The chemistry of clean drinking water is fragile, which means it can be difficult to manage a water system — and important to get it exactly right. Clean water is vital for our health, so the pressure is on for the people and companies who manage water systems. Luckily, preparing a Nitrification Action Plan (NAP) is one simple way to minimize risks and improve the water quality of your system.
Most water companies pull their water from natural water sources or manmade reservoirs. These are ideal places to store water…and for germs to grow. As the water travels through miles of pipe to reach customers, it’s exposed to more contaminants that could cause life-threatening illnesses. This is why water treatment, like chlorination, is so important. The chlorination process — literally, putting chlorine into the water — is common and makes it safe to drink.
If the water is pulled from community wells or other groundwater sources, disinfectants aren’t always necessary. But most public water systems that take the water from reservoirs will treat the water with either chlorine or chloramine. This process kills the parasites and germs that can lead to waterborne disease. Water companies are constantly monitoring the chlorine levels in the water, and they might adjust it based on the time of year or other issues that arise.
It’s a delicate science, but in the 21st century, it’s also exact. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), chlorine has been a disinfectant in the U.S. since 1908. In 2023, chlorination and chlorimination processes are pretty much just a given and easy part of water system management.
But sometimes these processes cause new issues to arise, particularly when nitrogen interacts with the chemicals. Ammonia (which might be in the water from farming runoff or added as a disinfectant) contains nitrogen that can oxidize into nitrite and nitrate, a process known as nitrification. This natural chemical reaction can become a problem if the increased nitrite and nitrate levels are high enough to lead to bacterial growth, basically reversing the effects of the water treatment process.
A Nitrification Action Plan (NAP) focuses on preventing or correcting the nitrification process and avoiding this bacterial growth. Among other things, a NAP encourages regular testing and adjusting the chemical levels as needed. It basically serves as a guide on how to maintain safe water throughout the water system so that it’s ready to drink by the time it reaches your faucet. These plans help water companies monitor their water and ensure that the system is operating as it should. All water systems can benefit from a NAP, but it’s especially important for systems that use chlorination or chlorimination.
The specifics of a NAP vary depending on the size of the water system and other community-specific factors. There are guidelines about the order in which disinfectants are injected into the water, with the aim of minimizing the nitrification process. Water systems have sample sites located throughout the system where a sample of the water is tested to check the chemical levels. This checkpoint allows the water company to identify issues and correct the chemical composition of the water if necessary, returning the chemicals to levels that are safe to drink. A NAP requires you to set a schedule for where in the system and how often the water is tested. This consistency makes it easy to ensure that everything is in order, leading to quick corrective measures if the chemical levels are off and thereby avoiding boil orders or bigger disasters.
A NAP is certainly worth having, but how to actually prepare and implement one? Civil engineers like Heneghan and Associates, P.C. (HA) design water and wastewater systems, but we can also make operating them easier. Our Water and Wastewater department works with water companies to design infrastructure for water systems, including water treatment plants, sample sites, injection points, and many more details. This planning can be as minute as debating the type of metal to use in the piping. It may seem excessive, but clean water is certainly worth the work!
Some nitrification is inevitable — it’s a natural chemical process — but smart designs and a NAP can minimize the risk of dangerous bacteria growth and waterborne disease. Every state requires water testing, though the specifics can vary. Whether or not your state requires it, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommends nitrate testing for all wells, public and private. Additionally, some states require a NAP for public water systems that use chlorination or chlorimination. As of 2019, Illinois requires a NAP for systems that don’t have a free chlorine residual. Organizations like the Illinois Rural Water Association have more information about these requirements and how to meet them, as well as additional information and guidance for managing Illinois water systems. Missouri doesn’t currently have any NAP requirements, but the Missouri Department of Natural Resources highly encourages having some kind of testing plan in place.
These testing and NAP requirements, while necessary, can be confusing. Fortunately, there are a lot of resources available for water companies, townships and private well owners to take control of their water safety. A NAP is the perfect first step. Engineers like us at HA can help with design and upkeep of infrastructure, and state governments or organizations like the CDC and EPA have guidelines about how to ensure your water is potable. They can also work with you to create a NAP that fits your community and your water system. Clean water isn’t easy, but it doesn’t have to be hard. (In fact, the water shouldn’t be harder than 120 mg/L — but that’s a joke and a blog post for another day.)