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Many issues of village water

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This is the first in a series of articles examining issues regarding local water.
• Click here to view all the articles the series

When we turn on our faucet, it flows out, cool and abundant, ready to quench our thirst, make our coffee, wash our dishes or perform any of the other countless household tasks we ask of it. When we need to wash our clothes, it fills up our washing machines; when it’s time to clean our bodies, it flows into our tubs or out from our showerheads. Outside, it helps flowers and vegetables grow and on very hot days, cools our children. Water. We can’t live without it. But chances are, we don’t spend much time thinking about it.

Worldwide, many are beginning to think about water, which is a growing sustainability concern. Some American communities don’t have enough, while others worry about maintaining a safe supply. And issues around water are becoming increasingly local, including the question of whether Yellow Springs can and should continue to operate its own water system.

Questions regarding water quality are also edging closer to Yellow Springs. This week the Yellow Springs News begins a new series, focusing on a variety of issues around local water, in an attempt to enhance understanding of the complex questions involved. The upcoming stories will include information about past contaminants to local groundwater, efforts of the Wellhead Protection Committee, the water issues around gas and oil drilling, other potential sources of contamination and the questions around keeping a local water system.

To biologist and Green Environmental Coalition member Vickie Hennessy, natural gas and oil drilling present the greatest dangers to local water. The question of the effects of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, on local water supplies came into local focus a year ago when a Michigan drilling company, West Bay Exploration, began seeking drilling contracts with landowners just northwest of town. Water contamination in Pennsylvania and New York state communities had been linked to fracking, and some municipalities are beginning to regulate the practice.

In Yellow Springs, three Miami Township landowners signed contracts, and the Michigan company may begin drilling soon. But West Bay Company representatives say that the problems some communities have experienced will not happen here, because fracking is only used while drilling for natural gas, and West Bay is drilling for oil. Also, each of the three local contracts includes a provision that bans fracking.

But these assurances don’t feel good enough to Hennessy, who believes that any sort of drilling opens up the risk of water contamination. For instance, the process of drilling for oil includes surrounding the well with cement casing, allowing the possibility that the cement could crack and leak oil, contaminating groundwater. Oil drilling companies can offer all the promises they want, she believes, but past experience shows that the companies make mistakes and that profits, not safety, is their bottom line.

“The more I read, the less I trust anyone involved in this process,” she said.

Villager and hydrogeologist Matt Reed worries less about fracking and more about a different potential source of water contamination. The Columbus company he works for has been called on to investigate instances of contamination caused by endocrine disruptors, also called Pharmaceutical and Personal Care Products, or PPCPs, in several Ohio communities. PPCPs are medicines, cosmetics or products used for personal health, such as birth control pills, that include chemicals that do not degrade during the wastewater treatment process, so that these chemicals flow directly into rivers. Recently, they’ve been linked to lesions, tumors and hormonal malfunctioning in fish. So far, the effects of the substances on humans are unknown and EPA attempts to regulate PPCPs has been sluggish, he said. And the evidence of their presence in water is growing, according to Reed.

“These chemicals are pervasive, and they don’t degrade,” he said.

A third source of potential contamination, toxic bluegreen algae, also concerns Hennessy. Some Ohio towns, including St. Marys, have had to ban public use of lakes that have become infested with the algae, which is actually a bacteria that produces a toxin harmful to humans. The increasing prevalence of the substance has been linked to fertilizer run-off from farm fields.

Local geologist and retired Antioch College professor Peter Townsend has a different concern regarding local water. He would be worried about the potential effect of PPCPs on the local water supply if Village wellfields were mainly fed by the Little Miami River, he said, but because he believes the wells are largely fed by groundwater refreshed by rain, the dangers of PPCP contamination appear small or nonexistent in Yellow Springs. And he’s not concerned about the bluegreen algae because the algae grows only in contained bodies of water, such as lakes and ponds, which are not a component in local water supplies.

Townsend’s own concern centers on villagers’ desire for water that is different than the mineral-laden hard water that we already have. Hard water is rich in calcium and magnesium, both of which have been shown to help protect humans from heart disease, he said, while soft water has been shown not to have these health benefits. He worries that villagers who are distressed about the effects of hard water, such as occasional brown water stains, will push local government to either buy water that’s softer, or produce it, thus going against their own best interests.

“Drinking hard water is good for you,” Townsend said.

The issues surrounding local water take on a new complexity if the Village decides that it can’t afford to upgrade its aging water plant and must instead purchase water from a nearby community, such as Springfield, which has a system largely fed by a river, in contrast to the Village’s own buried valley aquifer. If the Village decides to buy its water, it will no longer have control over possible contaminants that may be present in the rivers that feed other municipal water systems.

“If we’re getting water from another community, we don’t know what’s in it,” Hennessy said.

One worry that villagers won’t likely encounter anytime soon is water scarcity, according to Townsend. The Village wellfield, located a few miles south of town, is situated in a buried valley aquifer, meaning that the Village wells extract water from a layer of porous gravel that many geological formations lack. Because of the porous nature of gravel, the groundwater, continually refreshed by rains, is always abundant. The Yellow Springs aquifer is further protected by the glacial till of Glen Helen that sits on top of much of it.

“Yellow Springs is in excellent shape in terms of quanity,” Townsend said, while some other closeby communities, including Clifton, have growing concerns about the availability of water. “It varies greatly by geology.”

The next article in the series will focus on the Village wellfield and water treatment plant: where exactly do we get our water?


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