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March 11, 2008

In treatment: Endless research, vigilance elevates Louisville Water Co. to global consultant status

In fall of 2009: contractors are expected finish work on four collector wells“This is not your drinking water.”A bundled, tobogganed Barbara Crow looks over a tank of undulating, moss-green liquid floating on a frigid February morning. “I have to say it again,” she says. “This is not your drinking water.”My stomach thanks her. Staring downward, Crow, a former TV reporter in Bowling Green and 22-year employee of the Louisville Water Co., points out white clusters, no bigger than the tip of your index finger, dancing haphazardly beneath the surface.They’re the result of feric chloride, a chemical compound with magnetic properties, bonding with silt, dirt and other foreign substances you’d rather not ingest into globs of gunk, then treated and removed from these coagulation bins at the Crescent Hill water treatment plant on Frankfort Avenue.This water hasn’t traveled far. Pumped from the Ohio River, it flows through transmission mains from the Water Tower pumping station, south under Zorn Avenue, then east into the Crescent Hill reservoir. But the millions of gallons stored there aren’t your drinking water, either.If you live in Louisville Metro, Oldham, Bullitt and (soon) Shelby counties, your water — as in the stuff thatthe wells: which shoot down 150 feet underground, are part of the water company’s million riverbank filtration project. flows from your tap — is treated and pumped continuously from underground wells on Frankfort Avenue out to the city through 3,900 miles of pipes. And, as Crow likes to say, what travels in those pipes is the most regulated, analyzed and scientifically dissected element Louisvillians will ever use.“We’re in the business of public health,” Crow says.Louisville Water Co. is a business. The old city government bought all of its stock in 1906 when it drew no interest from the private sector. The company bottles and sells its Pure Tap bottled water all over town, and what bottles it doesn’t sell are given to, say, sweaty middle school kids baking at a bus stop, or marathoners losing knee cartilage mile by excruciating mile in Iroquois Park.Now the water company is distributing something else: knowledge.In the last decade, the company has tried — sometimes in vain — to help countries like Ukraine, Honduras and Ghana improve their water quality while continuing to improve its own.With help from a World Health Organization grant and nonprofit foundations, Steve Hubbs, a former vice president of new technology at the water company, traveled to these three countries to advise federal and local governments on how to operate for-profit water utilities and keep their water from being contaminated. When dealing with former Soviet bloc and third-world countries, achieving those goals is harder than it sounds.Tamale (pronounced TOM-alee), Ghana, a city of 400,000 people, had no sewer system and no toilets in their schools. Motor oil and other chemicals were being dumped right onto the ground, threatening the water supply of 3 million gallons per day, most of which came from a river 15 miles away.Such outdated, nonexistent infrastructure meant residents could only get water from midnight to 2 a.m., and even then, its quality was suspect. Water main breaks went unrepaired, leaving large sinkholes in the ground.“It is an impoverished region that is sustainable, at best, at a modest level of living standard, that can then be totally devastated by disruptions like drought,” Hubbs said of Tamale, which he visited in March 2004.During dry seasons, gardeners didn’t have enough water to grow crops. During monsoon season, mosquitoes and guinea worms infected villagers, causing major malaria outbreaks.Guinea worms were a particular, persistent nuisance in Tamale’s groundwater supply. “The worm exits your body through a burning pustule on your hand, and the only relief you feel is by plunging it into water,” he says. “That’s how the parasite enters water and the cycle continues.”Improving Tamale’s infrastructure, Canadians built small wells for villagers to acquire water. Chinese engineers built a waste disposal system for the entire town using foreign investment, and Hubbs recommended an irrigation system that would have the most positive effect on agriculture.In certain countries, recommendations aren’t enough.Before Hubbs’s first visit in 2005, residents of Rubizhne (pronounced Roo-BIZH-knee), Ukraine, were on a schedule. From 6-10 a.m., and from 5-10 p.m., every day, they could use water for showering, drinking and cleaning, a consequence of bad electricity at their water pumps, bad pipes and no valves to shut off water.A dye plant that employed 80 percent of its workforce shut down, and chemicals from the plant threatened to pollute a natural aquifer.Residents didn’t trust their water, which had been downgraded to “technical,” meaning it was unfit for drinking. Moreover, they didn’t discuss it: When residents, federal regulators and local government officials finally met to talk about Rubizhne’s water pollution, Hubbs was told he had witnessed the town’s first-ever public meeting.“Most of the people — we use the term progressive — realized if anything was gonna be done, they’re going to have to do it on their own,” he says.Communication, and corruption, would prove to be huge barriers. During a water quality training session Hubbs organized for town officials and federal regulators in Kiev, Ukraine’s capital, both camps initially balked at the concept of making residents pay for water because they were afraid they wouldn’t be re-elected.“If you even hint that you’re going to raise revenues for water supply in Ukraine, the likelihood of getting elected is almost nil,” Hubbs says.Town residents didn’t believe a private utility would charge them a fair, accurate price for water, nor did they trust that their money wouldn’t wind up in a “shadow economy,” unaccounted for.Obtaining accurate scientific data on Rubizhne’s aquifer from the Ukrainian government showed Hubbs the level of corruption firsthand. He wanted the town to build an early warning system so it would know when contaminated water from the dye plant was headed for the aquifer. Kiev geologists knew how to predict that event, but wanted the town to pay them first.“They would sell it to the city, but they wouldn’t give it to them,” he says. “They said, ‘Well, we’ll have to talk to somebody.’ I said how much is it? Tell me now! $20? $50? $100? They didn’t know how to put a price on it. ‘Well, we don’t have enough money to pay our geologists, so if we have a commodity to sell, we’re going to sell it.’ It’s kind of like capitalism without the public governance right of knowledge to go with it.” By 2006, the last time Hubbs visited Rubizhne, Chinese manufacturers had replaced the dye plant to build a pipe factory, creating jobs while making better pipes — “the most expensive part of a water utility.” More than 90 percent of residents pay their water bill on time.Hubbs also fostered the practice of riverbank filtration, which the Louisville Water Co. is spending $47 million on to bring even cleaner source water — that is, water drawn direct from nature — to Louisville and surrounding counties.Massive doesn’t even come close to describing the endeavor. Four collector wells are being dug 150 feet down to the north and northwest of the B.E. Payne plant in Prospect, where filtration pipes then extend north 250 feet out into an aquifer that stretches from the Water Tower to the Payne plant. The source water flowing from that aquifer is naturally filtered by sand, and it’s almost as clean as the tap water coming from your kitchen sink.On the flipside, an early warning system to trace contaminated water from the dye factory has still not been implemented in Rubizhne, a sign that the town, and its leaders, might have a long way to go.Ukrainians who have worked with Hubbs tell him that expecting a country to transform in a matter of years might be asking too much.“The Ukrainians all say that we’re expecting too much from Ukraine, and probably the other post-Soviet countries,” he says. “The complaint is that it’s taken them too long to change their economic systems over. OK, let’s talk about ethics reform or election funding. How well are we doing on those? We suck. We’re expecting a whole country (to change) in 10 years? Forget It. It ain’t happening.” Contact the writer at mherron@leoweekly.com