Community July 24, 2008

What’s in Your Water?

Tap Dancing: Fresh from the Faucet

 It must be something in the water. We who are drawn to the Wood River Valley, whether here for sport, beauty, family or fun, for a week or for a lifetime, are inspired to become and stay fit, healthy and engaged in our environment. We run, ski, bike, hike and exercise daily, rehydrating with plenty of clear, clean water as we go.

Depending on our location, the confidence level with which we draw that thirst-quenching drink of water is variable. In parts of L.A. or Mexico City, do you turn on the tap or crack open a bottled version? In Idaho, is it a different story? Is the water any cleaner, any more pure, than the metro mix? Probably. At least for the moment, it is.

Distance from power plant smokestacks and point-source pollution of manufacturing centers has insulated our mountain hamlets from the more visible contaminants of urban centers. Yet, this Valley is home to a population that knows we are part of a global pool, accepting high levels of unfriendly chemistry into our environment on a daily basis worldwide. We’re a group smart enough to know that what happens in Las Vegas doesn’t necessarily stay in Las Vegas if you’re talking about contamination of air and water.

Local environmental non-profit organizations are working with government agencies at every level to stay informed and active in keeping our water standards as high as possible, studying the Valley’s hydrology from the source and stewarding water’s path north to south. Still, that may not be enough. 

A few clouds have begun to gather on the hydrological horizon. Recent studies have cast concerns about the quality and the quantity of the water here in Blaine County due to contamination from that bigger, global pool. Data from a recent study of Silver Creek brown trout caught in July of 2007 indicated unhealthy levels of mercury, and, while most of us do not draw our water directly from that source, the discovery is an indication other waterways may be contaminated as well. A United States Geological Survey study on water quantity released in December of 2007 announced falling water levels in wells and waterways dotting and dashing through the Blaine County landscape.

No matter how you pour it, clean, pure water is becoming more precious by the moment. The hydrologic cycle that moves water around the globe, from terra firma to atmospheric elevations and back again, also sends contaminants from one place to another following wind and weather. What came out of a smokestack in Nevada yesterday might move from water surfaces to air currents and into Idaho airspace or waters with the next storm. Examining the source of the Big Wood may not be as simple as looking to the top of Galena.

water droplet

Whether pure or contaminated, water everywhere has the common chemical formula H2O, two hydrogen atoms bonded to one oxygen. Hydrogen, the first and lightest element in the periodic table, is a tiny atom that, by itself, is quite flammable. Oxygen can also be a fire-starter in pure form. Put the two elements together as water and, instead of providing ignition, they work to extinguish fire and sustain life.

On the 4,000 vertical foot trip water takes from Galena Summit in the north to Magic Reservoir in the south, the geography and flora of the land help to cleanse and purify every drop on its way down. Sand, gravel, cattails and wetlands all work to filter the water naturally. Early Blaine County residents once took their water directly from the river. Today, wells throughout the cities and county now provide drinking water for most residents. Municipal systems pump water up from wells and into homes, office buildings and schools. Private wells throughout the county provide drinking water for a large number of rural residents.

Sun Valley, on the north end of the county, hasn’t seen any contaminant violations to speak of according to recently retired District Water and Sewer Manager Jack Brown. While there have been some errors attributed to water sampling, any question about contamination has been answered by proper resampling. Brown says that the natural filtration of water flowing down from Galena to the underground aquifer could not be designed better if it were planned and constructed using modern technology, making use of stream bank filtration as it flows through sand and gravel. >>>


Ketchum Utilities Manager Steve Hansen concurs that the Valley has very clean groundwater, with the last known significant contamination occurring in 1992. On the heels of that sample, which indicated Escherica coli contamination, a coliform bacteria carefully monitored in all Valley water sources, the district was prompted to begin adding chlorine to the system to keep residents from becoming ill should contamination occur. Other cities followed suit. Hansen added that Ketchum also sends highly cleaned, Class A wastewater back into the system after use by residents. In an ecological effort, the city is considering the re-use of cleaned wastewater for irrigation and may, at a future date, be able to conserve a significant amount with that practice, Hansen projects, insuring more water for drinking and domestic use.

“We’re very fortunate to have the type of water most bottled water companies would die for,” Hansen concludes, emphasizing that residents can feel comfortable filling up water bottles, suggesting it is O.K. to resist the urge to splurge on an import or add unnecessary plastic from disposable bottles to the landfill.

All water districts in the Valley agreed that since a natural trace of fluoride is present in drinking water, it is not a necessary addition to city water supplies. Fluoride has been shown to be effective in protecting developing teeth. Hailey Dentist Dr. Luke Whalen advises, however, that for children between the ages of two and twelve, it is probably a good idea to supplement naturally occurring fluoride in the water. Whalen cites tooth decay decreases of between 20 and 40 percent for children who take in adequate fluoride.

