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Tackling hard water, hard choices

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

Of all the critical decisions made by municipal governments, perhaps no decisions are more important than those concerning water. These decisions affect the cost of living in a community, the abundance of a potentially scarce resource and perhaps most important, the health and well-being of its citizens.

In some Southwest and Western communities, a lack of water has become a critical issue. In some Midwest communities, run-off from agricultural pesticides has contaminated rivers and streams, and in the Midwest and East, drilling for natural gas has prompted concerns about the effects of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, on municipal water systems. All of these issues can affect drinking water.

“It’s such an essential issue, the quality of our water,” Village Council President Judith Hempfling said in an interview last week.

Yellow Springs is fortunate in that, at least for the foreseeable future, most of these issues do not seem to threaten the local water supply. Water scarcity is not a problem, as the village sits on top of an abundant aquifer left behind by an ancient inland sea and retreating glaciers. And additionally, the aquifer is largely protected from infiltration because much of its source water area is in Glen Helen, according to geologist and retired Antioch College professor Peter Townsend. Because the local system is fed by groundwater rather than surface water, the Village also seems protected from the potential contamination of agricultural run-off that has infiltrated some surface water-fed municipal systems, Townsend said.

“Yellow Springs has the most healthy water around and also the best protected” from outside contamination, Townsend said last week.

But Village Council nonetheless finds that in upcoming months it must make a significant decision regarding its water. Specifically, the Village must decide whether to keep control of its water system, including its aging water plant, or instead purchase water from a nearby community. At the heart of the choice is how best to meet the needs of villagers in a way that is both safe and economical.

Some who worry about water quality, such as Green Environmental Coalition leader Vickie Hennessy, have in this series previously stated concerns that purchasing water from another town means giving up control of our water, and becoming vulnerable to potential contamination from unknown sources.

Many villagers seem to share that concern. As part of this series, the News asked villagers to take part in a survey that covers a variety of aspects of water use. Two hundred and five Village water customers took part, and an overwhelming majority, about three quarters of the respondents, stated that local control of water is important to them.

But almost a quarter of the respondents, including Joan Horn, did not see local control as a priority. While control of local water may be optimal, Horn believes, economic factors should be just as important.

“A major consideration is if we can get water cheaper elsewhere,” Horn said last week.

Council plans to address the issue of whether or not to upgrade its current plant or purchase water from another community after it hires its new Village manager, Hempfling said last week, stating that Council seeks community input on the decision. Within the next month Council will have a sense of when the new manager will be hired, Hempfling said, stating that she hopes the community-wide discussion on water takes place before the end of this year.

Hard choices

After he had been on the job about a year, former Village Manager Mark Cundiff brought to Council his recommendation that the Village do an analysis of its water system. Specifically, the water plant is about 50 years old, with its last major upgrade in 1999, and maintenance on the plant had become more expensive. With revenues from water rates lagging behind expenses, needed repairs were not being made, plunging the Village into a cycle of needing ever more expensive plant repairs.

Council tasked consultant engineer John Eastman of LJB Engineering with performing the analysis, which examined the options of upgrading the water plant, replacing it, or shutting it down and purchasing water from a nearby municipality.

In October 2011 Eastman presented his analysis, which included seven potential options:

1) maintaining the status quo; 2) upgrading the existing water treatment plant; 3) replacing the existing plant; 4) obtaining water from Xenia; 5) obtaining water from Springfield; 6) obtaining water from Greene County; and 7) contracting the design and building of a new plant to a private company.

Using a cost comparison, Eastman recommended that upgrading the current water plant would be the most economical option. This option would allow the Village to remove the manganese in the system that currently produces “brown water,” but would not provide softened water. If Council opted for a system with softer water, purchasing water from Springfield was the least expensive option, Eastman reported.

Eastman estimated that the cost of upgrading the current plant for a 20-year life would be $1.2 million in total. That upgrade would lower the cost of operating the plant to $318,500 a year, dropping the cost per 1,000 gallons from the current rate of $4.20 to about $3.66, a savings that could be passed on to customers or maintained in the water fund for future improvements and equipment replacement.

In comparison, purchasing water from Springfield was estimated to cost about $1.9 million, if Springfield agreed to share the cost of a new pipeline, or $3.7 million if the Village shouldered the whole cost.

