Is Total Coliform in your NH Public Drinking Water Supply? In 2015, they Won’t tell you.

Author:  Kristen Melendez, ES&P M.S. candidate, 2016

It’s Thursday, November 6, 2014, at 1:00 pm.  I’m in the auditorium at the NH Department of Environmental Services (DES); the room is packed, with few empty seats in sight.  Public water suppliers from all across the State of NH have filled the room.  Everyone is waiting to hear what Mr. Rick Skarinka, Civil Engineer for NH DES, has to say about how NH DES is going to implement EPA’s Revised Total Coliform Rule (RTCR).

Portion of EPA RTCR Summary Guide; Source:

This is huge.  The TCR was established by EPA in 1989 and has not been overhauled since.  That is, until revisions were published in the Federal Register on February 13, 2013.  So why all the fuss more than a year and a half later?  EPA has set a compliance date of April 1, 2016 – and NH DES is implementing the rule early.

NH will be the first state in the entire Nation to execute the changes specified in the RTCR.  Beginning January 1, 2015, all NH public water systems will need to comply.

Back in the auditorium, I’m sitting uncomfortably in my stadium-seating style chair, and listening intently to the presentation while the person sitting next to me is struggling to keep his eyes open.  Then, I hear it.  Mr. Skarinka announces that public notification is no longer required when water systems test positive for total coliform.

As the owner’s representative for two public water systems, I am overjoyed.  I know firsthand that the responses people have when informed that they have been drinking contaminated water are not pleasant.   Yet, as a consumer of public water systems myself, now I have a question – why has the EPA stopped requiring public notification for analyses yielding positive results for total coliform?

Before I can raise my hand, Mr. Skarinka explains that under the 1989 TCR, addressing a total coliform-positive test result involved only notifying the public, and retesting the water until bacteria was absent.  To comply with the RTCR, public water systems will be mandated to get to the root of the problem, and answer why total coliform is present.   System owners, operators, or owner’s representatives will be required to complete an assessment that investigates each component of the water system for vulnerabilities to bacteria.

As it turns out, total coliform in drinking water, when by itself, is not harmful.  However, total coliform in drinking water does indicate that other pathogens, such as E. Coli, may be present.  That’s why all public water systems are required to sample for E. Coli after testing positive for total coliform.

According to Mr. Skarinka, the RTCR is an improvement to managing bacteriological contamination in public water systems.  I agree.  However, as the information flow to public water system consumers is cut off, I recommend that consumers stay connected.  EPA’s Safe Drinking Water Information System (SDWIS) website lets consumers do just that.  The website hosts data on all drinking water systems reported by the respective states, including violations dating to 1993.

Go ahead and search the site, located here:  I’m going to go and get a drink of water.