Reporting on drinking water

Here are some tips for reporting on water systems that came out of a Knight Center workshop:

  • Hit the streets. Often the best way to find out what is going on is to talk to the people who drink the water instead of just politicians or engineers. If they are complaining, there is a problem. Even discolored or smelly water that is not health-threatening is a problem. Water should look and taste good.
  • Understand your water system. Take a tour, learn how it works. You may stumble over a story and you’ll certainly develop sources. It’s important to know what you’re writing about – preferably before a crisis.
  • Check consumer confidence reports. Water officials report to their customers a community’s water sources, the levels of contaminants and compliance with rules. Read them and ask about red flags.
  • Be alert to signs of microbial parasites. Question illness outbreaks, especially if they are limited to your community. Some illnesses, such as Pontiac Fever — caused by the Legionella bacteria, have similar symptoms to the flu and often go underreported.
  • Ask about testing protocols. Find out how your community tests water and run those techniques by an independent expert to see if it’s doing it right. If tests are proper and show no problems, reassure residents. If they’re not, you’ve got another story.
  • Find your lead service lines. The national lead copper rule requires communities to record the locations of lead service lines. If they don’t know, that’s a story. If they do know, report the hot spots and ask about plans to replace them. When will it happen? What will it cost? How will it be financed?
  • Ask for lead and copper sample results. Verify that testing took place in high-risk homes.
  • Annual reports are your friends. Fiscal reports are a good starting point. They may outline concerns. Read the footnotes. They often lead to other reports and studies.
  • Check audits. Read audit reports or information supporting bond proposals to expand or repair water systems. These may report how much water is produced and how much is sold. If a whole lot more is produced than sold, that may indicate an inefficient system with a lot of leaks.