Testing the Waters
How Lea Monaghan and her colleagues keep the city's drinking water safe.
by Ken Garber
Published in September, 2021
Lea Monaghan is a former environmental consultant, editorial assistant, and stay-at-home mom with a master's degree in geochemistry. Now, as one of four ELAs--environmental laboratory analysts--at the Ann Arbor water treatment plant, she monitors contaminants in the city's drinking water and wastewater. The ELAs also assist on research projects and with community volunteer water sample analysis--but their main responsibility is ensuring the water's safe to drink.
The bright, high-ceilinged lab, with its long tables filled with instruments and lab ware, operates much like a busy commercial kitchen, demanding careful timing and consistent results. ELAs rotate through three stations--solids, wet chemistry, and microbiology--'coordinating their regular tasks along with the week's special orders, scrawled on a central whiteboard by lab manager Jim Bahen.
Testing for chemicals like 1,4-dioxane and PFAS, and for heavy metals like lead, is outsourced, but commercial labs can take a week or more, so many analyses are done here. The workload is heaviest at the start of the week, when samples arrive from across the city, in addition to the constant river, well, and reservoir sampling.
On a Friday afternoon Monaghan is carefully pipetting acid into a solution that a water utility technician will use to check for high levels of chlorine, a byproduct of chloramine disinfection. ELA Julie Peterson is resetting a computer screen after recording concentrations of nitrite, nitrate, and phosphorus, byproducts of agricultural fertilizer runoff. Her spectrophotometer detects how much light, at a specific wavelength, passes through the sample. Wastewater samples marinate in a warm water bath; a change in dye color indicates coliform bacteria. Other samples sit in a dryer, spreading their contents on filters, which will later be weighed for sediment.
Ann Arbor water has won awards for taste, and the city's latest water quality reports show safe levels for all contaminants. The lab where Monaghan works is mostly the back end of the process, after water softening (the removal of hard minerals using lime), 'ozonation--which uses ozone bubbles to
kill microbes--filtration, and finally UV light and chloramine disinfection.
Monaghan started as a temp in December 2019, becoming full-time the following September. Calm and unflappable, she wears work boots and jeans under her lab coat, her curly hair pressed back by safety glasses. As a trainee, Monaghan's biggest challenge was properly timing the sheer volume of tests ordered. "We process at least 1,000 samples a week, 12,000 samples a quarter," she says. ELAs must "stay on top of all the quality control requirements, not let anything slip through the cracks, make sure everything gets done."
The lab never shuts down, so ELAs rotate through weekends and holidays. Monaghan gets most excited about research projects, but takes a professional's pride in the routine work of preparing standards, testing instruments, and taking measurements.
There's still novelty, because some tasks are performed only once or twice a year: "Something will come up in my rotation that I have never done before," she says.
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