Despite a water quality violation as recently as December 2014, officials at UCF and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection insist that UCF’s water system is safe and well maintained.
“The UCF [water officials] are proactive and on top of everything,” said Jill Farris, environmental consultant for drinking water at FDEP. “They’re definitely looking at their [water testing] results to know if there are any adjustments that need to be made.”
Drinking water quality has become a popular topic of discussion since news broke last year of dangerous lead contamination in the water source supplying Flint, Michigan. Dr. Steven Duranceau, associate professor of environmental engineering at UCF, said issues with UCF’s water come nowhere close to the scope or magnitude of the problems in Flint.
“The key [difference] between UCF and Flint is that we’re a ground water supply and they’re a surface water supply,” Duranceau said. “Plus, we’re a pretty young community; we’ve been here since the ‘60s and ‘70s. Flint’s been there for over 100 years, so [they’ve got] a much older system with older pipes, older distribution systems and older infrastructure.”
Larry Eflin, the UCF utilities supervisor who oversees the campus water system, said the relative youth of UCF’s water supply system helps him to avoid the types of problems that have happened in Flint.
“The age of the Flint system goes all the way back to when there were lead pipes in the ground,” Eflin said. “They used to be hooked to Detroit’s system, and then they shifted to a river source. With a river source, you’re going to have a lot more organic compounds in the raw water, so they have to chlorinate to a higher level. Flint is having multiple problems in not only that they have lead piping, but that the water is corrosive enough to make the lead leach from the pipes.”
Eflin also explained that the UCF water system had a lead problem in the past when the water was corrosive enough to make lead seep from the soldering welds that join pipes together. However, Eflin said adjustments to the type of disinfectant used in the system have lowered the corrosiveness of UCF’s water to a safe level.
According to FDEP records, samples of UCF’s water exceeded the EPA’s action levels for lead (15 parts per billion) and copper (1.3 parts per million) several times throughout 2008. However, all testing results from 2010, 2012 and 2014 are below these levels.
In December 2014, the UCF Department of Sustainability and Energy Management issued a statement notifying students that UCF’s water system had violated a drinking water standard. During 2014, the average amount of trihalomethanes in water sampled at the CFE Arena was 84 parts per billion, exceeding the EPA’s maximum contaminant level of 80 parts per billion.
Farris explained that trihalomethanes belong to a class of contaminants known as disinfectant byproducts.
“Disinfectants like chlorine, which are required in public water systems, react with naturally occurring organic compounds in water and form disinfectant byproducts,” Farris said. “They increase with the age of the water in the pipe system.”
Water systems in Florida are required to release a yearly report to outline the state of the system, publish test results, and explain any violations that may have occurred.
According to UCF’s 2014 water quality report, “some people who drink large quantities of water containing trihalomethanes in excess of the [maximum contaminant level] over many years may experience problems with their liver, kidneys or central nervous system, and may have an increased risk of getting cancer.”
Eflin said he has already taken corrective action.
“About 15 years ago, we added what we call the core main, which connects a bunch of dead ends and loops [of pipe] around campus,” Eflin said. “It was put in for fire protection, but we figured out it was hurting us with the disinfectant byproducts. We identified the long lengths of the pipes that we knew were causing our problems … and installed automatic hydrant flushers to periodically evacuate the line[s] and freshen [them] up. Ever since we implemented that, we’ve been fine.”
UCF’s water system has not broken any water quality standards since 2014 and had no violations in 2015, according to FDEP reports.
“Utilities across the country … would pull some different tools out of their toolbox [to solve this issue], and [automatic hydrant flushing] is one of the tools that they would pull out first,” said Duranceau, who expressed confidence in UCF’s water system and said public drinking water is safer and more strictly regulated than water from other sources, such as bottled water.
Some students remain concerned about the safety of UCF’s water. Alex Moore, a sophomore film major from Fort Lauderdale, said the water smells and tastes like sulfur and often makes him nauseous if he drinks it unfiltered.
“I don’t necessarily think [the water is] a public health issue here, but for anyone with sensitive stomachs or a sulfur allergy, it’s an issue specifically to them,” he said.
However, Farris says the taste of Central Florida water is a purely aesthetic quality resulting from mineral content and that it shouldn’t have any adverse health effects.
“The water here is safe to drink, and it’s free for the students,” Duranceau said. “Central Florida groundwater is high-quality water, and it’s protected because it’s in the ground.”
UCF’s water quality report for 2015 will be released in June.
This story was originally published on March 31, 2016.
Alex Storer is a senior staff writer for the Central Florida Future.