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Environment-Science-Health

Last week, Sandy Bihn, a founder of the Western Lake Erie Waterkeeper Association, sat down with The Erie Wire to discuss the goals of her organization as well as some of the most pressing issues facing Lake Erie today. Listen to this week’s podcast and watch as she goes into detail about what the future holds for our Great Lake if appropriate action is not taken to protect this valuable resource.


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Sandy Bihn | Part 1 | Podcast

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Sandy Bihn of the Western Lake Erie Waterkeeper Association. photo: Joshua B. Pribanic

WLEWA is a nonprofit organization part of the Waterkeeper Alliance and serves the waters and fish of Lake Erie, beginning in the east at Sandusky Bay and extending west to the Ohio line of the Maumee River. This includes counties in Ohio, Michigan, and Ontario; the rivers Raisin, Maumee, Sandusky, Touissaint, Portage, Ottawa, and Huron; and all creeks, ditches, drain pipes and runoff to the waters of Western Lake Erie, with the exception of the Detroit River.

WLEWA’s mission is to preserve, protect, and improve the watershed, waters, and fish of Western Lake Erie, the Great Lakes’ warmest, shallowest, most biologically productive area, and to increase public awareness through collaboration, education and advocacy. They hold regular programs and presentations demonstrating how to be a good environmental steward with our regions resources.

Sandy Bihn pulling apart algae from the Lake Erie shoreline. photo: Joshua B. Pribanic



Sedimentation chamber at the Big Island Water Works facility. photo: Cassandra Lagunzad

For Part 6 in our series on Water Quality, Cassandra O. Lagunzad tours the Big Island Water Works, Sandusky’s public water service, located near the mouth of Pipe Creek. (click on any image for slideshow of facility)

Big Island Water Works sounds like the lively, animated name for one of the North Coast’s many water parks, but the industrial view from the outside is slightly intimidating and ominous. Walking through the mechanized gates you’re greeted by the plant’s superintendent Douglas A. Keller, who kindly introduces himself as Doug, bringing the tour underway.

“When I come into work and I hear a hum, I am happy,” Doug explains that when it is silent, there is something wrong, and he needs to take immediate action.

He explains that the main building of the facility was a public works project built in 1940, that was later doubled in size in 1956, and was further improved upon in the 1970s. Another set of improvements, the Chemical Improvements Program, will be implemented over the next two years. Beyond the architecture is a mix of older equipment working side by side with the newer equipment.

The front of the building is lined with potted vegetation, hanging from a handrail. “The workers take care of them on their breaks.  I’m fine with it as long as it’s only on their breaks,” he explains.

Big Island is run by a 12 person staff, and is split into two 12 hour shifts covering both day and night. It is operated 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, including holidays.  Doug himself is always on call, and has to be prepared for day-to-day challenges that arises.

Doug has worked at Big Island Water Works for 25 years. He does not use a water filtration system at home; rather, he smell tests the water every day.  He explained that if he smells a musty, swampy smell, he knows to get right to work.

Before entering the facility, Doug mentions the high manganese violation of 2006 as illustrated in their Consumer Confidence Report. His theory for its cause is a large algal bloom near Big Island’s source water.  When the algae died, it decayed and transformed the area into a low-oxygenated dead zone.  According to this theory, the low-oxygenated water held more manganese than usual.

The end result of the 2006 violation was unusable yellow water. According to the EPA, intake of excessive manganese, usually through inhalation, may have neurological repercussions. Keller tried to warn other water treatment facilities of the crisis, however he was unable to reach them in time.  Since the incident, the various treatment plants have created a communications network to allow for advanced warnings of oncoming challenges.

Algal blooms and the dead zones created are an environmental hazard in our large freshwater ecosystem, giving the water a cloudy appearance referred to in the industry as “high-turbidity”. Its causes have been linked to phosphorous over-enrichment coming from fertilizer applications on land whose streams and river systems empty into the Great Lakes. For more information about this, please see Part 3 and Part 4.

