Public Water System FAQs
Q: What is a "Public Water System"?
Answer: A public water system is a system for the provision to the public of water for human consumption through pipes or other constructed conveyances, if such system has at least 15 service connections or regularly serves an average of at least 25 individuals daily at least 60 days out of the year. This includes (i) any collection, treatment, storage, and distribution facilities under control of the operator of such system and used primarily in connection with such system, and (ii) any collection or pretreatment storage facilities not under such control which are used primarily in connection with such system.
A community public water system is a public water system that serves at least 15 service connections used by year-round residents or regularly serves at least 25 year-round residents.
A non-community public water system is a public water system that serves at least 15 service connections or 25 persons per day which are not a community water system. (In other words, at least 60 days service per year, but not service to year round residents. State parks, recreation areas, rural restaurants, grocery stores, and industries are examples of non-community water systems.
Q: Are the people that make my water qualified?
Answer: The Arkansas Department of Health - Division of Engineering, through the Operator Certification Program, makes every effort to ensure that the personnel operating the water system in your community are qualified to do so. This certification program requires that the personnel making decisions that impact water quality meet certain requirements, including passing appropriate examinations and obtaining continuing training. For additional information, check the Operator Certification Program page.
Q: Who Tracks Water Quality in Arkansas?
Answer: Monitoring the quality of our drinking water is a joint responsibility of the Arkansas Department of Health (ADH) and our state's public water supply systems. Your local water supply system is responsible for taking required water samples, according to a schedule established by ADH. The Division of Public Health Laboratories at the ADH test the water samples for a broad variety of possible contaminants. When it comes to complying with the testing requirements of the Safe Drinking Water Act, Arkansas' water systems have one of the best records in the nation.
Q: What Does the ADH Test for, and How Often?
Answer: The ADH tests each community water system (approximately 805) in the state - on a regular basis - for up to 46 different pesticides, 22 synthetic organic chemicals, 60 volatile organic chemicals, and 35 inorganic chemicals. These systems are also tested for a variety of other contaminants, including bacteria, radioactive elements, lead, and copper. In addition to testing the community water systems, ADH also tests approximately 502 transient non-community water systems for bacteria and nitrates.
The testing may be done anywhere from four times a year to once every three years for organic and inorganic chemicals. The monitoring for bacteria is generally done on a monthly basis. The testing frequencies for different contaminants are different depending upon the type of water source. The surface water systems are generally tested at a higher frequency than the ground water systems.
Q: How are the Water Samples Taken?
Answer: The ADH provides precise guidelines for taking the samples, to ensure that they provide an accurate picture of water quality. The bacteriological samples are taken monthly by the water system operator from the water distribution system. The number of bacteriological samples and their locations are determined by ADH based upon the population served by the water system and the layout of the distribution system. The water samples for pesticides, industrial chemicals, radioactive elements, nitrates, and other inorganic chemicals are collected from "finished" water by ADH personnel.
Q: What Kind of Contaminants or Pollutants can be Found in Public Drinking Water?
Answer: Drinking water pollutants involve microbes, chemicals or compounds that have been studied under laboratory conditions and are believed to be unhealthy to consume. Some of these contaminants can have an immediate impact on a person’s health (such as drinking water that has germs in it that can cause hepatitis). Other contaminants can affect a person’s health after drinking the water for several years (such as water that contains cancer-causing industrial solvents). These contaminants are grouped into categories, and each water system submits water samples to be analyzed for them If the water tests show that there is a problem, the Health Department works with the water system and takes appropriate action to protect its water customers. Sometimes this even involves alerting the public that a problem exists. This warning is usually in the form of a “Boil Water Order” or a “Cease Use” alert.
Q: For What Contaminants is the Water Tested?
Answer: The Arkansas Department of Health tests community public drinking water systems according to the requirements of the federal Safe Drinking Water Act.
Any contaminants that may have been detected in individual public water systems can be found in the system's consumer confidence reports located here.
Q: What is the Source of the Contaminants Found?
Answer: Some contaminants in drinking water occur because the chemicals naturally occur in rocks and soils and are dissolved into the water. Other contaminants occur in drinking water only because of the acts of man putting the chemicals into the environment in such a manner that they come in contact with our drinking water sources. And, still other contaminants are created by the reaction of water treatment chemicals with naturally occurring compounds in our water sources.
Q: Is Contaminated Drinking Water a Big Problem in Arkansas?
