From Source to Tap: SFPUC Experts Keep the Water Quality Bar High 24/7

The SFPUC Water Quality Report for 2018 is now posted. The annual publication has come a long way since its early 1990s beginnings as a simple bill insert. At the time, California was the first state to require its mid-size to large water utilities to send every customer an annual mailer on the origins of customer drinking water and potential contaminants. The rest of the country followed a few years later at U.S. Environmental Protection Agency direction.

Today, the SFPUC water quality report is an eight-page electronic version—a landmark change according to water quality engineer Eddy So, who monitors the water in both the regional transmission and City distribution system. So also provides the yearly periodical’s content and data, and helped to shepherd the 2014 shift from print to digital. “We save time, money, and trees—and it’s so much more convenient for our customers. Now they can even check in from their phones.”

Water quality engineer Eddy So oversees Water Quality Report content and data.

And they do. Within just a couple of days after the 2018 report was posted online, more than 2,200 people had checked it out, and the total number of page hits more than doubled that initial count—meaning lots of the first readers went back for more. 

SFPUC water is some of the highest quality in the country, with a Water Quality Division (WQD) workforce of engineers, scientists, inspectors and technicians charged with keeping it that way. 

Water quality engineer Dan Kim (3d from right) is with WQD colleagues at Calaveras Dam.

The SFPUC’s minimum requirement is to comply with all drinking water regulations, says Dan Kim, a water quality engineer who’s based at the Sunol Valley Water Treatment Plant. “But that’s just the floor—not the ceiling.” He travels the valley daily—from the Tesla Ultraviolet Treatment Facility to the Irvington Portal in Fremont—evaluating whether the various water treatment processes are meeting SFPUC water quality objectives. “The real goal,” he says, “is optimal water quality for every customer.”

Technician Weldon Ng and public service aide Vanessa Chi test for lead in a City school.

Other WQD staff are on the road all the time too, like Weldon Ng. The Burlingame-based technician’s daily route can take him anywhere along the aqueduct from San Francisco to Tracy to collect samples from treatment plants, reservoirs, pipelines, groundwater stations, and even some San Francisco schools for a lead testing project last year. 

24-year veteran microbiologist Dinah Jimenez tests raw water for parasites.

He and the other technicians deliver their samples to the labs. Some go to the Millbrae Lab’s microbiologists in the parasitology section, where 24-year veteran Dinah Jimenez tests raw water for the parasites Cryptosporidium and Giardia in samples brought in from the Tuolumne River headwaters, local reservoirs, and everywhere in between. The Millbrae Lab is one of the few in the country that still has staff with enough expertise to perform the “EPA Method 1623″—a test that can be done only with high-level, now dying microscopy skills.   

Chemist Michael Wallace monitors treated water for disinfection by-products and other negatives.

In another Millbrae Lab section, chemist Michael Wallace checks daily for disinfection by-products and other negatives in the drinking water that’s been treated in the local plants.  He also tests local reservoir waters every week for algal metabolites that—if allowed to build up—will produce a distinct, earthy odor that’s unpleasant to consumers. Then, he says, “our engineers can take action before it becomes a problem that our customers will notice.”

Inspector Dennis Edwards examines a transmission line component on the SFPUC Right of Way.

But no matter how much collective WQD effort goes into heading off problems, things happen. That’s when someone like inspector Dennis Edwards comes in. The inspectors investigate problems throughout the regional system. But for Edwards the most engaging part of the job is interacting with irate, sometimes alarmed, customers who report a problem with the tap water. Some, he says, have already reached conclusions about the effects of the temporary cloudiness, odor, or other variation on their health or home plumbing. Frequently Edwards can tell them over the phone how to clear the water themselves. But if a home visit to take a sample is in order, he also makes time to educate, listen, and talk further as needed. “That way,” he says, “I leave on friendly terms.”

As So sums it up, “Our number one responsibility is to make sure SFPUC water meets the required health-based drinking water standards. I’m proud to be one of a great team making that happen.”