Emergency Information for Public Water Systems

Public Water Systems Reporting After a Significant Weather Event

Recent Guidance Communications

Public water systems (PWSs) are required to develop, maintain, and carry out emergency response plans. Complete the appropriate Certification of Public Water System Emergency Response Plan for the PWS type (Transient , NTNC and Community) and return it to RIDOH. If your PWS does not currently have the required emergency response plan or if the plan has not been updated in the past five years, RIDOH has developed emergency response plan templates for transient PWSs and for non-transient non-community and community PWSs to help you to get started. If you have questions about emergency response plans, call the Center for Drinking Water Quality (401-222-6867) or send an email to doh.ridwq@health.ri.gov with emergency response plans in the subject line.

If a public water system (PWS) has confirmed E. coli in its system, Rhode Island Department of Health (RIDOH) issues a Boil Water Order requiring the PWS to enact a Boil Water Advisory for all impacted customers. The presence of E. coli/fecal coliform bacteria indicate that water may be contaminated with human or animal waste. Water must be boiled to kill bacteria that may be present so that it is safe to use.

RIDOH will issue a Boil Water Order to a PWS when:

  • Repeat sample result is E. coli present;
  • Repeat sample result is total coliform present following an E. coli present routine sample;
  • A complete set of repeat samples was not taken following an E. coli present routine sample;
  • No E. coli analysis was performed on a repeat sample; and/or
  • Any public water system (PWS) receiving water from another PWS that experiences any of the four situations listed above.

To assist PWSs in completing all required steps and making sure that the public is well-informed, RIDOH has created a comprehensive Boil Water Order Policy Checklist. The information on this web page is an overview of elements important to a PWS that is implementing a Boil Water Advisory, resolving the contamination issue, and communicating effectively with all stakeholders. The PWS should refer to the detailed Boil Water Order Policy Checklist for specific information and requirements.

Communicating

Customer awareness is critical when a mandatory Boil Water Advisory is in effect. PWS representatives must provide customers with appropriate public notice (E.coli found in well, E.coli found in distribution system) and guidance during and after the Boil Water Advisory to ensure that they protect themselves, their families, and their businesses. Provide a phone number, that will be staffed 24 hours per day, that the public may call with questions and prepare personnel to staff customer hotline for the first 24 hours after initial notification of the Boil Water Advisory. After the first 24 hours, a pre-recorded message is allowed with a referral to a person who is available 24 hours.

Communication with RIDOH and other PWSs affected by the Boil Water Order is also critical. Notify wholesale and consecutive water systems, as applicable. Designate a single point of contact for the PWS who is readily accessible during normal business hours and after hours, and share their contact information with RIDOH and all PWSs involved.

RIDOH provides PWS representatives with access to public notice templates. If serving a large, non-English speaking population, provide information in the appropriate language(s).

Identifying and Correcting Source of Contamination

RIDOH will conduct an extensive evaluation, called a Level 2 Assessment, of the system with E.coli present within 24 to 48 hours of receiving those results. Consecutive PWSs with total coliform present results must perform a Level 1 Assessment within 24 to 48 hours of receiving those results. Find the Level 1 Assessment form for small systems and large systems and the Level 2 Assessment form for as a fillable PDF or an Excel workbook by following the links.

The PWS should review all relevant records, as outlined in the Boil Water Order Policy Checklist (including, as applicable, a cross-connection survey; the PWS’s Cross-Connection Control Plan; customer complaint logs; and inspections and records for tanks, leak detection, and backflow preventers. Once all of the records are reviewed, the operator or PWS representative must submit a Due Diligence Report to RIDOH. The Due Diligence Report must include all of the items on the Boil Water Order Policy Checklist.

If the PWS plans to provide an alternative source of potable water to customers, review RIDOH’s recommendations for providing bulk water.

Disinfecting and Flushing the System

After identifying and correcting the issue that caused contamination, the PWS must disinfect and flush the system to ensure adequate residual chlorine throughout the entire distribution system as outlined in the Boil Water Order Policy Checklist. The PWS must communicate with consecutive water systems to ensure a coordinated and consistent response. All PWSs involved should review their Emergency Response Plans.