Answer: The answer is no. Arkansas has one of the best records in the nation when it comes to complying with provisions of the Safe Drinking Water Act. In Arkansas, we generally complete all of the required tests during the compliance period - and we generally don't see that much evidence of contamination with pesticides or industrial chemicals.
Approximately 55,000 tests for individual pesticides, 58,000 tests for individual volatile organic chemicals, 38,000 tests for individual synthetic organic chemicals, and 934 tests for nitrates were conducted from the community, non-transient non-community, water systems in Arkansas during 1995. Although trace amounts of chemicals were found in some systems, none of the water systems exceeded federal Maximum Contaminant Levels (MCL) for pesticides, nitrates, or synthetic organic chemicals. Only one non-transient non-community water system exceeded MCL for one of the volatile organic chemicals.
In Arkansas, you can be very confident that the water coming from your tap is safe to drink, and we are working very hard to keep it that way.
Q: My Water Looks Dirty, but the Water Department says that it is Safe to Drink. How can that be?
Answer: The physical appearance of water does not always reflect its bacteriological content. Water is tested for bacteriological content on a monthly basis by the Department of Health for the purpose of protecting the public health. Inorganic chemical compounds such as iron, manganese, and other sediments can give water an unsightly appearance, without affecting its microbiological quality. Thus, the water may look or smell bad, and still be safe. (Tony Ramick)
Q: What is a “Boil Water” Order? When is a “Boil Water” Order Issued?
Answer: A Boil Water Order is issued by a public water system, on their own authority or by direction of the Department of Health, when there is knowledge that the water has been contaminated, or that it might have been contaminated. To see currently issued Boil Water orders, go here.
A Boil Water Order means that the consumer should boil any water used for drinking, for beverage or food preparation, or for dishwashing, should be boiled briskly (rolling boil) for one (1) minute prior to use.
Boil Water Orders come in two types.
When the water system has lost pressure due to a water line break, mechanical failure, or power outage. This type of order is issued because all water lines leak to a certain extent. When the water system loses pressure, contaminated ground water could seep back into the water lines, thus potentially contaminating the water in the pipes when pressure is restored.
Persistent failure or significant interruption of key water treatment processes. Safe water depends upon providing multiple barriers between possible sources of contamination and the consuming public. Loss of one or more treatment barriers or turbidity spike in the effluent quality is considered an indicator that the water may be unsafe.
Persistent failure to meet Surface Water Treatment Rule treatment techniques: high turbidity, failure to meet disinfectant contact times or concentrations, or finished water disinfection requirements.
An unusual and significant microbiological challenge to a drinking water source from a spill, discharge, natural occurrence, or other circumstance.
An Emergency Boil Water Order is issued when water samples collected from the water system are found to contain fecal coliform bacteria. This means that the water is contaminated and may harbor disease causing organisms.
A Precautionary Boil Water Order is issued when may be contaminated. That is, the Department cannot say, with certainty, that the water in the distribution system is safe. Precautionary Boil Water Orders may be issued for a number of reasons. The most common reasons are:
Q: Why Does it Take so Long to Test the Water After it Comes Back On?
Answer: After correcting the deficiency which caused the Boil Water Order, the water utility submits samples to the Department of Health or other certified laboratory for bacteriological analysis to verify that the water is safe for drinking. The tests are designed to identify the presence of coliform bacteria. Coliform bacteria, while not generally harmful, should not be present in drinking water that is safe, and are frequently present is drinking water that is contaminated. Coliform organisms are thus considered indicators of possible contamination of drinking water.
Sample transportation from your water system to our laboratory may take up to 24 hours from the time the samples are collected. The actual test takes approximately 24 hours. The Department requires that safe samples be obtained on two consecutive days. Since our laboratories do not operate on weekends, the complete process of determining that the water is safe may take as long as seven days (after the deficiency).
Q: Why is Fluoride Added to My City's Water Supply? Isn't it a Poison?
Answer: Fluoride is added to the water by water systems to improve the dental health of its customers. Although many questions have been raised about fluoride and its relationship to cancer, no studies have proven that its effects are harmful at levels normally used in drinking water. Almost every study demonstrates that fluoride greatly reduces the incidence of cavities. The addition of fluoride to a water customer’s drinking water is an added benefit.
Q: My Water Smells Like Chlorine, and it Bothers Me! Why Does it have to be in the Water, Anyway?
Answer: Chlorine is used in several forms as a disinfectant to kill any harmful bacteria which might be present in the water source. Chlorine is very effective in controlling and/or destroying harmful bacteria. The amount of chlorine that is to be used is based on several things. The first is the amount of water being treated. Second is the number or amount of contaminants that must be controlled. Third is the length of time the chlorine has to react in the water before the water reaches the first customer.
