Toledo Crisis Raises Questions About Water Safety In Central Ohio

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Could it happen here?

It's the question on the minds of many after the weekend crisis that left half a million Ohioans without safe drinking water.

It's easily taken for granted: a pull of the handle delivers clean, safe drinking water; until it doesn't - as hundreds of thousands of our neighbors to the northwest learned this weekend.

It begs the question: could what happened in Toledo happen here?

“Conceivably, it could,” said George Zonders with the Columbus Department of Public Utilities. “Probably to one of our surface treatment plant, either Dublin Road or the Hap Cremean Plant. The odds are very low."

Zonders says there are key differences between the water system here versus Toledo's.

Possibly the biggest:  "Three different water sources serving the city of Columbus, so it's not one water source."

The greater Columbus water supply goes through one of three plants:  The Dublin Road Plant serves western and southwestern areas using water from Griggs and O'Shaughnessy Reservoirs.  The Hap Cremean Water Plant serves OSU and northern residents, with water from Hoover Reservoir.  The Parsons Avenue Water Plant serves residents in the southeast, drawing water from wells.

"Fortunately we wouldn't be having to deal with it hitting all of our sources of water at one time.  We have a real difficult time visualizing that happening," said Zonders.

Rod Dunn manages the City's Water Quality Assurance Laboratory.

"Each water plant has their own process lab, and then we do some of the more complicated testing for all the water treatment plants,” Dunn said.  He says testing of the water for any number of contaminants is a constant process.

One of the city's many tools: sensors known as datasondes.

"We'll have these deployed out in the reservoirs and the rivers,” Dunn said. “And each of the sensors gives us an idea of what's going on."

That data is sent back to the lab in real time.  "If the dissolved oxygen suddenly shoots up, that indicates an algal bloom," Dunn explains.

Zonders says microcystin - the toxic culprit in Toledo - has been seen here, but in extremely low levels.  "Very important to note that it's in the source water. It has not appeared at any point near our intake for our treatment plants, and it has certainly never appeared in our finished product that goes out. That doesn't mean we're going to stop testing for it- we're going to continue to do so."

The Water Quality Assurance Lab does some 40,000 different tests each year to assure water quality.  The city has additional treatment facilities coming online in 2017 which it says will provide added barriers between toxins and the water that comes into our homes.