In Search of Clean Water

In Search of Clean Water

Tom Jacobus lives in Mount Vernon but works in Washington. Lately however, he has been spending more and more time in the District. As General Manger of The Washington Aqueduct, he has been busy, talking to media and continuing to oversee the production of drinking water for approximately one million citizens living, working or visiting in the District of Columbia, Arlington County, and the City of Falls Church, and its service area.

A division of the Baltimore District, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Aqueduct is a federally owned and operated public water supply agency that produces an average of 180 million gallons of water per day at two treatment plants located in the District. When things go well, it's an agency normally taken for granted; now that houses in the District and surrounding areas are reporting high lead levels, it's very much in the public eye. Recent tests have shown that the levels were significantly higher than the 15 parts per billion which is allowed.

Jacobus said that these high levels are "somewhat of a surprise. It's not a surprise that the numbers are big, but they're so much bigger than anyone expected. It's a manageable problem, but the public has lost confidence."

Jacobus explained that lead can get in the water three ways: from the service line [the line to the street]; from joints that are soldered with lead; or from brass or bronze faucets, which can have up to 8 percent lead. He said that homes in Mount Vernon are served by the Fairfax County Water Authority (FCWA). Most homes have copper pipes, and there's no reason to worry. If people are concerned, however, they can have their water tested by calling FCWA's Customer Service Department at 703-698-5800.

The charge for lead level testing of your home's water is $35 per faucet. Additional information is available from EPA's Safe Drinking Water Hotline, 800-426-4791.

THE FAIRFAX COUNTY Water Authority's website,, noted, "source waters do not contain significant amounts of lead. The Water Authority's distribution system does not contain lead pipes. The Authority has made an extensive effort to identify and replace any lead service connections in the older areas of its system."

The web site explains, "Household plumbing systems may provide a source for lead exposure to drinking water. Prior to 1986, lead pipe and solder may have been used in some household plumbing. In 1986, lead was banned from being used in pipe and solder. If your home was built prior to 1986, it is a good idea to let your cold water run from the faucet for 60 seconds to 90 seconds prior to using for drinking or cooking.

"Saving the water for other purposes, such as plant watering, is a good conservation measure. It is difficult to know exactly how long it takes the "fresh" water from the street water main pipes to arrive at the faucet. The time needed varies depending on your specific location, type of plumbing, and type of facility [for example whether you live in a single-family home, or are using water from an apartment]. A change in temperature flowing from the cold water faucet typically indicates "fresh water" from the main has reached the faucet. Otherwise, two minutes is usually enough for most homes."

FCWA SAID THAT they have added a corrosion inhibitor to help prevent lead from leaching into the water. The Water Authority has been using zinc orthophosphate [a widely used and accepted corrosion inhibitor] since 1998, and adjusts the finished water pH in the treatment process to minimize corrosion from household plumbing.

Jacobus said that one of the things his department does is manage the corrosiveness of the water. That, however, is not the only thing they manage. They also have to mange the bacteria and remove certain substances.

Chloromine was added in November, 2000, as part of the disinfection process. Chloromine tends to be more corrosive, and experts are starting to question if that is what is causing this increase in lead levels. Jacobus said that he does not believe that the addition of chloromine a few years ago is to blame; instead he thinks that itís a chemistry problem.

"The overall chemistry is not quite right and the chemical treatment needs adjustment. We'll work in conjunction with the EPA and Department of Health to analyze and create revised water chemistry, one that's a little aggressive," said Jacobus.

In the meantime, Jacobus is just trying to "be the face of confidence and openness."