Tour the Lab – EMWD

“I’ve got this little one staring me in the face every day, plus two more grandchildren. I give them tap water – unfiltered. We test our water constantly – I know it’s safe.” -Ken

A Sit-Down with Ken Marshall, the Lab Manager for Eastern Municipal Water District

Ken Marshall is responsible for monitoring the safety of tap water used by people who live between Box Springs State Park and Temecula. When I first meet him in the lab at Eastern Municipal Water District, it became clear that he is passionate about his job and he takes his responsibility to water customers very seriously.

On his desk is a picture of his eight month old granddaughter, whom he calls “Princess Fiona.” She and her parents both live with him and his wife.

“I’ve already given her tap water – little tiny drops from a straw. I drink it every day – unfiltered, at home and at work.”

Ken is in charge of testing drinking water before and after it is treated and before and after it is used. He sends results from EMWD’s 34 wells to the state every year, as required. He was deeply insulted when the Environmental Working Group reported that the water he sends to customers is unsafe.

A Strange Rule that Misleads Customers

The EMWD lab tests more than 50 samples a week. They test water before it’s treated and after to make sure that you get clean water.

“Most people don’t know that the State requires us to send them test results from water before it is treated – not after. We clean the water up, treat for any small amount of contaminants found and that is what customers get when they turns on their faucets.”

He was particularly upset when the Environmental Working Group told the people of Riverside County that those test results represented the water that they actually drink, “It’s just not true.”

Matters are made more complicated by the State’s rule that each water district must publish the reports about untreated water in their annual Consumer Confidence Report, but may not include lab results from the treated water. “I think it confuses people,” he says, “I’ve been trying to get them to let us also publish the lab results from clean water.”

In layman’s terms, it’s like water districts are only allowed to show us the “before” picture in a makeover, and not the “after.” That also means that the Environmental Working Group was passing off the “before” picture as the finished product.

So What’s the Difference?

Michelle Karras, nine months pregnant with her daughter Leah, shows us around the lab.

Good Housekeeping Magazine writer Rachel Moeller Gorman was horrified to find reports about E-coli in her annual Consumer Confidence Report – it would appear to most people, upon scrutinizing their report, that E-coli does show up, but again, that’s the “before” picture. Michelle Karras, a lab technician who works for Ken, talked to us about their constant testing for E-coli.

“I have never seen a sample come up positive in treated water – it hasn’t happened. That’s when all the alarms would go off. We would have to alert the authorities and issue ‘boil water’ notices to the public. But we expect to find it occasionally in untreated water from our wells, and we do. Treating the water kills E-coli.”

They get 55-59 samples every week from wells and from sampling stations throughout their network of pipes that deliver treated water to people’s homes. They test for coliforms (bacteria), E-coli specifically, and nitrates among other things on a mind-bogglingly long list.

“We mix Colilert [a creamy white power] into the sample and put it in an incubator,” she says. “if it turns yellow, that means there is bacteria in it, so then we put it under the UV light. If it glows, that means it has E-coli. I’ve never seen it glow.”

“When you are pregnant …you have to be careful about everything you put in your mouth – and tap water is safe, I drink it.”

We are talking to Michelle on the day of her baby shower – she is nine months pregnant with her daughter Leah. I ask her if she has continued to drink tap water throughout her pregnancy.

“Yes,” she says. “When you are pregnant, you are caring for someone who is living inside of you. You have to be careful about everything you put in your mouth – and I drink tap water, I know it’s safe. We do so much testing here.”

A Day Without Coffee

Michelle describes how technology has come a long way in recent years: “Equipment for testing emerging contaminants is so sensitive that when we gather samples, the guys have to completely suit up. They are not allowed to drink coffee; they can’t use lotions, cologne, or tobacco. Even the slightest trace will skew the results.”