Because of the way chlorine reacts with chemicals frequently found in water, the "chlorine" smell may actually indicate that not enough chlorine is being added. Increasing the amount of chlorine used at the treatment plant causes different forms of chlorine to be created in the water, which have less "chlorine" odor.
The water system is required by state or federal regulations to maintain at least a minimal level of chlorine in public drinking water. The normal range of chlorine in the water by the time it reaches the customer is 0.2 to 1.5 mg/l depending on the source type, size of system, type of treatment, and time of year. (Tony Ramick)
Q: How Can I Get Rid of the Chlorine Smell? And can’t you make the Water System Fix it?
Answer: Drawing a pitcher of water and then storing overnight in the refrigerator will generally allow any chlorine odor to dissipate. Carbon filters can be used to de-chlorinate the water, for instance, if you must have chlorine free water for aquariums. Please see the question and answer below on home filter units before purchasing one for this purpose.
Q: My Water Stains My Lavatories, Commodes, and My Freshly Laundered White Clothes. What Causes This? Can you make my Water System fix it?
Answer: Sometimes water contains dissolved iron or manganese, which are natural minerals that are harmless even though they can cause unsightly staining on fixtures and clothing. Iron causes a red or reddish brown stain, while manganese causes a dark brown or black stain. The only way a water system can get rid of the problem is to add extra, more expensive water treatment to filter the iron out or chemically remove it. There are commercial products that can be purchased at plumbing supply shops that can be used on both fixtures and in laundry to remove iron build-up. When public water systems propose to construct new sources, the Department of Health requires that the water system provide treatment for iron and manganese if they exceed the recommended standard. However, since the standards are recommended standards, based on aesthetic concerns rather than health concerns, the Department does not enforce them after the treatment plant is constructed. The water system may decide, because of operational, managerial, or economic problems, to discontinue treatment. If you continue to have problems, you should discuss it first with the water system management, then with the water system's governing body.
Q: Are Home Filter Units any Good?
Answer: Home treatment units may serve to improve the aesthetic quality of your home drinking water. If you do not like the taste or smell of water from your public water system, a home filter unit incorporating the proper type of treatment may be able to make your water more palatable. However, each unit has a specific life, and must be changed when that time period, or a number of gallons treated, is reached. It is highly unlikely that a home unit will be necessary to provide safe water to you if you get your water from a community public water system. Our monitoring program helps to minimize the exceedances of the National Primary Drinking Water Regulations standards. Most home units are not designed to improve the microbiological quality of the water, and some may even contribute to microbial contamination by providing a place where bacteria can grow.
Q: Do I Need One of These Home Treatment Systems?
Answer: If you are receiving water from a Public Drinking Water System regulated by the Department of Health, the Division of Engineering does not recommend the use of home water filters.
Under normal conditions, the drinking water supplied to your home is safe. It is treated to meet state and federal requirements and is regularly monitored. It is our experience that private systems are not maintained properly which leads to their failure. In addition, some units remove chlorine from the water. Chlorine is used by water systems to prevent the growth of harmful bacteria. If it is removed, bacteria can grow in the water treated by these units.
Q: If They are not Recommended, Why Use One?
Answer: Home filters available on the market are effectively used by some customers to alter the taste of the water. However, they should not be used to treat bacteriologically unsafe water. If the water is bacteriologically contaminated and the system fails, you may be at risk. If you choose to use one of these units, contact the Environmental Protection Agency to ensure the unit is on the registry of microbiological water purifiers (treatment units used on bacteriologically contaminated water).
For more information on these systems, contact:
Antimicrobial Program Branch
Registration Division (H7504C)
Office of Pesticide Programs
Environmental Protection Agency
For a listing of other home treatment units meeting defined standards and testing requirements contact:
Water Quality Association
4151 Naperville Road
Lisle, Illinois 60532
Q: I’m on a Private Well that has Poor Water Quality. I live only a mile from a City or Rural Water System Main. Why Won’t they let me hook on to it?
Answer: Extending a water system can be very expensive. Sometimes barriers like elevation differences, low pressures, and a lack of property easements can make the problem extremely difficult to overcome. (New rural water lines sometimes cost as much as $5000 per customer to construct, primarily because the customers are not very close together.) Contact the closest water system to you and inform them of your desire to hook on to their system. They can advise you if such a connection is a possibility. If not possible for you as an individual, combining efforts with your neighbors can sometimes result in successful water system expansions.