A Word With....The Expert Water Taster
Cindy Bamfield, Senior Chemist, Helix Water District, San Diego County
California’s water agencies employ tens of thousands of professionals to ensure reliable delivery of clean water to irrigate our crops, sustain our livestock, maintain our homes and businesses — and provide California’s 37 million citizens with safe, palatable drinking water. Today, we talk with someone integral to maintaining water quality of the highest caliber: Helix Water District’s Cindy Bamfield, who, with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry and a master’s in analytical chemistry, knows a thing or two about the makeup of H2O.
Q. What is your primary role at Helix Water District?
A. I wear many hats, so identifying one single objective is difficult. Some days I’m collecting samples from the district’s water distribution system, or I’m at the instruments in the lab, testing and analyzing samples. I work to ensure we’re in compliance with state and federal water quality standards. And I serve on the frontline for customer service as it relates to water quality.
Q. What does a chemist have to do with customer care?
A. Most people, when they’re really concerned about the water, want to talk to the scientist behind the data. While we’ve never had a serious quality issue, we get some unusual concerns. There are some people who feel we’re poisoning their water, some say they smell rotten eggs in their water (that’s usually a drain trap issue, nothing to do with the water), or people see black particles floating throughout (typically, it’s a washer from their home plumbing that’s broken down). One woman told me that her aura had changed; she was convinced it correlated to changes in the water. I make it a point to troubleshoot with customers so that when they hang up, they feel confident about the quality of water we deliver.
Q. Helix Water District is renowned for having some of the region’s best tasting water. To what do you attribute that?
A. Helix is the first water treatment plant in San Diego County to use a process known as ozonation — the bubbling of ozone gas through water to destroy bacteria and other micro-organisms. It’s a very strong disinfectant without the residual chemicals. There are fewer byproducts than from chlorination, and I feel strongly the process removes taste and odor problems that could otherwise affect our water. We are constantly monitoring water quality. We test for everything: turbidity, color, taste, odor, chlorine. Our water tastings are very similar to wine tastings, actually. We swirl, we smell, we sip.
In the rare instance of a taste or odor problem, we’ll work to correct it before it hits the public. Rather than chemically modify the water, we usually change the source. We have that option, as we obtain water from Northern California, the Colorado River and from local lakes and wells.
Q. How has your job evolved over the years?
A. With plant expansions, ozone upgrades — and the ebb and flow of our regulatory environment — we must be proactive to remain compliant. We’re currently working to identify new local sources of water, to keep ahead of the drought and to educate people about conservation. What’s new is our capacity to test water at the nano-level for personal care product residuals and pharmaceuticals. Now that we’re able to test for them, we’re able to monitor and treat them. I feel I’m making a difference in people’s lives by ensuring the chemical levels in their water are nice and low.