Taking Samples to Remove the Boil Order

To get a Boil Water Order lifted, the PWS will need to submit one coliform absent sample result from all of the approved routine coliform sampling sites for three consecutive days.

Email required absent sample results to RIDOH, and call RIDOH’s Center for Drinking Water Quality (DWQ). DWQ staff will only review absent sample results if it is a Certificate of Analysis from a laboratory that is certified by RIDOH to analyze drinking water samples for total coliform and E. coli. Certified labs may have the capability to upload results directly to RIDOH; however, this may take several days. A PWS representative should be able to request a Certificate of Analysis from the laboratory as soon as they are notified of results.

Certificates of analysis should be emailed as an attachment to doh.ridwq@health.ri.gov. After the results are emailed, the PWS should call DWQ (401-222-6867) to ask that the absent results be reviewed and that the Boil Water Order be lifted.

Lifting the Boil Water Order

Once a PWS representative has submitted required absent sample results and requested that the Boil Water Order be lifted, RIDOH will determine if the results are acceptable. If all results are deemed acceptable, RIDOH will decide if the Boil Water Order can be lifted. If RIDOH decides to lift an Order, the PWS will be notified by phone and by email. The email will include a Boil Rescind Notice with suggested language for notifying customers that they no longer need to boil their water. The email will also contain guidance for how customers should clean and sanitize their home, food establishment, or business/school/healthcare facility after a Boil Water Advisory.

Rhode Island can experience significant weather events—both forecasted and unexpected—throughout the year. These can include severe thunderstorms, snow storms or blizzards, flash freezes, and hurricanes. All of these weather events can impact public water system (PWS) operations.

PWS representatives have an important responsibility to customers before, during, and after these events. Weather events can cause power outages, and power outages may cause a PWS to lose pressure. Loss of pressure can allow contaminants into the distribution system through back siphonage. The PWS could also have flooded or damaged wells, storage tanks, or other structures.

When the National Weather Service (NWS) issues a storm Warning or Watch for the Rhode Island area a PWS must take actions to protect itself. These alerts are to notify the general public of potentially significant weather events that can cause damage to the water system or the power grid. If the NWS issues a storm warning, there is a high likelihood that Rhode Island will be impacted by severe weather in the next 48 hours. A PWS must have an Emergency Response Plan and be ready to activate it.

RIDOH's Center for Drinking Water Quality requires all PWSs to communicate operational status upon request. A PWS's administrative contact may get an email from RIDOH after an NWS warning. The administrative contact must reply to the email or complete PWS Reporting After a Significant Weather Event form, within 24 hours of the time when the Warning or Watch is no longer in effect, to inform DWQ of the status of the PWS. Failure to respond promptly could result in a violation.

Loss of Pressure

If the PWS lost pressure or any system components were affected, the PWS representative must include the cause of inoperability, actions being taken by the PWS to restore full operations, and when it is anticipated that the PWS will be completely functional again.

When a PWS loses system pressure, it must issue a Precautionary Boil Water Advisory to customers and perform corrective actions.

Purpose of Emergency Response Plans

The PWS's emergency response plan is a crucial document when weather events impact day-to-day operations. PWSs should keep a printed copy available in case there is a power outage or internet connection is damaged or lost. If you have questions about emergency response plans, call the Center for Drinking Water Quality (401-222-6867) or send an email to doh.ridwq@health.ri.gov with Emergency response plans in the subject line.

The National Weather Service is a good resource for staying up to date on impending weather events.

When there is potential for water quality to be compromised, the public water systems (PWS) must issue a Precautionary Boil Water Advisory to customers. The most common causes of compromised water quality are pressure losses within the system, water main breaks, or other unforeseen emergencies.

A pressure-loss event is when the pressure in the water distribution system falls below 20 pounds per square inch (psi). There are many reasons why the water pressure can drop to unsafe levels, including power outages, broken mains, failed pumping systems, leaking storage tanks, high demand, and repair work. These events, either in parts of the distribution system or throughout the entire system, can pose serious threats to public health. Unsafe water pressure levels can allow contaminants to enter the distribution system and potentially make consumers sick.

