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Johnson City drinking water surpasses strict state and federal requirements

August 13th, 2013 9:06 pm by Gary B. Gray

Johnson City drinking water surpasses strict state and federal requirements

Matt Holtsclaw, Chief Water Plant Operator (Ron Campbell/Johnson City Press)

Reports covering January through December 2012 show the quality of Johnson City’s drinking water surpassed strict requirements by both the state of Tennessee and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The city, which conducts about 45,000 analytical tests on its raw water sources each year, relies on water from the Watauga River and Unicoi Springs. The Watauga and the Unicoi plants treat the water flowing into the facilities using filtration and disinfection to remove or reduce harmful contaminants.

A Tennessee Department of Conservation study determined that the Watauga River is highly susceptible, while the Unicoi Springs are moderately susceptible.

“There is no reason for concern, as far as that term ‘susceptible,’ ” Tom Witherspoon, the city’s Water and Sewer Service Department director, said Tuesday. “We’re pulling water from a trophy trout stream. If you are downstream from any industrial areas, you’re going to be in that category, and we’re downstream from Elizabethton, where there’s business and industry.” 

Witherspoon said an important “driver” for the eventual ratings is who actually owns the watershed upstream. In this case Johnson City has no jurisdiction over Watauga Lake and Watauga River. 

The city operates both water and sewer infrastructure inside the corporate limits of Johnson City and in portions of four counties outside the city limits. Each year, the Water and Sewer Services Department treats more than 5 billion gallons of potable water and processes more than 4 billion gallons of wastewater. 

City-operated facilities include two drinking water treatment plants; three wastewater treatment plants; 94 water storage reservoirs and booster stations; 101 wastewater lift stations; 925 miles of water lines; and 568 miles of wastewater collection lines.

Drinking water, including bottled water, may be reasonably expected to contain at least small amounts of some contaminants, and the presence of contaminants does not necessarily indicate that the water poses a health risk. Generally, sources of drinking water (both tap water and bottled) include rivers, lakes, ponds, streams, natural springs and wells. 

As water travels over the surface of the land or underground, it dissolves naturally occurring minerals and, in some cases, radioactive material, and can pick up substances resulting from the presence of animals and human activity. 

“The federal and state government regularly do health assessments on water quality,” Witherspoon said. “The key to it is meeting those standards. It’s really a positive thing. There’s a lot of people (who) would love to have the water sources we have.”

The Water and Sewer Services Department routinely conducts inspections for cross connections between a customer’s service and the public water supply to protect water quality. A cross connection is a direct arrangement of plumbing that allows the potable water supply to be connected to a line that contains a contaminant or non-potable water. 

Examples of cross connections are direct connections of your plumbing with lawn irrigation systems, fire protection systems, pools, saunas, hot tubs, decorative fountains, auxiliary intakes (i.e. wells, cisterns, ponds, etc.) or home water treatment systems. 

Installation of back-flow preventers will separate these types of installments from your drinking water. Submerged water hoses can also create a cross connection. Witherspoon said you should never submerge or connect a water hose with any substance that you wouldn’t want drawn back into your plumbing in the event of a pressure drop within the city’s water supply lines. 

Some people may be more vulnerable than the general population to contaminants in drinking water. People with compromised immune systems, such as those with cancer undergoing chemotherapy, people who have undergone organ transplants, people with HIV/AIDS or other immune disorders. Some elderly people and infants can be at risk, as well. These people should seek advice from their health care providers.      

• If you have any questions regarding cross connections, call the Johnson City Water and Sewer Services Department at 975-2602. 

• To report suspicious activities at any utility facility, including treatment plants, pumping stations, tanks, fire hydrants, etc., call 461-1643 or 975-2648. 

• The Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation provides a Source Water Assessment at 

• More information about contaminants and potential health effects can be obtained by calling the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Safe Drinking Water Hotline at 1-800-426-4791.  

• To view results from a recent assessment of Johnson City drinking water, go to 

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