Is Madison’s water too hard on international students?

Is Madison’s water too hard on international students?

by Kelly Wang

Zora Zhang ordered an activated carbon water filter from, trying to get rid of the white residue that appeared in her drinking water.

“The water here is too hard. White precipitate appears whenever I boil water. It leaves mark on my kettle [and] on my cup,” said Zhang, a junior studying food science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “It’s getting unbearable.”

Solely relied on groundwater, the city of Madison faced problems with its mineral-rich water.

Manganese in drinking water and its potential health risks have been under the spotlight since 2009. As Madison Water Utility officials install filters to remove iron and manganese in several wells, the presence of calcium, magnesium and chlorine in tap water drove Zhang and other internationals students at UW-Madison to find alternative – bottled water.

Groundwater has served the city of Madison since the 1880s. What is wrong with it now?

In 2010, the Madison Water Utility faced investigations of discolored water problem due to manganese presence. A research released in September 2014 showed that exposure to manganese in water is linked with poorer memory and attention performances in children, “even at low levels commonly encountered in North America,” according to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.

The research acknowledged the positive usage of manganese in activating enzymes and forming body tissue and bone. But where did the harmful manganese in drinking water originate?

Water, as a good solvent, can dissolve minerals such as manganese and iron in the aquifers during filtration and storage. Groundwater, originated from precipitation, infiltrates through the top layers of the soil and is then stored in deep sandstone aquifer, an underground rock formation with small spaces between and within the rocks.

A sample piece of wonewoc sandstone found in Spring Green, Wisconsin

A sample piece of wonewoc sandstone found in Spring Green, Wisconsin, displayed at the Wisconsin Geological and N Historical Survey

[Picture of sandstone from the Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey]

The amount of iron and manganese in some wells were close and some exceeding the aesthetic goal (0.3 ppm for iron and 50 pph for manganese) of the Madison Water Utility, according to its 2013 Water Quality Report.

“We did have some issues with iron and manganese that discolored water,” said Joseph Grande, the water quality manager at the Madison Water Utility. “So we have a filter at one of our wells.”

Drinking water in Madison comes from 22 wells ranging from 700 to 1,200 feet deep. Four wells (No.19 by Eagle Heights, No.27 by Camp Randall and No. 14 and 19 on University Avenue) primarily serve the university campus.

The Madison Water Utility will construct filters to remove iron and manganese at well No. 7 and a new well on the Southeast side of the city, according to Grande.

As the officials combat the problem of black manganese in tap water, white residue in boiled water make international students worry about the water quality in Madison.

“The precipitates make the inner layer of my kettle come off […] small pieces of residue get stuck at my throat, and sometimes you can see the water with a whitish cloudy color,” Zhang said. “Would you want to drink that?”

[Picture of white smears that appear in boiled tap water]

The scale that appears in boiled tap water is mainly calcium and magnesium, which are minerals from the aquifer. When dissolved in water, they increase the water hardness.

The Madison Water Utility has no plan to reduce such minerals.

“Ninety plus percent of homeowners and businesses in the city have a water softener,” Grande said. “So they will essentially soften their boiled water.”

Hard water is not a health hazard. According to a World Health Organization’s report in 2009, high-mineral water may provide supplemental calcium which suppresses bone resorption. Hard water may not impose health risk, but it can be a nuisance for cleaning tasks, as many international students experienced extensive hair loss and uncleansed laundry.

“When I first arrived in America, I thought the water here is softer, so it helped to wash off my dead hair,” Zhang said. “But when I talked to my friends, they told me it’s because the water here is actually too hard.”

In August 2013, Madison won the best-tasting water contest during the Wisconsin State Fair.

“That validated what we already knew about our city water supply and the quality of our water supply,” Grande said.

However, Tiantian Wang, a UW junior, dislikes tap water because of its “stinky smell and taste”. The treatment of chlorine to kill bacteria and viruses seemed further stop international students from enjoying tap water.

Grande suggested to use activated carbon filters as one solution.

“If you want a more economical model,” Grande said. “Fill up a pitcher of water, put it in the fridge and let it degas overnight, there won’t be any chlorine the next morning.”

Feeling too problematic and tired of dealing with issues of tap water, some international students found alternative – bottled water. Wang buys a box of Dasani purified water (24 bottles) every month to keep herself hydrated and satisfied.

Zhang chose to use water filter instead. Well, did it work?

She let tap water precipitates through the filter before she boiled it. When bubbles started to surface, the water in the kettle turned cloudy as before.