Potassium, he says, is one of the first chemicals added to the water during the filtration process; it is added to the water to remove manganese: being filled once every four days.

During the first stop of the tour, he points to the pre-sedimentation basins, which stand fixed side by side.  As Doug explains the filtration system, he compares it to food processing.  He emphazises that there should be no cross contamination at any step.  The pipes are color coded: green for raw water, brown for coagulated and blue for finished water.

At the variable frequency drives (VFD), he explains that the rotation slows down and speeds up to regulate flow into the system. He opens the lid for a look inside. The VFD collects zebra mussels, rocks and similar sediment.

In one of the buildings on the tour, Doug warns not to touch anything, or you will get dirty.  This “dirt” is powdered activated carbon (PAC), used to help clean the water and remove any bad tastes or odors. Without the PAC, the end product would taste like swamp water.  This is the same carbon used in home filters.

Doug went on to discuss the amount of water the facility processes and he casually mentions that there is an 11 million gallon flow at that moment.  The facility processes about 8 million gallons of water a day, 4 million for the City of Sandusky and 4 million for the rest of Erie County. That means the facility processes around  3.2 billion a year for the City of Sandusky.

During the processing explanation, a filter was being washed.  Big Island runs a filter for 100 hours and then “back washes” it with 50,000 gallons of water.  When asked if this was an appropriate practice, Doug responded, “Every operator has his own judgment call.”

He mentions that the facility has six hours of detention time, meaning bad water has six hours to go through the system and the facility has that same amount of time to change how they will proceed.

Aluminum sulfate (Alum) is another chemical that is added during the process, with the water being sent to one of the two flocculation mixers. The water is spun so that the floc, or sediment, collides.  The Alum is used to promote the clumping of the floc into larger and therefore heavier clumps, so that it sinks to the bottom of the mixer, keeping water at the top floc-free. While observing this part, Doug remarks that the kind of floc they are looking at is perfect.  He says it takes on a snowflake -like appearance, called “pin floc”.

“[It] makes me feel good.  I know my treatment process is working,” he remarks.  The top inch of water is skimmed and sent to the next step.

The facility has upgraded backup diesel generators in case of power loss.  On the backup generators, the facility can process 12 million gallons for five days even on “the driest, hottest days of the year.”

He discussed how before their upgrade, during the Northeast Blackout of 2003, power went off between 3-4pm and they had older diesel generators. Despite this, the power ran until the next day, when the power was said to return. However, not trusting the power grid of periodic outages immediately, they proceeded to run on generator power for two days.

When asked why that would be a concern, Doug explains that frequent power outages slam the pipes, and can cause a water main break if left unmitigated. He also points out that there is a backup for the backup, to maintain water pressure in the facility.

In the event when tornados previously hit the Davis-Besse Power Grid, he was warned of roving brown outs.  They ran on diesel for seven days, and were issued a governmental check for $8,000 in appreciation.

Doug Keller in the water lab. photo: Cassandra Lagunzad


Next stop are the facility’s two labs.  The first is to test for chemical contamination, with faucets that pipe in water from different stages of the process. This is also where they test alkalinity and hardness.  He made sure to mention that the facility insures the water is less corrosive so that it will not break down consumer pipes, a step intended to protect against lead poisoning.  It is also here that they can check to see if they need to adjust the amounts of alum.The second lab is required to meet the EPA’s requirement of 30 bacterial samples a month.  In this lab, the faucets from which the water samples are taken from require disinfection before a sample is taken to ensure an accurate reading.

With regard to upgrades in security, post 9/11, a monitoring station was installed where the staff can check for rapid changes in the water.  A rapid change in the water tower tank can constitute an investigation.  This is, as Keller states, the facility’s first alert of terrorism. Security was also tightened near the pumps as a part of this kind of upgrade; especially areas that were considered risks after a homeland security assessment.

One of the last stops on the tour is another room of filters.  This room, however, differs from the others.  The pools of water almost look still; however, upon closer examination the water is being gently swirled.  The water is then taken through a few more chemical treatments, mainly to be further disinfected with chlorine and then fluoride is added.

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