Galesburg made headlines this year when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency determined the city failed to meet federal standards for lead levels in the drinking water at some residences. City leaders have consistently said the city's water supply is not to blame -- rather, it is the lead service lines that connect some homes to the city's supply that are contaminating the water.
That city-held truth led Tri States Public Radio to seek out Galesburg’s water source.
Galesburg Water Superintendent Richard Nelson said not many people come to tour the water treatment plant. That’s largely because the facility is in Oquawka, which is a small town that backs up to the Mississippi River about 32 miles west of Galesburg.
“It’s a lot of distance between the treatment plant and the municipality that we serve. That can complicate things sometimes as far as changing out personnel or things like that," Nelson said. "Most treatment plants are in the city (they serve) or very near the city for the source water.”
Galesburg draws its water from the Oquawka aquifer. Nelson said it’s a good, high quality source that's much better than anything the city would be able to get in town.
Nelson said prior to the 1950’s Galesburg got its water from five wells in town that were about 2,600 feet deep. But the five wells in Oquawka only have to be 105 feet deep each.
Nelson said that is possible because the Oquawka aquifer is right next to the Mississippi River and the ground there is mostly sand and gravel. Nelson said water from shallow wells is less likely than deep well water to contain problematic chemical elements such as radium.
“[The Oquawka Aquifer] is an excellent water source. Iron and manganese are the only two bad things that are in this water source in the raw form that we need to get out of it and that’s basically what this plant is; an iron and manganese plant.”
Nelson called the Oquawka water plant one of the simplest in terms of treatment. He said a real challenge would be having to deal with hard water or things such as radium in the water.
About 5 million gallons of water move through the Oquawka treatment plant a day. The process is pretty much automated although there are three full-timers on staff in Oquawka to monitor operations and test the water supply to make sure everything is working properly.
The treatment process takes about 3 hours and starts with the water being pumped out of the wells and up into two large contact tanks [on the left in the photo above] which are just outside of the main building.
In there, chlorine is added to allow the manganese and iron to oxidize. The water sits there for about an hour and a half and then it flows into the concrete tanks inside the plant.
About 5,000 gallons of water rush into the concrete tanks per minute. Production Supervisor Jacob Pedigo said production can ramp up closer to 8,500 gallons a minute when needed to help get more water moving into Galesburg during peak hours.
“When people get off work from 3:00-5:00 p.m. you’re going to see more usage, the towers are going to fall more in Galesburg. So they’ll pump more water from their ground storage to their elevated storage and so we’ll have to pump more here to fill up the ground storage tanks,” Pedigo said.
The water in this room looks almost black as the iron and manganese oxidize and separate so that the minerals will get caught in the filter when the the water passes.
The clean water then comes out the bottom and into the next room when phosphate is added to treat for lead.
Galesburg Water Superintendent Richard Nelson stressed that there is not any lead in the Oquawka water supply. He said the wells have been tested several times to satisfy EPA requirements.
“There’s been testing here, there’s been testing at the wells, there’s been testing in the system at our fire hydrants in Galesburg, and there was no lead detected in any of that,” Nelson said. “The lead clearly comes from the lead service lines that lead to the homes.”
Even though the city’s water supply is not tainted, Galesburg has been adding phosphate to its water to treat for lead since the mid 1990’s. The phosphate helps coat the lead service lines so that they don’t contaminate the water.
After the city failed to meet EPA standards last fall for lead levels in the water at some residences, the city was encouraged to change its phosphate blend.
Nelson said Galesburg has been using a 60/40 phosphate blend but is now putting a 90/10 blend into the water.
“Basically, it has more of the stuff in it that coats the inside of the service lines. More of that product in it,” Nelson said. “This is part of what we had to do for the Illinois EPA and the U.S. EPA. The study and the results and this was part of their findings.”
Still, Nelson said those who use the city’s water aren’t likely to notice the change. He said that’s because it’s really a negligible amount of phosphate added to the water to begin with, around 1.3 parts per million.
After that, fluoride is added to the water per federal standards. Just like the phosphate tank , the fluoride tank is huge. It's more than six feet tall and goes just as far into the ground as it does above.
A second, smaller tank of fluoride sits on a scale. To make sure the right amount is going into the water supply, they weigh it throughout the day. It operates similarly to how an I-V drip at the hospital works.
As a last safety measure, a little more chlorine is added in to protect the water from bacteria along the way and it is sent off to the final room in the plant, the high service room.
From Oquawka, Galesburg is a little more than a 30 minute drive. But, for the water, Nelson said it’s about a 30 hour journey.
“This water that is leaving here [Friday], you’ll probably see it in Galesburg Sunday morning basically… it’s kind of hard to imagine,” Nelson said.
Once it gets to Galesburg, the city sells some of it to Abingdon, Knoxville, East Galesburg, Little York, and West Point. Nelson said one major reason Galesburg opened the treatment plant in Oquawka in 2010 was so the city could sell some of the water to neighboring communities.
The rest of the water is pushed into the storage tanks at the old Galesburg Water Plant before it heads to the city’s water towers where it sits until someone turns on the tap to let it flow.