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Imagine A Day Without Water-Researchers and Utilities Collaborating to Improve Quality of Drinking Water

By Linda Nogueras

Do you ever think about our water beyond the instance that you consume it? Imagine you had the chance to visit a water treatment plant and witness a researcher getting water samples to provide insight into technologies that could significantly raise the safety of drinking water. I had the opportunity to join Ohio State graduate student Judith Straathof as she went on her weekly collection of water samples at the City of Columbus Dublin Road Water Plant. I only needed to listen to her talk about the project for a couple of minutes to feel as much passion for it as she did.

It was, as many would consider, a perfect day out; with the sun shining brightly and the sky clear, and yet Judith informed me that she hoped it had rained before our visit. She wanted to collect samples after or during rain, as it would provide a different perspective on the experiment. Many of her samples for the year had been collected on sunny, clear days such as this, so a change in weather would provide different insights on water quality. Her project goal, funded by the Ohio Water Resources Center, is to investigate the use of UV light as part of a multi-barrier water treatment process. The supervisor of the project, Dr. Natalie Hull, stated that this research would ideally make it easier for treatment systems to upgrade treatment plants with UV disinfection. This approach may help to decrease the amount of treatment violations by public water systems, ultimately increasing the customer’s faith in the safety of the water they drink.

The day started with a short drive from the Ohio State campus to the treatment plant, where we were welcomed by a team of operators who monitor the quality of the water, the safety and state of the tanks, and the efficiency of the water treatment processes. Judith first collected a sample of water, which enters the treatment plant from source water. The other water samples have to be collected from the midst of treatment, in the coagulation and softening reactors (Photo 1). From farther away, these reactors just looked like big rectangular pools and I tried to guess how deep they were. Luckily, one of the tanks was undergoing maintenance and was drained and I could clearly see the tank’s depth and the huge volume these tanks usually hold. We walked towards the end of the operating tanks, where Judith usually collects water samples for her experiments. These tanks contain large amounts of constantly mixed particles, but according to the operator joining us, occasionally fish can make it to the tanks and the operators have to help them get out.

The visit took about 20 minutes, but this was only the beginning of Judith’s work for the week. We walked back to Judith’s car, with a cooler full of water samples, and drove back to the OSU campus so Judith could start her sample analyses and experiments. First, Judith helped me get safety glasses on top of my own glasses and explained to me the rules of the lab: no drinks, no food, wear your safety glasses and lab coats as you work with the samples. Then we could start  the measurement of the samples’ UV absorbance and reflectivity (Photo 2). It was a process that she has done countless times, and this was noticeable in the way she made it seem so simple yet was careful, precise and efficient in all her movements. As the machine completed the measurements, Judith talked about how this is what a normal sample collection day looks like and explained the further testing that she would need to conduct in the next few days. Unfortunately, it was time for me to say good-bye, but I was happy to experience almost a full day in the life of an engineering grad student and learn about water research and water treatment.

As we celebrate this year’s Imagine a Day without Water, keep in mind that water treatment processes occur every day with the goal of maintaining a water quality that will keep the public safe. According to the Ohio EPA, there are around 4,800 public water systems in Ohio that serve approximately 11 million people daily.