to boil water. The Washington water quality folks are trying to avoid mass illness and death. It’s a modest enough goal.
I know all this from being married to a guy who devoted over thirty years of his life to providing safe drinking water on Vashon Island. Rick worked on most of the large water systems (Heights Water, Water District 19, Maury Mutual, Dockton Water) and on a lot of the tiny little creek and spring-fed systems on the island.
He started in 1974, working for Mr. Mukai at VIPCO. As an employee of VIPCO, Rick repaired and installed a lot of pipe on Vashon Island. He worked on both septic and drainfield systems as well as developing springs. He decided that he preferred working on drinking water instead of waste water, and for a few years after he left VIPCO he worked independently developing and repairing little water systems.
In the late 90s he worked as an underground utilities locator. It turned out that a lot of the water pipes he located on the island he had installed years before.
It would be nice if utilities had planned from the beginning to put all utilities in the same trench underground, but they didn’t. When someone wanted to throw a utility in the ground, they threw it in all higgledy-piggledy, resulting in an underground maze that makes digging a new hole or trench without hitting a buried utility almost impossible.
This is why you see all those signs saying, “Call before you dig.” This is why there are utility locators. Consider the major Comcast outage a couple of weeks ago when a major fiber optic trunk was dug up in the South Lake Union neighborhood. That, my friends, was a locating failure. Either it was marked wrong, or the mark was ignored.
When Rick was locating he learned how to dowse. Some of you may laugh, but dowsing is something that people who work digging up the ground use. They don’t talk about it much.
Dowsing is not the first technique they use to find utilities. There are fancy-schmancy locating machines that can send an electronic signal through pipes so that you can trace their route through the ground. Unfortunately for a few decades the new pipe being put in was not metal, but PVC plastic, which does not carry a signal. When there is no signal to track and there are no other clues, it’s time to get out the dowsing rod.
Rick spent the last few years of his working life at Water District 19, doing daily water testing, repairing leaks, replacing meters, reading meters, doing locating, and, yes, adding chlorine to the water.
When you want to have a simple glass of water, consider all the men and women who are out in all weathers at all hours testing, monitoring, sanitizing, and repairing your water system, and staying up all night with generators during power outages to keep the pumps going and the water running.
We tend to think that we have a God-given right to water, and it should be free. If we could go down to the creek and drink the water without getting a galloping case of gastroenteritis, that might be true. That is not how it works. Water is treated and monitored so that you don’t get a deadly bug, or a really annoying one, like giardia. People have to take classes and get certified to do water work, and that’s one reason why you get a water bill. If you have your own system or well, you have to maintain it so that you don’t poison yourself or other system users, and that requires time and money. Nope, water is not free.
I haven’t even mentioned cross contamination, when water goes into a connection and then flows back out into the system, perhaps bringing something nasty along. That is something water workers prevent so you don’t even have to think about it. Pretty cool, huh?
Thank a water worker today, and pay your water bill cheerfully. People all over the world die from bad water every day, but you and your family won’t.
P.S.: If you don’t like the chlorine in your water, put your drinking water in a jug or other container, preferably glass, and let it stand overnight. The chlorine will “gas off.” You can sweeten your water further by running it through a filter – Pur and Brita brands come to mind.