Madison's drinking water once again met or exceeded all federal and state standards for health, quality and safety. Click here to access the detailed Annual Water Quality Report.
Ready to answer questions about the city's drinking water quality
When Marie Van Aartsen’s office phone rings, she’s ready to answer just about anything – at least when it comes to water.
“One call could be someone asking what setting they should have their water softener on, then the next call might be someone from the university who has questions about microbiology or water chemistry,” she says.
Calls about the taste, smell or color of a customer’s water, its pH and alkalinity (popular topics with home brewers), its safety and testing, where it comes from and how it’s treated – they all come to Van Aartsen, who answers Madison Water Utility’s water quality line.
“I’ll have customers who are surprised that a real person answers the phone,” she laughs. “I explain to them, ‘That’s why I’m here!’”
These days, Van Aartsen is preparing to walk callers though the utility’s Annual Water Quality Report, an overview of the tens of thousands of water quality tests the utility performs every year. Once again, Madison’s water has met or exceeded all required standards for health and safety. But that doesn’t mean customers won’t have questions.
“Sometimes a call is quick. It’s a 30 second call and that’s it. And other times it may be a 10 or 15 minute call … But I’m here to answer their questions. So if it takes 15 minutes, it takes 15 minutes.”
Van Aartsen says the Water Quality Report is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the information that’s out there about Madison’s water.
“I love to be able to walk the customers through what we have on our website…and I continually have customers amazed at how much data we have. It's great to be able to help them understand how many things are regulated, and then in addition to that, how many things we monitor that aren’t even regulated. We do an extraordinary amount of testing.”
There are some calls that Van Aartsen gets so often, they’ve been added to the utility’s website. Some customers complain about a “rotten egg” smell coming from the water. Van Aartsen explains it’s often really coming from the garbage disposal – smelly air gets pushed out when the fresh water hits the drain.
“Or we’ve had a few where a sponge has been the culprit, or a dishcloth.”
How do you tell for sure? Do what Van Aartsen calls the glass test. Fill a clean glass with water without letting any go down the drain. Then walk into another room and smell the water in the glass. Chances are that rotten egg smell will be gone.
Van Aartsen also gets plenty of calls from people bothered by the smell and taste chlorine, which the utility adds in very small amounts to disinfect the water.
“Since we add it as a gas, it does dissipate … They can just let the chlorine naturally de-gas out of the water by filling a clean container, making sure it’s not completely covered, then leave it in the fridge or on the counter. Within about 12 hours most of the chlorine is out.”
Often, it’s not a smell or taste that’s troubling customers. It’s something they heard from a neighbor, saw on the news, or read in the paper.
“A lot of times it’ll be things that come across in the news media that aren’t specific to Madison. I love it when customers will contact us so we have the opportunity to help them understand what they’re reading and then how that fits in the context of Madison. We don't want people to have fears that are unfounded.”
Madison Water Utility tests the city's drinking water at every well and reservoir every day
More than taking calls
Van Aartsen’s entire job represents a significant shift at Madison Water Utility, both in terms of customer service and water quality. Her initial position grew out of controversy that erupted more than ten years ago over naturally-occurring iron and manganese in Madison’s water.
“(There needed to be) someone able to be available for our customers during the workday to answer their questions about it. And the position has continued to grow from there.”
Since 2005, the utility has addressed the iron and manganese issue by implementing a comprehensive unidirectional water main flushing program to clean mineral sediment from pipes. It also set aesthetic water quality goals for Madison’s water, which meant spending millions on iron and manganese filtration systems, like the one debuting this summer on the North Side.
And the utility has been rebuilding the public’s confidence in its water by addressing specific water quality concerns, one customer at a time.
“We love to talk to our customers, we love to show them our facilities and explain how we pump the water from the ground and how we treat it and deliver it. As our customers understand our system and everything it takes, then they have a deeper appreciation for what a valuable resource we have.”
If you have a questions about the water quality in your home, call Madison Water Utility's water quality line at (608) 266-4654.