Maintaining the status quo was not considered a viable option, due to the deterioration of the current plant, and the ongoing problem with brown water. Replacing the current plant was estimated at $5 million, which was the fourth most expensive option. Estimated costs for contracting the plant to a private entity were not available.

The cost of purchasing Xenia water was estimated at $3.5 million to construct a new pipeline, or $1.3 million if Yellow Springs only paid for the portion of the pipe construction to Goes Station.

The high cost of purchasing Greene County water made that option the second most expensive of all considered.

In the analysis, Eastman also considered the quality of the water. The city of Xenia removes manganese and iron from its water, according to the study, and while it does not soften its water, its level of hardness is significantly lower than that of the Village, which has water that is considered extremely hard. Xenia also does not add fluoride to its water.

In contrast, Springfield’s water is softened by a lime process, so that additional sodium is not added, and the finished water, while still considered in the midrange of hardness, is far less hard than that of Yellow Springs, according to ­Eastman.

In an interview last week, Eastman stated that an advantage of using softened water, such as Springfield’s, is that people would not need to purchase home water softeners, as used by many villagers. That option is considered more favorable to the environment, because the salt added to water through home water softeners is later discharged into the Yellow Springs Creek and Little Miami River, according to Eastman.

“Using a low hardness water such as Springfield’s will reduce the amount of salt in streams,” he said.

Following the October presentation on water system options, Cundiff was asked to negotiate further with both Springfield and Xenia to determine how willing those cities were to share the cost of transporting water to the Village. At a December Council meeting, he reported that only Springfield expressed willingness to share the cost. At that meeting, it was determined that upgrading the current Village plant and purchasing water from Springfield were the two most favorable options, based on both cost and quality of the water. Because Village Manager Cundiff soon announced that he would be leaving the community for a new job, Council put the discussion on hold until a new manager is hired. However, Council members encouraged villagers to let Council members know their preferences.

Hold on to control

In the recent survey of local water issues, a clear majority favored local control of local water.

“Why wouldn’t we want control over our water supply?” said Rick Donahoe in an interview. “Why would we give it to someone else?”

Out of the 170 responses to the question of maintaining control, about three-quarters cited their preference for local control. Fifty villagers, or about 30 percent, described maintaining local control of local water as “extremely important.” Forty-one respondents, or about 24 percent, checked local control as “very important,” while 28 villagers, or 16.5 percent, said it was “moderately important. Twenty-three respondents checked local control as “slightly important,” and 28 out of 170, or about 16.5 percent, said local control of local water is “not important at all.”

One who identified local control as extremely important was Dr. Carl Hyde, who in an interview last week said, “In general, I’m very happy with our water. I can put up with the brown water,” although he hopes that Council will reconsider its decision last year to remove fluoride. Along with his preference for local control, Dr. Hyde said he is concerned about the taste of Springfield water, which he does not drink when he attends monthly medical meetings in Springfield due to its chemical flavor.

Another who expressed his preference for local control was Charlie Peters, a retired physician, who has been actively opposing hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, due to his concern about its possible effects on municipal water supplies. While villagers know about efforts to drill wells in the Yellow Springs area, it’s not known what drilling may be taking place in the Springfield area, and that lack of knowledge bothers him.

“Has anyone looked into oil and gas exploration in Clark County?” he said. “Local control and local visibility are important.”

While local control of water may end up being more expensive, some villagers might be willing to pay more for their water than others who can’t afford to do so, in order to provide better water for everyone, Nancy Peters said.

Villager Bob Moore is one who in the survey stated that he does not feel maintaining local control of water is important.

“It doesn’t seem as important as local government or local schools,” he said. “For water, I think whatever is the most economical” should be preferred.

And Joan Horn believes that purchasing water from another municipality does not necessarily mean giving up local control. The Village’s contract with the municipality could specify that the Village maintains some say over water quality, she said.

“It would be good to have some control,” she said.

However, local control was not the only concern cited on the survey, and several emphasized their displeasure with the local system’s periodic “brown water” and the effect of very hard water on appliances. More detailed results from the survey will be in the concluding article in the survey, on May 17.

Next week: This series continues with a comparison of Yellow Springs and Springfield water, in terms of softness/hardness, source, potential for contamination, additives and EPA ratings.

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