At this point, unless you live under a rock, you’ve seen pictures of the swollen, chocolate milk-colored Ohio River. You may have heard warnings from officials to avoid coming in contact with flood waters, which often carry an unhealthy mix of chemicals and raw sewage.
Similar warnings are issued for the tributaries of the Ohio River – the Great Miami River and others.
But aren’t these the sources of our drinking water? Should we be worried about what’s coming out of our taps?
“What people sometimes don’t understand is just how blessed we are in terms of natural water resources,” said Mike Ekberg, manager for water resource monitoring and analysis at the Miami Conservancy District.
Our water situation is a positive one, actually, because of natural and man-made water systems in Southwest Ohio. We should continue to have access to clean water, even when flood waters are foul and pollutant-packed.
Less vulnerable to climate change
The Cincinnati region is less vulnerable to climate change when it comes to water scarcity, said David Nash, a University of Cincinnati geology professor emeritus.
We have the Ohio River, which provides 88 percent of Cincinnati’s drinking water and much of the water for Northern Kentucky and other communities along the river.
But the region also has the Great Miami Buried Valley Aquifer System, located underground along the Great Miami River. The aquifer is the source of clean water for 2.7 million people in communities including Fairfield, Hamilton, Middletown, Dayton, Springfield and Oxford.
“As one of my old colleagues would say, ‘It’s a gift from the glacier,’ ” said Nash, who oversees an aquifer monitoring station in Hamilton County.
Across the Midwest, there are several aquifer systems created by glaciers that carved deep gouges in the earth. Those gouges filled back in, partially, with sand and gravel, then layers of clay and/or rock, which separate the aquifer from the river above. This acts as a natural filter.
Nash’s monitoring system – the C.V. Theis Groundwater Observatory, located near Miami Whitewater Forest’s soccer complex – began collecting data on the aquifer this year.
The current flood is helping replenish the water source, something that is happening all of the time, Nash said, but not to this extent.
“An awful lot of water is being pushed into the aquifer,” Nash said. “The flow is tremendous.”
But isn’t the flood water nasty?
Yes, it is, but public water utilities are set up to handle it, officials say.
At Greater Cincinnati Water Works, most of the water comes from the Ohio River. While flooding stirs up silt and mud, Cincinnati’s treatment plant adds a chemical called alum that makes the crud stick together and sink. Water Works tests the water 600 times per day to make sure of the quality.
Water Works is even better prepared than it was for the last big flood in 1997 because the plant added UV treatment in 2013, an extra step that disinfects the water.
The remainder of the water provided by Water Works is pulled up from the aquifer via 13 wells near Fairfield. Seven of those wells are closed because of the flooding, said Jeff Swertfeger, water quality and treatment superintendent for Greater Cincinnati Water Works.
“We have the luxury, if a well gets flooded, we turn it off,” Swertfeger said. There is “plenty of pumping capacity to meet the needs up there.”
People with private wells should be vigilant
As with any situation, there are no absolutes.
Officials remind owners of private wells to make sure they are operating properly, that “water from the well is coming from the aquifer, through screens, not coming from above,” said Ekberg. If so, it could lead to all sorts of water-borne illnesses like giardiaor E. coli.
Furthermore, even though we are water-rich, particularly now, conservation is important.
“If nothing else, it will save you money,” said Ekberg. “For us, conservation probably focuses more on trying to do things that minimize our human impacts on the quality of our rivers and streams. We want to make sure that we safeguard our water resources so that they will be around for generations to come.”