Fluoride Action Network

Is your drinking water safe? 350,000 Utahns receiving water from systems with known problems

Source: Deseret News | February 19th, 2020 | By Amy Joi O’Donoghue.

SALT LAKE CITY — It’s been a little more than a year since a malfunction in a Sandy drinking water pump led to an overfeed of fluoride — 100 times over the maximum limit — delivering contaminated water to close to 300 homes.

An estimated 350 illnesses resulted, including an infant who drank the water mixed with formula.

“During this week last year, Sandy city residents were experiencing what the (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) has characterized as the largest fluoride overfeed event in the nation’s history,” Marie Owens told a legislative appropriations subcommittee last week.

A water meter cover is pictured in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2020. The Utah Division of Drinking Water is requesting additional money to step up compliance of public drinking water systems. 

A water meter cover is pictured in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2020. The Utah Division of Drinking Water is requesting additional money to step up compliance of public drinking water systems. Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Owens, who is director of the Utah Division of Drinking Water, delivered a detailed picture of the challenges of monitoring public drinking water supplies in the state, informing the Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environmental Quality Appropriations Subcommittee that the needs are great and infrastructure is aging.

In Sandy, the fluoride overfeed delivered twice the lethal dose to impacted homes, Owens said.

“Sandy City is not an isolated event,” Owens said, pointing out there were 170 “near miss” events in drinking water supplies over the course of a year that included boil orders, chemical spills and severe operational failures.

“Statistically, on average, there was one of these events every other day in the state of Utah,” she said. “I don’t need to explain to you that is unacceptable.”

Owens pointed to one instance in which there was a hole in a drinking water tank.

“Any rodent could walk right up to that tank and do whatever,” she said. “Fall in. Hang out.”

The division is seeking $2.5 million a year for five years to ramp up inspections for compliance, institute a fee-based permit system and particularly help smaller drinking water systems meet standards.

Owens described it as “bridge” money to help the division develop a sustainable model for revenue as population continues to grow in Utah.

Cleo Naomi Brown, 3, watches as Robbie Giles, automated meter infrastructure technician for Salt Lake City Public Utilities, removes a water meter in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2020. The Utah Division of Drinking Water is requesting additional money to step up compliance of public drinking water systems. 
Cleo Naomi Brown, 3, watches as Robbie Giles, automated meter infrastructure technician for Salt Lake City Public Utilities, removes a water meter in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2020. The Utah Division of Drinking Water is requesting additional money to step up compliance of public drinking water systems. Laura Seitz, Deseret News

An estimated 350,000 people in Utah are receiving water from systems with a known and fixable risk, but the resources are lacking, Owens said.

Much of the infrastructure for water delivery is either at, or nearing, its operational life span, presenting a fiscal challenge for many communities.

Laura Briefer, director of the Salt Lake City Department of Public Utilities, in a later interview with the Deseret News, said she is well aware of the challenges.

The city’s five- to 10-year plan is to replace or upgrade all three drinking water treatment facilities — which is easily a $100 million effort.

“Many of us in Utah and across the nation are facing aging infrastructure in our distribution pipelines,” she said.

“Statistically, on average, there was one of these events every other day in the state of Utah. I don’t need to explain to you that is unacceptable.” — Marie Owens, Utah Division of Drinking Water director

The problem is compounded by slashed federal funding for programs that offer low-interest loans for system upgrades, while at the same time water providers are facing increasing pressure from new regulations, Briefer said.

Owens told the committee the division works closely with public water systems and their monitoring protocols, but there is a need to upgrade the inspection program, especially given the 20% backlog.

The city of Sandy continues to be under a stepped up monitoring schedule with the division for contaminants from the fluoride overfeed.