Archive for Friday, April 12, 1996


April 12, 1996


Maintaining the quality of Lawrence's water supply is a 24-hour a day job.

Every day water arrives in the homes of Lawrence residents ready for cooking, cleaning and thirst quenching. Although many people take it for granted, ensuring clean water is no small task.

At the Kaw River Water Treatment plant, an average of 11 million gallons of water a day is transformed from murky river water into water suitable for running through the faucets of area homes.

``I don't think people realize how hard we work down here to keep their water clean,'' said Keith Whealy, operations supervisor of the treatment plant.

The Kaw River treatment plant, 720 W. Third St., is one of two water treatment plants that serve the Lawrence area. The other is the Clinton Reservoir treatment plant, 2101 Wakarusa Dr. The Kaw River plant draws its water from the Kansas River and eight alluvial wells that sit just next to the river.

The life of Lawrence water starts when river water is pumped into a huge, round presedimentation basin. It is here that the large particles of debris are allowed to settle. The water is then run through four more presedimentation basins.

Concern for chemicals

In the third presedimentation basin, chemicals -- potassium permanganate and activated carbon -- are added to the water. Potassium permanganate improves the taste and odor of the water. The activated carbon helps to remove atrazine. Atrazine is a farm chemical that has been linked to cancer and is found in high doses in water from the Kansas River.

Whealy admits that keeping atrazine levels low is a concern for the water treatment plant.

``In the fall, the atrazine level is only about .3 to .4 parts per billion, but in the spring, when the farmers apply their fertilizers, the levels get as high as three to four parts per billion,'' Whealy said.

The Environmental Protection Agency requires that atrazine levels fall below three parts per billion. In a small lake, a thimble full of atrazine would be pushing EPA requirements.

``You've got to understand we're talking parts per billion, that's very small,'' Whealy said.

After presedimentation, the water moves through the flash mixer. In the flash mixer, the treatment plant adds lime and soda ash to the water. These chemicals help soften the water.

``We don't have to add these,'' Whealy explained, "but the river water is pretty hard, especially in the winter when the salts on the road make their way to the river.''

Following the flash mixer, the water goes through two primary settling basins. Still murky at this point, the water undergoes its most drastic transformation in these basins.

While paddles at the bottom of the basin turn the water against itself, a polymer is added that causes the particles in the water to bond. These bonded particles become heavy and sink to the bottom of the basin. The water particles that remain on top are those that are fit to drink. The murky river water that entered the primary settling basins leaves looking clear and nearly ready for use.

The fine tuning of the water occurs in the secondary settling basins and in the filters. In the secondary settling basins, chlorine is added to the water to kill any remaining, potentially dangerous, microscopic organisms. The filters sift out all remaining particles of debris through various layers of sand, gravel and charcoal.

The Kaw River treatment plant completely refurbished its filters last winter.

``It's a big improvement,'' Whealy said. ``It has greatly reduced the turbidity of the water.''

After the filters, the water is finally ready to pump into the homes of Lawrence residents. To ensure the quality of the water leaving the plant, two operators staff the plant 24 hours a day. Every two hours, they take a sample of the water and run it through a battery of tests.

Faith and fears

Despite the long process and hard work behind the Lawrence water, some Lawrence residents are still skeptical of its quality.

Mark Parker, a maintenance worker at the Community Mercantile, 901 Miss., said that the demand for the store's distilled water is high.

``There are a lot of chemicals in the water, and a lot of people don't want to drink those chemicals,'' Parker said.

Tim Miller, a religious studies professor at Kansas University has been concerned about the quality of Lawrence water for several years.

``I don't think everything is OK,'' Miller said. ``I don't drink city water.''

Miller says that the atrazine is one of his main concerns. He has a filter attached to his faucet.

Linda Cottin, owner of Coast to Coast Hardware, 1832 Mass., said that water filters are popular.

``I don't think that the demand is so much out of concern, but out of awareness,'' she said. ``There are sediments in the water, and people want them out for a variety of reasons.''

Whealy says he has heard complaints and concerns about the quality of Lawrence water.

``Some people complain about the bad taste from the chlorine and other chemicals. That's a matter of taste,'' he said. ``But our water meets all EPA regulations.''

Whealy says that a filter will take care of the taste and remove most remaining chemicals in the water. However, he says that buying bottled water is unnecessary.

``Many bottled water companies only check their water once a month,'' he said. ``We check ours every two hours.''

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