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The science of safe drinking water

Scientist guards SCV tap-water drinkers against disease, poisons

Posted: October 28, 2009 10:05 p.m.
Updated: October 29, 2009 4:55 a.m.

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David Kimbrough is the Santa Clarita Valley's resident water wizard.

The not-so-mad scientist toils in the Castaic Lake Water Agency's water lab, performing a sort of alchemy: He turns brown-tinged, raw water from the San Joaquin-Sacramento Delta into crystal-clear, safe drinking water that accounts for half of the local supply.
His lab doubles as a research facility, where Kimbrough, who holds a Ph.D. in environmental chemistry, actively develops cutting-edge water-treatment technology.

"People don't even think about water safety, which tells you how well we do our job," he said.

That's not hubris flowing from Kimbrough. It's recognition of how far water treatment has come.

Safety first matter in water
"One hundred years ago, there were thousands of deaths each year related to typhoid contracted through drinking water," Kimbrough said. "Now contracting typhoid through drinking water is virtually nonexistent in the U.S."

Kimbrough and the five scientists working in the water lab are the first line of defense in keeping the local water supply safe. Every water purveyor in the Santa Clarita Valley, except Los Angeles County Water Works District 36, uses the Castaic Lake Water Agency lab to test water, said Dan Masnada, general manager for the agency.

And testing drinking water is a bit more complex than checking a pool's pH levels.

Kimbrough's crew tests water in all the stages of the treatment process - from raw water fresh out of the pipes of the State Water Project to treated water on its way to homes.

They run the water through spectrometers that heat the water and any suspended solids to 10,000 degrees Kelvin - the same temperature found on the surface of the sun. Under the extreme heat, metals turn colors and are detected by a lab scientist who monitors the machine.

"We're testing for traces of arsenic, calcium and chromium," he said.

In one corner of the water lab, Kimbrough has an incubator where he keeps water samples. What he's hoping not to hatch are bacteria. A chemical is dissolved into each sample to test for the presence of bacteria. If the bacteria are present they will consume the chemical and their waste will turn the water sample yellow.

"That's like a warning. It tells us there's something wrong," he said.

If the sample turns red, that cues Kimbrough and staff that something is really wrong, like the possibility of a cholera or E. coli in the water.

"You get a red sample, that's a red flag and you must do something immediately," he said. "A cholera contamination can kill thousands of people in 24 hours."

Water lab innovations
While water testing and the monitoring of CLWA's treatment is an integral part of Kimbrough's job, he boils over with joy when they talk about the research work done at the lab.

In 2006, he published "An Electrochemical Reactor to Minimize Brominated DBPs in a Conventional Treatment Plant."
In English?

"We developed a low-cost way to remove bromine from water," Kimbrough said with a smile.

Bromide, a common chemical in Delta water can turn into a cancer-causing agent when mixed with chlorine and organic material also commonly found in raw water.

Worth every penny
The water lab comes at a cost.

"Our operating budget is $500,000 a year," Kimbrough said.

Just one of the complex machines that test water can run Castaic Lake Water $50,000.

"That's surprisingly cheap," Kimbrough said.

But the benefits outstrip the costs, Masnada said.

"What's important is the safety of our water," he said. "It's about quality control of our product."


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