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How Clean Is Our Water? Students Test for Lead

Alma students analyze drinking water for lead, test streams and rivers for unhealthy nutrients, and illustrate their data with GIS software. Gratiot County is their “lab” for real-world learning.

<em>From left: Logan St. John, Nikki Green<br><br></em>From left: Logan St. John, Nikki Green

The Flint water crisis has raised national awareness of the seriousness of lead contamination. Communities across the nation are asking: Is our drinking water safe?

Murray Borrello and his students at Alma College are addressing the issue in Alma by sampling tap water from homes, businesses, schools and main water lines for the presence of lead.

“The State of Michigan considers a reading of 15 parts per billion as unsafe,” says Borrello, faculty coordinator of Alma’s environmental studies program. “However, the Centers for Disease Control recommend no lead in the water.

“With a couple of exceptions, our detection equipment has revealed certified-laboratory readings of one part per billion or less, which means Alma’s water supply is incredibly good,” says Borrello.

Lead Contamination: In the Forefront of the News

The lead analysis of Alma’s water supply was done in cooperation with Bill Pilmore, water treatment superintendent for the Gratiot Area Water Authority. About 25 percent of the GAWA water supply serving the communities of Alma and St. Louis comes from the Pine River.

<em>Murray Borrello, rowing in the Pine River, and his students will present their summer research results to City of Alma officials this fall and at Honors Day next spring.<br><br></em>Murray Borrello, rowing in the Pine River, and his students will present their summer research results to City of Alma officials this fall and at Honors Day next spring.

“Water analysis is in the forefront of the news right now; it definitely has everyone’s attention in the State of Michigan,” says Pilmore. “Anyone associated with community utilities who hasn’t thought about lead contamination since the Flint debacle is not paying attention.”

For most community water supplies, chemicals like chlorine are added to remove unhealthy nutrients. However, chlorine can make the water corrosive because it leaches out iron, copper and lead from potentially deteriorating pipes.

Borrello believes that the environmental conditions that impacted the Flint water crisis also exist in many rural communities. For example, nutrients from fertilizer or manure spread on fields may ultimately run off into ditches, streams and rivers — particularly after heavy or sustained rain — or soak through drain tiles where drain fields flow into river tributaries.

“One reason Flint water became toxic when it moved to the Flint River source was that the river was impacted by agricultural runoff, as evidenced by a watershed management plan,” says Borrello. “So chemicals were added, specifically chlorine, to clarify and sterilize the water. That increases the corrosivity if proper steps aren’t taken to neutralize the acidity.”

Sampling for Run-off Nutrients in the Pine River

In addition to lead analysis of the city’s water supply, Alma students under Borrello’s supervision test for nutrients in the Pine River that may come from agricultural runoff. Students Logan St. John, Annika Gurrola and Nikki Green participated in the summer research.

<em>"I didn't know very much about GIS before I came to Alma, but I'm finding it's an important and demanding field," says Annika Gurrola.<br><br></em>"I didn't know very much about GIS before I came to Alma, but I'm finding it's an important and demanding field," says Annika Gurrola.

“We counted nutrient levels in three different locations,” says St. John, a sophomore from Weidman majoring in environmental studies. “Past research has shown there are large amounts of ammonia and soluable-reactive phosphate in some of the tributaries that flow into the Pine River. We are sampling the water at these different locations.”

Gurrola plans to illustrate the research data using Geographic Information Systems, or GIS, software, to create maps that identify the various saturation levels of nutrients in the county.

“I didn’t know very much about GIS before I came to Alma, but I’m finding it’s an important and demanding field,” says Gurrola, a sophomore from Spring, Texas.

She will illustrate the relationships between known-environmental contamination and known-health problems. For example, she will potentially create maps that show population concentrations of obesity, diabetes, cancer or thyroid disease, and then superimpose maps of known areas of environmental risks like agricultural runoff or septic tanks.

“We can put all this data that we have from past years to the present into an interactive and accessible form,” she says. The maps from the GIS software will be shared with the Dow Digital Science Center, which links data from remote locations.

Borrello and his students will present their research results to City of Alma officials this fall and at Honors Day next spring.

The summer research was funded by a grant from local Alma residents Jeff and Ginna Holmes, long-time supporters of Alma College and the environmental work that has been done and continues to be done in the mid-Michigan region.

Story published on August 09, 2016