PWS representatives play an important role in identifying, addressing, and resolving pressure-loss events or other issues that require a Precautionary Boil Water Advisory. This process will ensure that residents and visitors are not drinking the water without boiling it first as the system resolves the issue and gets confirmation that no bacteria are present.

There are circumstances in which RIDOH will issue a mandatory Boil Water Order to the PWS. These are:

  • a repeat sample with E. coli present,
  • any repeat sample that is total coliform present following an E. coli present routine sample;
  • a complete set of repeats is not taken following an E. coli present routine sample,
  • no E. coli analysis performed on a repeat sample that was total coliform present.

If any of the above situations occurs, the PWS must follow the steps for a mandatory Boil Water Advisory.

Step One: Notify Customers

The PWS must notify customers to boil water before consuming or use bottled water. Every household or business in the impacted area must receive a public notice and the appropriate guidance so customers understand what to do to protect themselves; their families; or their residents, staff, or patrons. The PWS may also direct customers to RIDOH’s Public Water Emergency Information for Consumers webpage.

Small water systems (such as shopping plazas, restaurants, campgrounds, etc.), must notify all customers by posting the notice in a public area and/or hand-delivering it.

Step Two: Notify RIDOH

The PWS must notify Rhode Island Department of Health (RIDOH) Center for Drinking Water Quality (DWQ) of a loss of pressure and implementation of a Precautionary Boil Water Order. Call the office at 401-222-6867 or email  doh.ridwq@health.ri.gov with the subject line of Precautionary Boil Issued, name of PWS, and PWS ID number.

Note: If DWQ sends an email requesting a post-weather event (snow, high winds, hurricane, heavy rain) operational status update, the PWS is required to respond within 24 hours whether loss of pressure occurred or not. If loss of pressure did not occur, the PWS still must respond to RIDOH’s inquiry, but no further action is required. If part or all the PWS lost pressure, the PWS must implement the Precautionary Boil Water Advisory in the affected area.

Step Three: Disinfect

Once pressure has been returned to normal (or any other issue has been resolved) the PWS must disinfect its well (when applicable) and the distribution system. PWSs without permanent chlorine treatment must use RIDOH’s Well Disinfection Procedure. PWSs with chlorine treatment must increase chlorine levels by 0.2 mg/L throughout the distribution system. Before disinfecting starts, the PWS must notify customers because high concentrations of chlorine in the system can make people sick. Once disinfection is completed, the distribution system should be flushed completely to remove chlorine or get chlorine levels back to normal.

Step Four: Flush and Test

Once chlorine is flushed out of the system or chlorine levels have returned to normal, the PWS must test the water for coliform from routine sampling location(s).

If coliform bacteria are absent from all samples, official sample results from the PWS’s laboratory must be submitted to DWQ (see step five). The PWS may use these test results to meet normal sampling requirements for the month or quarter.

If there are coliform bacteria in any of the samples, the PWS must notify RIDOH immediately. The PWS will be directed to troubleshoot and resolve the issue and upon request, will receive assistance in doing so from RIDOH. In most cases, the PWS will have to disinfect the well (where applicable) and distribution system again before additional sampling to detect if there are still bacteria present.

Step Five: Get Test Results

Official sample results showing no coliform bacteria present from all routine coliform sampling sites should be emailed to DWQ at doh.ridwq@health.ri.gov with the subject line of Precautionary Boil—Absent Sample Results, the name of the PWS, and the PWS ID number.

The quickest way for a PWS to request that a Precautionary Boil Water Advisory be lifted by RIDOH is to email required absent sample results and then call DWQ at 401-222-6867. If a PWS is on a Precautionary Boil Water Advisory, one absent sample result from all approved routine coliform sampling site(s) must be submitted. Absent sample results will be reviewed only if they are submitted on a Certificate of Analysis from a laboratory certified by RIDOH to analyze drinking water samples for total coliform and E. coli. The lab that the PWS uses may have the capability to upload results directly to RIDOH; however, this may take several days. A system representative should be able to request a Certificate of Analysis from the laboratory as soon as they are notified of results.

Certificates of Analysis should be emailed as an attachment to doh.ridwq@health.ri.gov. After results have been emailed, a PWS representative should call DWQ (401-222-6867) to ask that the absent results be reviewed and that the Precautionary Boil Water Advisory be lifted.

Step Six: Submit Test Results to RIDOH

Once a PWS representative has submitted required absent sample results and requested that the Precautionary Boil Water Order be lifted, RIDOH will determine if the results are acceptable. If all results are deemed acceptable, RIDOH will decide if the Precautionary Boil Water Order can be lifted. If RIDOH decides to lift an Order, the PWS will be notified by phone and by email. The email will include a Boil Rescind Notice [link to boil rescind notice] with suggested language for notifying customers that they no longer need to boil their water. The email will also contain guidance for how customers should clean and sanitize their home, food establishment, or business/school/healthcare facility after a Precautionary Boil Water Advisory.

At some point a public water system (PWS) may need to use Bulk Water Haulers (BWH) to provide drinking water to its customers. Bulk water suppliers provide water via a tanker truck, water buffalo, storage tank, or a transfer line. 

RIDOH permits use of bulk water on an emergency basis. PWS officials must follow the steps below before beginning this service to its customers. If a PWS begins using a bulk water hauler before completing all requirements, RIDOH will issue a Boil Water Order.

Before Use of a Bulk Water Hauler

  • RIDOH must approve the source of the bulk water hauler and any trucks, transfer lines, and tanks are used for potable water only.
  • Email RIDOH at doh.ridwq@health.ri.gov (include PWS ID# in subject line) of plans to use a bulk water hauler, and be sure to include a description of why the use of a bulk water hauler is necessary. RIDOH must be notified before any delivery is accepted.
  • All truck tanks, transfer lines, and storage tanks must be sanitized before use.
  • Water samples must be collected and analyzed for coliform bacteria and chlorine residual.
  • The samples must be taken directly from the bulk water hauler’s source or from a sample tap between the fill line and storage tank.
  • Sterile sample bottles containing sodium thiosulfate must be used for coliform samples.
  • Notify RIDOH, in writing, of sample results by emailing the official lab Certificate of Analysis before using water for drinking, cooking, or food preparation. Samples must be absent for coliform bacteria and have a chlorine residual of 0.5 to 4.0 mg./L.
  • Obtain any necessary permissions from local building inspector or plumbing authority before using a bulk water hauler.

During Use of a Bulk Water Hauler

 At all times that an approved bulk water hauler is in use, ensure that the following requirements are met:

  • On-site tanks are protected against unauthorized access or tampering.
  • Sampling and testing for coliform bacteria continue, if required by RIDOH. RIDOH may waive sampling of subsequent water deliveries if the bulk water hauler is only being used by the PWS, the bulk water hauler maintains a minimum concentration of 0.5 mg./L of chlorine at all times, and the bulk water hauler continues to sample monthly.
  • Chlorine residual is monitored in compliance with the schedule and methods determined by RIDOH.
  • Records are maintained of all water deliveries (by both the bulk water hauler and the PWS), including:
    • Name of the bulk water hauling company
    • Source water
    • Truck number or license plate number
    • Date
    • Time
    • Location of delivery
    • Number of gallons delivered
    • Amount of chlorine (sodium hypochlorite) added
    • Original strength of the sanitizing solution
    • Measured chlorine residual
  • Records are maintained for all water storage tanks (only by PWS), including:
    • Whether it is a dedicated potable water tank
    • Sanitizing procedure used
    • Coliform sample results at the time the tank is put into service or at the point of first on-site filling
    • Any measurements of chlorine residual to confirm 0.5 mg/l residual is being maintained
  • Records are provided to RIDOH if asked.

A PWS official must submit a signed report to RIDOH within 10 days of initial notification that the PWS will be using a bulk water hauler, attesting to and summarizingall of the points above and including a description of actions taken to correct the problem causing the need to use a bulk water hauler.