| AWWA Member Spotlight: Holly Gohlke, Gaylord, Mich.
AWWA Articles

AWWA Member Spotlight: Holly Gohlke, Gaylord, Mich.

Holly Gohlke of Gaylord, Mich., is the school and child care drinking water specialist with the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE). Michigan appropriated $4.5 million in 2016 to its Department of Education to reimburse schools for testing their water for lead, replacing fixtures, and purchasing filters. Gohlke helped administer the program through 2017 and EGLE has continued the School Drinking Water Program through federal grants and other funding. More information about communicating about testing for lead in schools, including an overview of AWWA’s new Lead Communications Guide and Toolkit, will be presented at the Dec. 2 webinar, Let’s Talk Lead: New LCRR Communications Tools to Strengthen Public Trust.

Education: B.S., Grand Valley State University; M.P.A., Central Michigan University; Registered Sanitarian, Master of Science Administration 

Holly Gohlke with pet dog, Healthy Water Healthy Kids logo, with sister DavoProfessional background: I have had the pleasure of experiencing a variety of professional “careers” in my lifetime, most centered around public health and education. I’ve worked as a veterinary assistant, a science teacher, an environmental health sanitarian at a local health department, and a hospital laboratory technician. I have nearly 25 years of experience with the State of Michigan as a food and dairy inspector, environmental compliance, and positions involving drinking water. I have worked in the noncommunity and community drinking water programs and in my current position provide guidance to schools and child-care facilities on drinking water quality within their buildings. (Pictured above, Gohlke with pet dog and with sister, Dava.)

What are the School Drinking Water Program’s objectives? Our ultimate goal is to help schools and child-care facilities reduce the risk of lead at all consumption fixtures in their buildings for the health of children, with a focus on schools and child-care facilities served from a community water supply. One of my objectives for our current Lead Testing in School and Child Care Drinking Water Program, which is funded by a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation (WIIN) grant, is to make the process easy for school and child-care administrators. I know how full their plates are, that they are not experts when it comes to drinking water quality, and that they don’t have the time to apply for a grant, do the work, and request reimbursement. 

The “easy button” is that we invite eligible facilities to the program, have a contractor conduct the plumbing assessments and develop the water management/flushing plans, have the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services sanitarians collect the samples, and have our EGLE drinking water laboratory analyze the samples at no cost to the facility. Other objectives are for EGLE to provide guidance and technical assistance, develop resources, and conduct training related to school or child care drinking water quality. The EPA recently released funding to pay for remediation actions to reduce the risk of lead exposure in drinking water at schools and child-care centers, and we are working on a new objective to help pay for those efforts.

Bottles for sampling at schoolWhat results have you seen since starting the program in September 2020? At the start of the program, many school and child-care buildings were closed, partially open, or had drinking fountains and bubblers shut off due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The facility managers had their hands full with mandatory efforts and no time for a voluntary program. We still struggle with getting volunteers, but for those who participate, we sample every consumption fixture in the building. We ask the facility to immediately render a fixture with results >5 ppb inoperable or take it out of service until actions can be taken to reduce the risk with a goal of 0 ppb, since there is no safe level of lead in the blood. To date we have collected nearly 6,000 investigative samples using 250 mL bottles. Roughly 7% of our sample results were >5 ppb, with almost every building having one or more fixtures with a sample detecting lead. One fixture is one too many. (Pictured above, bottles for sampling water at a school.)

What advice do you have for water utilities preparing for the EPA’s Revised Lead and Copper Rule (LCRR) requirements involving schools? Develop an inventory of all school and child-care center buildings that receive water from your utility. If you haven’t already, get to know the facility managers and create a working partnership with them. Your expertise can help support them in providing quality drinking water for the health of all users of the building and reducing lead exposure in children. The first thing is to offer to check the service line material at the point of water entry into the building. You can also support them in developing a building flushing plan; possibly even assist in the process to ensure the water is effectively refreshed throughout. Offer to help them develop a lead sampling plan and teach them how to properly collect samples. 

How can utilities best partner with schools on informing families about lead risks? The Consumer Confidence Report to the community could highlight the partnership with schools and include information about the health risks of lead in drinking water for children, including ways to reduce the risk. Be proactive in attending parent-teacher meetings or other school/community events to answer questions about the quality of the water delivered to customers and distribute educational literature regarding lead in drinking water. Ask the school administrator if a brief commentary regarding the quality of water being delivered could be included in the school newsletter. Promote the message that running the water prior to drinking or use for food preparation can reduce the risk of lead exposure. Help create a water safety program for schools where the children can become involved in keeping the water “fresh.” Promote positive messages about what is being done to provide quality, healthy drinking water and that it is OK to drink from the tap (“Tap into Good Water!”, etc.) EGLE has a parent FAQ sheet on lead in drinking water for utilities.

How have you benefited from your AWWA involvement? I have benefited from my involvement in the Michigan Section of AWWA with the knowledge I have gained through conversations with utility personnel at the annual conference and regional meetings. Listening to the struggles encountered and how utilities juggle the daily workload to provide and deliver quality drinking water to their customers is helping me develop my school drinking water program as it pertains to the LCRR requirements as well as other potential legislation. Listening to the expertise and knowledge utility members have to offer also helps me understand the importance of the EGLE-Utility-School partnership in providing quality drinking water to protect the health of children in school buildings.

Please describe your family and/or hobbies and interests. My immediate family consists of two Wire-haired Pointing Griffon dogs. One is 10 and the other just a pup at 4 months old. I enjoy bird hunting, hiking, snow shoeing, and just being outdoors. I love watching sporting events, especially hockey, football and college basketball. And I spend a lot of time with my sister, Dava, who shares my passion for hiking and traveling to microbreweries to taste their inventions!