Charlie Ballenger has an Internet chip on his shoulder.
Lawrence water purification
Purification takes place at the Clinton Water Treatment Plant and is a multi-step process.
How the water is tested
Treating the city’s water involves several steps. Here are some of them.
• The sponge: Crews inject a carbon slurry into the raw water. The carbon is designed to act like a sponge that attracts taste- and odor-causing materials.
• The clumpers: Lime and polymer — a chemical agent that looks like Karo syrup — are added to the water. Both serve to attract large particles in the water and bind them together. Once clumped together, gravity takes over. The water is allowed to flow through large holding basins, where gravity pulls the large particles to the bottom.
• The killer: Next, the water has a form of chlorine added to it. The chlorine is what kills any pathogens or other bacteria found in the water. Water department officials said they do use a larger amount of chlorine than the state requires. That’s because the city sells treated water to a wide region, stretching as far as Wellsville. Chlorine breaks down with time and heat, so the city uses larger amounts of chlorine to ensure its water is still properly treated after traveling long distances.
• Extra stuff: Among the other additives in the city’s water are: Fluoride for teeth health; phosphate to prevent corrosion of water pipes; ammonia to help chlorine last longer; and ferric chloride to help reduce taste and odor issues.
• The filter: Rocks, of all things, play the final role in making your water drinkable. The water plants use filters that are about 20 feet by 20 feet and are made of layers of aggregate. The top layer is a charcoal-like material, the second layer is sand, and the final three layers are different sizes of gravel. Water is fed into the top of the filter and trickles through the aggregate before it is sent into the city’s distribution system.
In mid-August, participants in an online poll by the Journal-World graded the taste of the city’s water as an “F.”
As the manager for the city’s two water treatment plants, it doesn’t matter to Ballenger that the poll was unscientific, nor that one participant admittedly graded the city’s water a “D” because it did not taste more like beer.
“I’m still steamed that they gave us an ‘F,’” Ballenger says in a recent staff meeting of the city’s water department leaders.
His colleagues around the table laugh at how upset this makes him. Perhaps out of orneriness, Ballenger’s boss — Utility Director Dave Wagner — points out that when the poll was taken the water wasn’t too whippy.
“I mean, it didn’t peel the paint off the walls, but it didn’t taste very good,” Wagner says.
Ballenger, of course, already knows this. From mid-August until just a few days ago, Ballenger has spent much of his time figuring out ways to battle a byproduct of blue-green algae — which causes no threat to human health — but has caused some people to say the city’s water has tasted similar to a cornfield.
The laughing continues a bit.
“Hey,” Ballenger breaks in. “It’s my chip and I’m going to carry it.”
It has been one of those years for Ballenger and the crews who staff the city’s Clinton Water Treatment Plant and the Kaw Water Treatment plant.
Long before the August algae issue, there was the February algae issue, which stemmed from a golden brown algae that left the water tasting like cucumbers.
“That was a bad dude there,” Ballenger said.
Although not harmful to human health, figuring out how to get rid of the taste was vexing. So much so that a Lawrence couple came knocking on the door of the Clinton plant to find out what was going on.
A lot, was the simple answer Ballenger gave them as he showed the couple around the plant.
“I really do live and die with these taste and odor events,” he said.
And he battles too.
When taste and odor becomes a problem, Ballenger turns to carbon as his main weapon. Buried in tanks beneath the ground, the water plant stores a slurry mixture of carbon and water.
Carbon essentially is one of nature’s best sponges. Add it to water, and it sucks up the organisms that can create taste and odor problems.
It also creates quite a sight. Even now, as Ballenger is in the final stages of dealing with the blue-green algae event, the Clinton plant contains a basin of approximately 1 million gallons of water that is so dark you can hardly see three inches deep.
That’s the result of adding six parts carbon per one million parts of water. When crews were working to fight the golden brown algae this winter, they increased the carbon ratio to 29 parts per million.
“It was so dark, you were pretty sure that if you got a running start you could walk across it,” Ballenger said of the pool of water.
But crews learned something about carbon this year. It works well on blue-green algae, but it doesn’t do a darn thing for golden-brown algae.
It did, though, serve to clog up the plant’s filters. (The carbon has to be filtered out before the water leaves the plant.) And at $1,700 a ton, it wasn’t doing the city’s checkbook any favors either.
So Ballenger made a decision that water plant operators sometimes must make. He let Mother Nature run her course.
Here at the Clinton Water Treatment Plant, it is one of many decisions made in this large building that eerily is never empty but also never full.
The Clinton and Kaw plants are both staffed 24 hours a day every day of the year. But on most days, only a handful of people are directly responsible for treating the millions of gallons of water consumed in the city.
Yes, computers help, but not nearly as much as you may think. They spit out data and serve as high-tech switches for various pumps and motors. But no computer makes any decision in the city’s water treatment process.
Instead, that generally falls upon a single operator who sits in front of a bank of computer screens and beneath a red light that will flash when something has gone haywire.
Every three hours, the operator leaves the command station to do an hour’s worth of lab work to double check the data that the computer is generating. Levels of turbidity — a fancy term for the cloudiness of the water — and the amount of chlorine get particular attention. But fluoride levels, alkaline readings and several other tests are done too.
In addition to recording the data — which is ultimately sent to the state — operators get to complete a video game-like task that could be called “top off the tank.”
One of the computer screens shows real-time readings for the amount of water in each of the city’s six water towers. It is up to plant operators to make sure that the towers don’t fall below certain levels. They do this by turning on and off pumps. It is a task you don’t want to forget.
“If you don’t have that filled by 3:30 in the morning,” Ballenger says, pointing to a West Lawrence tank, “you are screwed. People will start showering, sprinklers will start coming on, and you’ll be behind and won’t catch up.”
Operators are trained to work at both of the city’s plants. The computer systems are the same, but the water is not.
When showing a visitor around, operator Bryan Bauman took a sample of the untreated water that comes from Clinton Lake. The water, although slightly green, was clear enough that you easily could see through the quart container.
“At the Kaw, there’s a lot of days that would look like mud,” Bauman said.
The water quality of Clinton Lake remains pretty stable, but the condition of the Kaw can change several times in the course of a day. As much as his bosses would like to make water treatment more of a science than an art, Ballenger says there always will be a human element to it.
“There’s definitely an art to this,” Ballenger sad. “The Kaw is like voodoo. You really have to have a feel for it.”
The crews out at the city’s water plants aren’t nearly as visible as the city’s police officers and firefighters. But like their police and fire colleagues, night, weekend and holiday shifts are all commonplace for water plant operators.
The idea to protect and serve also is the same, Ballenger said.
“We definitely consider ourselves in the public safety business,” Ballenger said.
Sometimes how they’re in it is less obvious. For example, it is up to the water department to make sure the fire department has adequate water pressure to battle a blaze. And for decades, the water department was responsible for safeguarding perhaps one of the more dangerous substances in the entire city.
Until recently, the department used a form of chlorine gas to treat its water. The gas was similar to the type used in World War I warfare. A major leak would have caused a significant Lawrence evacuation. The city, on the advice of new water department leaders, recently switched over to a less dangerous, liquefied version.
And, of course, there’s the water that we drink. Every day the work of the water department ends up a part of the lives of Lawrence residents. But Ballenger and his crew hope Lawrence residents don’t ever have any reason to think of that when they turn on the tap. For water plant operators, silence is golden.
“Our adage is, if we’re not hearing from the public, we’re doing a great job,” Ballenger said. “People don’t call us to say we’re doing a great job.”