New Jersey’s top water official doesn’t think twice about drinking straight from the tap. Fred Sickels argues it’s the safest water there is.
That’s because the tap water at his Mercer County home is connected to a public water supply.
Sickels, who heads the Department of Environmental Protection’s Division of Water Supply and Geoscience, oversees the quality of water at hundreds of water companies in the state and several thousand smaller systems that serve factories, nursing homes, mobile home parks, apartment complexes and schools.
Sickels said he once had a private well at his home, but tests showed high levels of arsenic, so he hooked into a public supply. He argues it’s safer than well water and probably even better than bottled water, whose plastic containers have been linked to health concerns.
“I would drink it, and I do. They’re testing all the time. They monitor a lot more than a private well,” Sickels said.
Public water undergoes constant testing for 86 different regulated substances ranging from heavy metals such as lead to microbes such as coliform bacteria. In comparison, testing on private home wells, where about 1.3 million New Jersey residents get their drinking water from, is often done only when the home sells.
Atlantic County has 33 water systems, Cape May County 26, Cumberland County 16 and Ocean County 72. That’s a lot of water to keep track of, but Sickels said there is quite a bit of protection built into the standards. New Jersey is even stricter than the federal government on some parts of testing. The federal standard for arsenic is 10 parts per million, while the New Jersey standard is 5 parts per million.
When water testing uncovers contamination in public water supplies, as happened in Ventnor in 2012, it garners headlines, but Sickels said there are only about 400 violations a year and most are minor. That does not include paperwork violations such as faulty reporting.
Most violations barely exceed the standards, and few are from the large water companies, called “community systems,” that serve a large population. Sickels oversees 602 community water systems in the state, including the Atlantic City Municipal Utilities Authority, Cape May Water & Sewer Utility, New Jersey American Water Co. and others serving population centers in southern New Jersey.
Violations are more likely with smaller systems. The division regulates about 2,500 systems listed as “transient noncommunity” — smaller systems at places such as campgrounds that serve a changing or transient population.
The division also regulates 750 “nontransient, noncommunity” systems — small water systems in which the same people drink the water every day, such as at schools and nursing homes.
Karen Fell, the DEP’s assistant director of water supply operations, said tests are constantly being done. Bacteria is tested monthly, while nitrates, a common pollutant from septic systems, are tested once a year. Surface water systems test chlorine levels every four hours to make sure enough is in the water lines to kill pathogens.
Some sampling is done before it goes to houses, and some is sampled in the distribution system, such as chlorine, lead and copper.
“Sometimes old infrastructure can affect the quality of the water. It’s the distribution system and not the water going into it,” Sickels said.
There seem to be few independent watchdog groups keeping track of public water quality, though a number of environmental groups watch out for the quality of water in private wells, rivers, streams and other bodies of water.
“I think when you’re dealing with water it’s too important to be trusted to the DEP,” said Bill Kibler, director of policy and science for the Raritan Headwaters Association.
The association is one of the few organizaitons that looks out for water quality, taking on the watchdog role for about 1.5 million people who live along the Raritan River watershed in northern New Jersey. It monitors surface water at 52 different locations and helps people get tests done on what is coming out of their taps, though about 80 percent of the water in the region is private well water that is regulated only when homes sell.
“As long as you open your tap and it looks clean, tastes clean and smells clean, then people don’t care where it comes from,” Kibler said.
One thing Kibler has learned is that a lot of times contamination comes after water leaves a utility. Groundwater can be polluted by agriculture, septic systems, even wildlife droppings. When public water pipes leak, the big worry is losing water, but Kibler said that leak can also allow in contaminated groundwater.
An additional concern is pollutants from the pipes in a private home, such as copper pipes in old homes that are connected with lead solder.
Contact Richard Degener: