A tale of two waters
- Published: May 17, 2012
This is the ninth in a series of articles examining issues regarding local water.
• Click here to view all the articles the series
Soon after Village Council hires the new Village manager in upcoming months, it faces another significant decision. How can the Village best provide its citizens with high quality yet economical drinking water? The most likely scenario, based on a recent analysis of the water system, is that Council will choose between upgrading its aging water plant or purchasing water from Springfield. It seems timely, then, to compare various aspects of Yellow Springs and Springfield water.
The water question came to Council last year when former Village Manager Mark Cundiff recommended an analysis of the Village’s 50-year-old water plant in light of its escalating maintenance needs and the system’s ongoing issues, considered problems by some villagers, with water that is extremely hard and, due to excessive manganese in the system, occasionally has a brown color that causes staining.
That analysis was presented to Council last fall by consultant engineer John Eastman of LJB Engineering, who identified seven possible options that included a mix of purchasing water from municipalities and upgrading the plant. After negotiations with Springfield, Xenia and Greene County, Eastman in December presented the two most favorable options, upgrading the current plant, or purchasing water from Springfield. However, the decision was put on hold at that point, as Cundiff had announced that he was taking a new job and Council postponed the decision until a new manager is hired.
Upgrading the current plant is the most economical choice of all, according to Eastman’s analysis, and that option would also maintain the Village’s control over its water supply. While the improvements would eliminate the brown water caused by manganese, Village water would remain extremely hard.
Should the Village decide that providing softer water is a priority, the most economical solution would be to purchase water from Springfield, Eastman reported, because that city has said it will share the upfront cost of constructing new water lines. The Village would then have water that is less hard, although it would lose local control.
In December, Council members asked villagers to weigh in on their preference. Recently, Council President Judith Hempfling stated that she hopes the community water discussion takes place before the end of the year.
How safe is the water?
According to the Ohio EPA, the most important thing to know about Yellow Springs and Springfield water is that the water of both municipalities is considered high quality.
“We know that the water quality of Springfield is good, and we know that the quality of Yellow Springs water is good,” according to Ohio EPA spokesperson Heather Lauer in a recent interview. The EPA considers the quality of both Springfield and Yellow Springs drinking water to be good because no contaminants of significance have shown up in EPA required testing in recent years, according to Lauer. Over a five-year period, each water plant tests, in revolving fashion, for about 50 different contaminants, including volatile organic contaminants, or VOCs, radioactive contaminants, synthetic (or man-made) organic contaminants, such as fertilizer run-off, and microbiological contaminants. The testing schedule is fashioned individually to meet the needs of each specific water system, Lauer said.
In both municipalities, tests show almost all contaminant amounts found to be below detectable limits. In the Yellow Springs 2010 Drinking Water Consumer Confidence Report, a detectable amount of nitrate, associated with fertilizer run-off or erosion of natural deposits, was reported. Village water had 0.1 milligrams per liter, or mg/l, of nitrate, with 10 mg/l the maximum contaminant level, which is the highest level allowed in drinking water. (The report can be found online at www.yso.com/uploads/water_quality2010.pdf).
In the 2011 Springfield Consumer Confidence Report, 1.16 mg/l of nitrate was detected in Springfield water. The report can be found online at www.ci.springfield.oh.us/depts/service/pdf/.CCR.pdf.
Along with the EPA tests for other contaminants, both municipalities regularly test for bacteria levels in local drinking water, to ensure that the level of chlorination is effective in keeping water safe to drink. The Village tests four different locations monthly, both residential and commercial, from 17 potential testing locations in the village. In the six years that Yellow Springs Water Plant Manager Joe Bates has been on the job, the Village has never tested positive for bacteria, he said.
“We’re doing a lot of testing,” he said.
In Springfield, the water plant employees test 72 locations a month for bacteria, according to Water Plant Supervisor Allen Jones last week. That amount is significantly more because the Springfield system is so much larger: it has about 27,000 service connections (both active and inactive) compared to 1,768 connections for Village water.
Both Springfield and Yellow Springs have in the past 10 years had two EPA violations, according to Lauer. Springfield received a violation in 2007 for failure to conduct a coliform bacteria sample, and in 2001 for failure to sample for or report trihalomethane (a by-product of drinking water chlorination).
Yellow Springs had a violation in 2002 for failure to monitor for nitrate, and in 2008 for failure to monitor or report coliform bacteria. In each case, the Village has returned to compliance, Lauer said.
Both the Springfield and Yellow Springs water systems are considered by the EPA to be groundwater-sourced. In Yellow Springs, the system has five wells that pump from a deep aquifer beside the Little Miami River. In Springfield, drinking water is pumped from 12 wells adjacent to the Mad River, according to Jones. (The Springfield system is not sourced from surface water, as the News previously incorrectly reported). Groundwater-sourced systems are considered less vulnerable to contamination than those sourced by surface water, since human-made contaminants, such as those linked to agricultural run-off, are mainly found in surface water, according to geologist and retired Antioch College professor Peter Townsend.
Tests of both the Springfield and the Yellow Springs systems have indicated no presence of contaminants associated with surface water, according to Lauer of the EPA.
However, while both systems are groundwater-sourced, the geological formations above the Springfield aquifer makes it more vulnerable to infiltration by contaminants, according to geologist Townsend. Specifically, the Yellow Springs aquifer is covered by about 100 feet of glacial till, a coarsely-graded clay or clay mixture, which “acts as a water isolater” between the Little Miami and the aquifer, he said. The Springfield aquifer is covered with layers of sand and gravel, which are much more porous and vulnerable to infiltration, Townsend believes.
“If sometime in the future there were contaminants in the river, they could get right into the aquifer,” he said.
While Lauer of the EPA said that she is unaware of the differences between glacial till and sand/gravel, she states “that Springfield has high quality water.”
Threat of salt spill?
The Springfield water system does currently face a potential threat, however. That threat is from a salt spill that the city became aware of several years ago at a facility located 2.5 miles north of the Springfield wellfield.
At that location, the commercial facility, Convey It, was discovered to be storing 40,000 tons of salt on a pad on the ground, with the salt uncovered much of the year. Run-off from rain and snow melt had transported some of the salt to the ground, where it seeped in and resulted in “salty water seeping into the underlying Mad River sand and gravel aquifer,” according to an e-mail from Lauer.
According to Lauer, the salt piles have now been removed. However, the groundwater contamination near to the facility resulted in the contamination of the Clark State Truck Driving Institute’s well, so that the school now uses bottled water. A similar salt spill near the Ohio town of Camden several years ago shut down that town’s water system. Along with the potential harmful effects of high levels of sodium in the water, cyanide is often found in the additives that prevent the caking of salt, according to a presentation on the spill by Jeff Patzke of the Ohio EPA, which includes photos of trees near the spill that have died.
Currently, the EPA is trying to determine the movement of the underground salt plume from the Convey It facility, according to Lauer, who said it’s known that the plume, which began northwest of Springfield, is moving south. But the agency is not clear about the size or progress of the plume, Lauer said, partly because the EPA and Convey It have not come to an agreement regarding which entity should be delineating the plume.
“We’re trying to determine who is responsible for doing the measuring,” she said.
The City of Springfield and the EPA are also currently in discussion about the possibility of installing monitoring wells to ensure that the salt plume is not affecting Springfield drinking water, she said.
Currently, there is no evidence that any of the salt plume has entered the source water area for Springfield drinking water, according to Lauer and Springfield Water Plant Supervisor Allen Jones. .
“Right now I don’t have a great concern” about the plume, Jones said last week.
According to Lauer, the EPA is involved because it investigates anytime there is a potential source of contamination threatening a municipal water supply.
“We recognize that anytime there’s a spill of any kind, it’s something that needs to be watched,” she said.
Hard and soft
Drinking water is considered “hard” when it contains high levels of calcium and magnesium, and those minerals are aquired when water travels through limestone or other soft rock, according to a World Health Organization report on drinking water quality.
While people most often describe water as “hard” or “soft,” most water lies at some point on a continuum between the two, according to engineer Eastman, who has served as consultant for the Village on water plant issues. For instance, Yellow Springs water, which is extremely hard, might be at one end of the continuum, and distilled water, from which all minerals have been removed, would be at the other end.
Springfield drinking water has been described as soft, but it actually falls into the midrange category of hard, with a hardness level of about 150 milligrams per liter, or mg/l, after softening, Eastman said. However, Springfield water is considerably less hard than Yellow Springs water, which ranges between 480 and 550 mg/l, according to Bates, and is not softened.
The level of hardness in Springfield water is considered the “optimal” level of hardness, Eastman said.
The Springfield water plant softens its water with a lime process that does not carry the health risks of the traditional softening process that adds sodium to the water. According to Lauer of the EPA, Springfield water receives excellent reviews from that city’s residents.
In Yellow Springs, some residents object to the level of hardness in the water. Hard water, which forms crusty deposits, can lead to appliances needing to be replaced earlier than they would otherwise; washing with it also produces fewer suds, so that more soap is used. Some choose to use home water softeners, which means added expense.
“It’s mainly an aesthetic and economic issue,” Eastman said.
No adverse health affects have been linked to hard water use, according to a report from the World Health Organization on “Guidelines for Drinking-water Quality.” In fact, because the body needs both calcium and magnesium, “hard water could be important for those who are marginal for calcium and magnesium intake.” There is also “some evidence” for a link between hard water and cardiovascular health, but “the evidence is being debated and does not prove causality,” the report states.
Some villagers who have regular contact with Springfield water and responded to the recent News water survey objected to its taste, which to some has a chemical flavor. Water Plant Director Jones said he was unaware of a chemical taste. According to Eastman, a chemical water taste is often related to the amount of chlorine used, and because Springfield is a much larger system, it may have a greater amount of chlorine in its water initially as the water begins its trip through the distribution system.