Resurfaced in the water

Damning water report haunts TMWA

About 90 percent of Reno’s drinking water comes from the relatively clean Truckee River, and Reno meets all state and federal water quality standards. But the Environmental Working Group still thinks Reno belongs on its list of the five worst cities for drinking water.

About 90 percent of Reno’s drinking water comes from the relatively clean Truckee River, and Reno meets all state and federal water quality standards. But the Environmental Working Group still thinks Reno belongs on its list of the five worst cities for drinking water.

Photo By kat kerlin

Read the Environmental Working Group’s National Drinking Water Database, and Reno’s ranking in it, at tinyurl.com/fulltap.
Read Truckee Meadows Water Authority’s Response at tinyurl.com/tmwaResponse.

Local residents were alarmed earlier this month to hear that Reno drinking water ranked fifth worst in the nation. That is, those who hadn’t already heard the news in December 2009 were alarmed. That’s when the Environmental Working Group released its National Drinking Water Database. But the report turned up again this past January on AOL Daily Finance and—as is the nature of the internet—spread anew to other sources.

But some things have changed since the report was issued. Truckee Meadows Water Authority analyzed the same data and concluded that 35 percent of it was wrong. In February 2010, they sent a certified letter to EWG pointing out those errors. At the time, EWG said it would “revise the results whenever valid data are provided to us.” Yet no revisions have been made.

Included among the errors is the fact that EWG reported untreated ground water as drinking water. The EWG report also didn’t consider that around 85 percent of Reno’s drinking water comes from the Truckee River, with the remainder coming from small wells that tend to have more contaminants. A picture of overall water quality would require a weighted, or load-based average, says TMWA. “In calculating these average levels, EWG assumed each water source contributes equally to TMWA’s water supply,” a follow-up letter by TMWA stated on Aug. 31, 2010. Other errors included samples for wells that weren’t operating at the time, and some results were counted twice.

“What’s very frustrating is Chris [Campbell of EWG] told us they would use the corrected data and modify the report,” says TMWA general manager Mark Foree. “He said that would happen a year ago—it never happened. So here we are a year later, and someone pulls this old, inaccurate report off their website, and here we are again.”

EWG press secretary Leeann Brown said via email that, in an attempt to look at all utilities equally, load-based averages weren’t calculated for Reno or any utility.

“When we looked at the data for Reno they supplied for 2008, we realized it would be difficult to accurately portray the quality of the water in our database, as some wells with particularly high arsenic levels were being used, but mixed with non-contaminated surface water,” she wrote. “This averages out to higher arsenic levels without factoring in the usage amount.”

TMWA and all utilities in the database were given roughly six weeks to review the report before its release and provide corrections, but TMWA didn’t do so. Foree says the findings were sent by email and “for whatever reason, we missed it.”

As for why the information hasn’t been updated on the database, Brown responded, “While we accounted for staff time and availability prior to the release, we did not have the same budget following, which unfortunately has resulted in the database remaining published with 2009 figures.”

Yet EWG’s Jane Houlihan thinks Reno belongs on the list. The senior vice president for research said, also via email, “Reno tap water fits the criteria laid out in EWG’s rating system and belongs on the list.” Though Reno water meets all state and federal standards, the EWG ratings, said Houlihan, reflect the fact that TMWA draws water from wells containing arsenic, disinfection byproducts and perchloroethylene “that would ideally not be present in any amount.”