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Detecting Contaminants in Drinking Water and Source Water During a Hazardous Spill

September 8, 2022

The following is a guest blog by Capitol Tech doctoral graduate Jegnaw G Essatu, who breaks down the Jackson Water Crisis from a Critical Infrastructure point of view and discusses the methods in which contaminants are detected and removed during this type of hazardous event. 


The Jackson, Mississippi area water sources come from the Ross Barnett Reservoir and the Pearl River. There are two water filtration facilities, OB Curtis Water Treatment Plant and the JH Fewell Water Treatment Plant. In addition, six groundwater wells are serving areas in South Jackson and portions of the City of Byram. Ross Barnett Reservoir supplies water to the OB Curtis Water Treatment Plant, initially constructed in late 1980 and completed in the early 1990s. The design specification of OB Curtis Water Treatment Plant is 20 million gallons per day for roughly 175,000 people in the Jackson, Mississippi, area. A broken pump at the plant and age-old water system failures worsened due to recent flooding in late August 2022. The Mississippi State Department of Health declared a boil water advisory once high turbidity was noticed on a sample taken at the OB Curtis Water Treatment Plant.

What does high turbidity mean? And why boil water? Is that the only concern regarding flood-based emergencies affecting drinking water filtration plants? According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, water turbidity has no health effect but can harm disinfection by being a medium for microbial growth. Turbidity above 1NTU can and may indicate disease-causing organism growth. An excellent historical example is the 1993 Milwaukee, Wisconsin water crisis, initially diagnosed with slight high turbidity within federal limits (caused by infective filtration process at the plant). After approximately 400,000 people were impacted by gastrointestinal illness, the water test showed that chlorine resistance Cryptosporidium parvum was the cause of the illness and the high turbidity source at the Milwaukee water filtration plant. Boiling the water will minimize the water-born microbial infection.

On the other hand, the leading player in the Jackson Mississippi OB Curtis drinking water crisis is flood which can bring chemical and microbiological changes to the Ross Barnett Reservoir, providing water to the plant. It is critical to address the microbial concern with a boil water alert until the conventional water treatment process is back to normal. Still, it is also significantly essential to be concerned about chemical contamination. Flood washes away farmlands, industries, causes sewage overflows, etc. Farmlands contain herbicides and pesticides which, depending on the industry type, can carry many chemicals. Sewage overflow contributes to chemicals like pharmaceutical and personal care products entering the waterways.

In summary, this type of emergency is wide open to different concerns. There are many US Environmental Protection Agency-approved analytical methods that can be used to confirm the water quality for chemical contamination. One of the reasons for developing advanced and enhanced screen methodology is to provide qualitative and quantitative analytical data for critical contaminates in a short period to protect public health.

The flood basin will be surveyed to identity if there are farmlands, industries, power plants, oil tanks, etc., in the path. Then, the possible chemicals generated from the sites will be shortlisted by accessing the facilities safety data sheet. Then existing testing methodologies will be applied to validate any concerns.  The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Water Contaminant Information Tool (WICIT) and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency WasteSuit are the main tools used in order to test and survey the water. Updating these two critical databases to provide essential information is critical for advanced response to protect the public health.


Works cited: 

Environmental Protection Agency. (n.d.). EPA. Retrieved September 8, 2022, from https://www.epa.gov/ground-water-and-drinking-water/national-primary-drinking-water-regulations

Mississippi State Department of Health. (n.d.). Lead and Jackson water: Recommendations for homeowners, schools and facilities. Jackson Water System - Mississippi State Department of Health. Retrieved September 8, 2022, from https://msdh.ms.gov/msdhsite/_static/23,0,195,720.html