(Image from: kgou.org)
One of the world’s key natural resources is water. Often times water is taken for granted because people assume that it’s an abundant resource; however, this is not the case. Being able to access freshwater has become much more complicated in the last couple of decades due to a number of varying reasons. Now, more than ever, we must worry about not only the quantity of water, but also the quality of water. The city of Norman has had a history of water problems as it’s water holds a number of unregulated contaminants. Norman gets its water from three sources: Oklahoma City, Lake Thunderbird, and a well field. Although nothing is perfect, some deficiency or inherent problem exists within many of the area’s water supply sources causing far less than optimal conditions.
According to the nonprofit Environmental Working Group, “Cleveland County’s drinking water contains the highest levels of of chromium-6 of any other county in the state [of Oklahoma]”. Rebecca Sutton, an environmental chemist who participated in Environmental Working Group’s study, believes that Norman’s high levels come from heavy metal erosion into the Garber-Wellington aquifer (Tyree). Chromium-6 is a carcinogenic chemical. It is a rare form of chromium because it’s produced by industrial processes (Scutti). The Environmental Protection Agency has not yet set a clearly defined limit of Chromium-6 in drinking water. The EPA has stated that Chromium-6 can cause skin reactions if there’s enough exposure. According to the OU Daily, Cleveland County’s average amount of Chromium-6 was 29.59 parts per billion. The city of of Norman contains approximately 39.3 ppb. To put these numbers into perspective, the state of California has a limit of .02 ppb (Creager). What’s even more shocking is that the drinking water holds 100 ppb of Chromium-6. The exact severity of it’s effect is not yet determined, as discussion amongst people continues to understand the extent of this possibly detrimental concern. However, it is deemed important enough that several programs have been implemented to transform Chromium-6 into a known non-toxic Chromium-3.
It’s important to note that the city of Norman has had other concerns arise, including lead and copper concerns. In 2015 there was a collection of more than 60 water samples for lead and copper. Surprisingly enough the results were below the allowable amount. With these findings, the Department of Environmental Quality proposed to monitor only every three years (Norman Utilities Authority). Even though there are always rising concerns from the community, Norman has made it a priority to improve the water quality of Norman. According to the 2015 Consumer Confidence Report, the Norman Water Treatment Plant was working to make advances by updating equipment and improving chemical safety. In addition, there was a focus to improve the infrastructure in the central part of Oklahoma.
In a recent article in Red Dirt Report, Olivier Rey discusses the poor quality of the area’s Lake Thunderbird water supply. Near the end of 2016, a city council meeting was held to address this issue. Lynne Miller, the mayor of Norman, exemplified the disparity of this issue. Other prevalent individuals, such as Derek Smithee, the Water Quality Division Chief and Amanda Nairn, a representative of Norman’s Environmental Control Advisory Board, were also present at this meeting. According to Smithee, both the current and historical aspect of this deleterious situation is due to the existing watershed, or the runoff water from the local areas into the lake itself. Furthermore, this impending situation is simple and easily overlooked; the quality of water in Lake Thunderbird cannot be great if the water entering the lake is collecting bacteria and toxins such as chemicals and debris from litter and other unnatural resources along the way. Fortunately, this then provides a vast opportunity for improvements. According to an article written by Payne and Stipek, the City of Norman has a plan to reduce the amount of pollutants that go into Lake Thunderbird, which would aid in the improvement in the water quality for Norman residents. The plan would happen in a five-year time period with a cost of about $1.45 million dollars. The other integral component known as bacteria, however, is not so simple. As Rey noted from the meeting, Smithee pointed out the most prevalent addition of bacteria into the lake results from wildlife. Furthermore, differentiating from the many possibly contaminated sources proves daunting to hopes of providing a solution. There has also been a recent dust removal with the intention of cleaning up the appearance of Lake Thunderbird. Ironically, in clearing the color of the water more sunlight is able to penetrate to greater depths which provides an, “optimal condition to algae proliferation” which is important because “blue algae are toxic and very dangerous for humans” (Rey). Nonetheless, such a history involving the degradation of a large and imperative water source was bound to result in a continuity of inopportune and harmful conditions.
Interestingly, however, the noticeably putrid smell and taste of Norman water is indeed a normal occurrence that peaks semi-annually, or normally twice a year with the change of the cold seasons. The cause of displacing the water, known as a ‘turning over,’ is a phenomena exhibited by many large bodies of water, and it is not bizarre or unusual. This is a matter of simple physics, as cold water is more dense than warm water, and therefore when the surface water is chilled, it becomes more dense and has a tendency to sink. The sinking water causes the now-warmer water below to rise which results in the lake’s ‘turning.’ In mixing up the lake’s water, all of the settled things contributing to the quality of the water are dispersed throughout. Even more intriguing, however, is the claim that this natural process involving many seemingly unnatural water ingredients is unharmful to human or animal consumption, as presented by Paighten Harkins in the OU Daily. The article discusses the prevalent issues to the many Norman residents with a goal to prevent an uprising of community disgust or fear. However, also presented in this article is the fact that, “[a]lgae blooms and weather are two factors contributing to the water’s stronger-than-average taste and odor” and a key individual noted in the report, “doesn’t know the specific type of algae that bloomed in Lake Thunderbird” (Harkins). As proven above, there are indeed specific types of algae quite toxic to consume, but Harkins’s more dated article declares the algae exposed during the ‘turning’ is no such harmful algae. However, as the detrimental contamination of Lake Thunderbird’s water suppliers continue, the impending fear of the development of harmful algae in the upcoming ‘turnings’ becomes ubiquitous.
Norman is one of many areas around the United States that suffers from serious water issues. Norman’s history of poor water supply clearly runs deep, not only in sense of time, but also with the amount of issues. The combination of high chromium levels, lead and copper deposits, and the proliferation of algae in Lake Thunderbird have created a cocktail of sorts that leads to the daily complaints Norman residents have about the taste, feel, and smell coming out of their faucets. Hopefully by bringing awareness to the community and time, even more active steps will occur in order to find solutions to improve the quality of water in Norman for the benefit of all residents.
Creager, Daisy. “Study shows that Norman drinking water contains high levels of chromium-6.”
OU Daily. Accessed March 05, 2017
Harkins, Paighten, and Taste and Smell of Norman Water Affected by Turning of Lake
Thunderbird, The Oklahoma Daily. “Taste and Smell of Norman Water Affected by Turning of Lake Thunderbird.” OUDaily.com. N.p., 22 Sept. 2014. Web. 05 Mar. 2017.
Norman Utilities Authority. “2015 Consumer Confidence Report”.
Payne, Erick, Stipek, Joey. “City of Norman plans to improve water quality of Lake
Rey, Olivier. “Water Quality of Lake Thunderbird Still Very Bad, Norman Mayor Says.” Red
Dirt Report. N.p., 18 Nov. 2016. Web. 05 Mar. 2017.
Scutti, Susan. “New reports finds “Erin Brockovich” chemical in US drinking water”
Tyree, James.”Norman’s water level of chromium-6 is 200 times California’s proposed limit”. NewsOK. http://newsok.com/article/3525174