Biological stability refers to the inability of drinking water to support microbial growth. This phenomenon was studied in a full-scale drinking water treatment and distribution system of the city of Zürich (Switzerland). The system treats lake water with successive ozonation and biological filtration steps and distributes the water without any disinfectant residuals. Chemical and microbiological parameters, notably dissolved organic carbon (DOC), assimilable organic carbon (AOC), heterotrophic plate counts (HPC) and flow-cytometric total cell concentration (TCC), were measured over an 18-month period. We observed a direct correlation between changes in the TCC, DOC and AOC concentrations during treatment; an increase in cell concentration was always associated with a decrease in organic carbon. This pattern was, however, not discerned with the conventional HPC method. The treated water contained on average a TCC of 8.97 × 104 cells ml−1, a DOC concentration of 0.78 mg l−1 and an AOC concentration of 32 μg l−1, and these parameters hardly changed in the distribution network, suggesting that the treated water had a high level of biological stability. This study highlights the descriptive value of alternative parameters such as flow-cytometric TCC for drinking water analysis, and pinpoints some of the key aspects regarding biological stability in drinking water without disinfectant residuals.

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