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Saturday, January 31, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 34.0° F  Overcast
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Keeping up security appearances at the Madison Water Utility

"We do ask, however, for security purposes, that you do not publish or air the location of the unit well."

This admonition closed an official press release issued on Thursday, June 21 by the Madison Water Utility. It announced a press briefing the following day at Unit Well #30 on the south side.

"The purpose of the briefing is to present information on changes to the standard operating procedure that establishes chlorine levels in Madison drinking water," the release continued, referring questions to general manager David Denig-Chakroff and water quality manager Joe Grande.

On Tuesday, the Madison Board of Water Commissioners voted to change this procedure and increase chlorine levels for wells in the city. This move, driven in part by the need to meet federal groundwater requirements by the end of 2009, follows several problems over the last year regarding the use of the treatment chemical.

The first was in August 2006, when failure of an automated chlorine release system at Well #29 on the far northeast side of town led to the discovery of inflated manganese and iron and in its water source. This problem will be addressed in 2008 with the installation of a $2.1 million water filter to remove the excess metals.

Another problem arose in March when excess levels of chlorine were pumped into city water at Well #8 on the near east side.

At the press conference Friday morning, the utility presented information on its new procedures, the levels of chlorine to be involved, and "their implications for water consumers," all detailed in another press release issued as the conference started.

Meanwhile, the city also announced today that it will abandon Well #3 by the end of this year. This, the oldest well in the system, has been shut down since last September following ongoing issues of manganese, iron, and carbon tetrachloride contamination.

Ongoing problems with Madison's water supply have become a significant subject of public discussion. In late 2006, Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz convened a task force to craft an external communications-cum-public relations plan for addressing water-quality concerns.

This group -- which included water commissioners Jon Standridge and Lauren Cnare (an east side alder), along with city residents Lynn Williams, Karl Patzer, Dan Melton, and Lily Irwin Vitela -- released their official plan for responding publicly to the problem on Monday, June 4. (This is available in the related downloads at right.) Featuring suggestions for improving tone, content, and credibility of the water utility, and encouraging more interaction with neighborhoods, open meetings, closer relationships with local reporters, and more direct interactions with residents via tools like email and advertising, the plan culminates with a "Communications Trigger and Action Matrix" identifying what situations which public relations response might work best.

"With the intense focus needed to make this plan work and the enormity of the tasks, the Task Force strongly recommends that MWU hire a communications professional to 'work the plan,' continuously improve the internal and external communications and guide the leaders and staff members of the utility to develop and maintain an open, trusted dialogue with each other and the members of our community, MWU's customers," the task force concludes.

Clearly, the water utility wants to improve its image.

One of the first efforts in this new regime came on Tuesday, when the utility released an updated report "chronicling its investigations and actions with regard to manganese." (This, too, is available in the related downloads at right.) It introduces the naturally occurring metal, details its levels in Madison's wells and the utility's means of locating where it's inflated, finding that "relatively few tap samples exceeded the lifetime health advisory level of 300 ppb (that's parts per billion). More over, the report continues, "none of the eleven locations with a manganese level above 300 ppb consistently tested above this level" with problems often occurring at locations where water was rarely used (and therefore flushed). Nevertheless, the report ends with ten recommendations that encourage continued monitoring and flushing of the water mains.

The testing locations where the most manganese was found were generally on the isthmus and in portions of the east side, areas which are primarily served by Well #s 3, 8, and 29. The locations of these wells is hardly a secret, such as the soon to be closed #3, located near the intersection of East Johnson and First streets in the Emerson East neighborhood.

Which brings things back to Well #30, where the utility held its press conference. Though the water utility requests media not to print or broadcast the location of this well, they published its address online for all to see, that is at least until the release was removed from the city's website after the press conference.

"I got a number of people commenting about that," says David Denig-Chakroff, general manager of the water utility. "Obviously if we have a news conference at a unit well, we need to tell the media its location. We prefer not to publish broadly the exact locations of our wells. I did send out that notice to the press, and it was on the Web site briefly."

Denig-Chakroff maintains that he would prefer that the media doesn't publish or air the specific address or locations of the city's wells, which then would provide a "permanent record" that's publicly available. We do what we can to provide caution, but we need to let people know where to go to provide the news briefing," he says. "We take every precaution we can."

The problem is, though, that the utility and the city is publicizing the locations of the wells itself. While it appears that the online press release wasn't picked up in the cache of any search engines, it's otherwise to be found in other official city documents published online (namely here and here).

Security of the city's water supply is indeed a serious matter, and the availability of online information about critical infrastructure around the nation has swiftly disappeared over the last six years. At some point, though, prudence gets lost in the rush to keep everything secret. But if the utility is serious about presenting a new competent and transparent face to Madisonians, publishing online the address of a well that they ask the media to keep quiet about is not the best sign.

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