There is also such a thing as too much fluoride, Whalen advises. Children should receive specific supplements designed to bring their total percentage to 1.0 ppm, or parts per million, of fluoride in their main drinking water source. Water in some areas of the Valley naturally contains too much fluoride, occurring in amounts of 2.0 to 2.7 ppm. Whalen explains that children living in those areas could end up developing mottled or discolored teeth if their totals climb too high. A visit to the dentist with a discussion about residence location, Whalen says, can determine the best way to offer children the correct fluoride dose while providing protection and a beautiful smile as well.

The recent Castle Rock Fire, according to Dr. James Bartolino, hydrologist and district groundwater specialist with the U.S.G.S. Water Science Center in Boise, may have some effects on the water in Warm Springs Creek. Affected by runoff, particularly during heavy storms, the waterway could experience some local turbidity should mudslides enter the waterway, but should recover well as storms subside, Bartolino explains.

In addition to erosion and slides, the fire areas may see deposits of chemistry from the fire retardants used to fight the fire. Some retardants contain ferrocyanide in the form of yellow prussiate of soda, or YPS, as a corrosion inhibitor, which can degrade to free cyanide when exposed to ultraviolet radiation. Not to worry, however, as Tory Henderson, branch chief of equipment and chemicals at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, assures that the type of retardant used to fight the Castle Rock Fire was a brand that does not contain cyanide.

Knowing that the fire was close to sensitive riparian areas along Warm Springs Creek, narrow drainages and steep hillsides, the Type 1 Interagency Incident Command Team 3 led by Jeanne Pincha-Tulley, was very careful to plan strategic retardant drops along Warm Springs. The team, assigned to the Castle Rock Fire, minimized the risk of contamination to sensitive areas and waterways, maintaining a buffer distance by executing plans designed to be both effective and cautious. 

Bartolino notes that there will be good comparative data for the area as researchers performed sampling and testing of invertebrate populations in Warm Springs Creek this past summer, prior to the fire. Post-fire results then can clearly be compared to earlier tests to determine fire impacts, Bartolino explains.

While Blaine County is fortunate to be far from industrial point-source types of pollution, there is increasing concern about emerging contaminants in water everywhere, drinking water, groundwater, aquifers and oceans, the world over. The Environmental Protection Agency reports that contamination from pharmaceuticals, household, agricultural and personal care products is contributing to a questionable chemical soup distributed by the hydrogeological cycle of events that has undesirable effects on wildlife, humans and environment.

As farmers and ranchers employ herbicides, pesticides, antibiotics and growth hormones to cultivate and nurture their product and serve consumers, the chemistry is absorbed into the landscape and waterways. As manufacturers make, retailers distribute and consumers use a variety of convenient chemicals to cover their fingernails, make their hair more beautiful, keep their breakfast eggs from sticking in the pan, prevent fabrics from staining, catching fire or wrinkling, or finish the surfaces of their homes, that chemistry also becomes a part of both internal and external environments.

The effects of emerging contaminants, particularly pesticides, pharmaceuticals and those that play havoc with endocrine systems that govern growth, reproduction and immune system function in human and wildlife populations, are currently undergoing extensive research to determine their future use and the possible need for removal from drinking water in treatment plants. 

When tested for such contaminants, drinking water falls well within current individual acceptable government established levels for single substances. Some of the concern in the scientific community lies with the synergistic effect that multiple contaminants, chronically dispensed over long periods of time, may have on human, aquatic and environmental systems, along with biomagnification as the chemistry moves up the food chain.

Water is essential, and whether we drink it from an imported green glass bottle, from a plastic container built with endocrine-disrupting bisphenol-A or phthalate plasticizers, or draw it directly from the tap from a reusable glass, it is likely we would already discover a mix of foreign chemistry in our bodies. Polar bears, who use no such products and live in an area devoid of convenience stores and consumer habit, exhibit many emerging contaminants in their tissues.

For now, it is perceived by water officials in the Wood River Valley that we have a relatively good supply of clean drinking water. What we are looking at ten or twenty years out, however, depends on how lightly, or how carelessly, we tread upon our resources. Water is indispensable to life and deserving of every effort we can put forth to protect it, conserve it and use it wisely.

It would be prudent for all to keep in mind that our actions today affect the water we will have access to tomorrow. Contaminants we add to the mix will eventually become someone else’s drinking water concern. Concerted effort to streamline the use of personal products only for necessity rather than for the sake of convenience, along with a conscious effort toward conserving water on a daily basis, could be key to maintaining a clean and ample water supply for the next generation and beyond . . . in Blaine County, in the Northwest, and the world over.

This article appears in the Spring 2008 Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.