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Villagers weigh in on their water

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

Ask villagers about their experience with Yellow Springs water and the stories will flow. Brown water pours from faucets. Rust stains toilets. Black muck clogs household water filters. Limescale cakes on pipes, dishwashers, washing machines and faucets. Sediment rings form on drinking glasses.

In a recent Yellow Springs News online survey with 205 municipal water customers responding, local water received high marks for its taste, convenience and health impact, while it was criticized for its hardness, cost and staining.

The hardness of local water, with its high levels of dissolved calcium and magnesium, and the frequent brown water episodes, caused by manganese, have been particularly burdensome, villagers said. Because of the high concentrations of these naturally-occurring minerals, villagers annually spend hundreds of dollars replacing appliances, repairing plumbing and cleaning stained porcelain.

Plus to improve water taste and quality, a majority of respondents said they used water softeners and filtration devices, which can be expensive and require nearly constant maintenance, they said.

Ahead of a Village Council decision to upgrade or replace the town’s 50-year-old water plant or to purchase the water from a neighboring source, villagers shared in the survey their water practices and preferences. Overall 70 percent of respondents said it was important that water remain local, while one-quarter said that they’d rather buy water from elsewhere if it were less expensive.

Jacoline Mulhall has replaced a washing machine, dishwasher and two toilets and cleans her tea kettle with vinegar once a week because of the build up of minerals from the village’s hard water. Still, she likes the taste of village water and would rather the village keep its own water system because of a “gut feeling” that local operators would have more of an investment in water quality.

Connie Crockett, on the other hand, said that the local water’s hardness is a “perennial drawback” that costs homeowners a lot of money, while Springfield’s water, one of the alternatives being considered for the Village to purchase in bulk, tastes great and may cost less.

“We want to be self-sufficient, we want to look after ourselves. But honestly we don’t have the best water,” Crockett said. “I like Yellow Springs water. I drink it just fine. To my mind it’s an affordability question.”

Whether the local system is upgraded or water contracts are sought elsewhere, the status quo won’t remain for long, Village Water Superintendent Joe Bates said last week. Customers might soon pay less to improve water quality at home.

“There’s an expense for having poor quality water,” Bates said. “I think [customers] deserve better quality water for what they’re paying for it. In the end it will save money no matter what we do.”

The 12-question survey was only for Yellow Springs municipal water customers and ran from April 11–30. The sample of 205 respondents from households and businesses represents 11.6 percent of the 1,761 water connections in the Village. Survey responses and comments were kept anonymous and follow-up phone interviews were held with several participants.

Coffee-stained toilets

The most common problem experienced by villagers was brown water and the resulting need to clean stained porcelain fixtures, like toilets and sinks. Four out of five respondents had to remove stains in the last few years. Another third said they washed their clothes a second time because of stains from the water. Overall, nearly 60 percent rated staining caused by local water as poor, the second-lowest rating after hardness.

Brown water coming from faucets and pipes — and the black buildup in water filters — is mainly caused by manganese, a nutrient essential to human health that can be harmful at high doses. The level of manganese present in local water is not harmful, according to Bates, even though it is three times higher than a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency guideline for drinking water aesthetics.

One survey respondent said their toilet water looked like a pot of coffee, while another called it “Stephen King water” since the water from the faucet looks bloody.

“I’m concerned with the black, oily sludge collected by my water filter,” said another surveyed villager. “Not harmful, you tell me, but it’s scary.”

There are no federal health-based standards for manganese in drinking water, but the EPA Secondary Maximum Contaminant Level, based upon taste and staining, is 0.050 milligrams per liter. Manganese measures 0.15 milligrams per liter in Village water. Most people get more manganese from the food they eat than their drinking water. Drinking two liters per day of local water would yield substantially less than the 0.7 to 10.9 milligrams per day that most adults consume daily in the form of food, according to the EPA.

The water that leaves the Village water plant contains more manganese than the water entering Xenia’s water plant, Bates added. Because of these high levels, Bates has taken steps to ameliorate the brown water problem. Last year three feet of manganese sediment that accumulated in the Village water towers over the last half century was removed by scuba divers. And he instituted semi-annual hydrant flushing weeks, which increases brown water for a time in an effort to minimize it the rest of the year. (The survey was, coincidentally, conducted during one of these weeks).

Nonetheless, if the Village upgraded its water system it would be required to comply with the EPA’s guidelines for manganese by installing the equipment to remove higher amounts of the mineral.

Concentrations of iron, which is a reddish color, can also cause brown water, though locally it is present in low amounts, Bates said. In addition, the calcium carbonate in hard water can strip rust from pipes and discolor water, according to Mark Partee of the local home repair company AC Service.

Hard water wreaks havoc

Aesthetics and cleaning weren’t the only concerns. The hard local water regularly encrusts villagers’ appliances and pipes, leading to damage, survey respondents said. Nearly half of those surveyed said they’d replaced a dishwasher, water heater, washer or other water using devices in the last few years, while another half had to get their plumbing fixed because of water quality.

AC Service has done a lot of those repairs, said Partee, who has seen as much as two feet of limescale (a chalky white residue left when hard water evaporates) in the bottom of hot water tanks. The buildup of limescale and calcium carbonate reduces the flow of water lines and faucets, clogs toilet fixtures and aerators on faucets and leads to spotty dishes in dishwashers, Partee said.

“Liming is a major factor in this area,” said Partee, who has worked in Yellow Springs for 42 years. “There is a constant maintenance over time.”

Villagers overall expressed most dissatisfaction with the hardness of local water with about four of five survey respondents describing this aspect of their drinking water as poor. Another 16 percent reported the hardness was satisfactory and just 5 percent rated it as good. Hardness was the lowest-ranked aspect of local water, followed by staining, cost, contaminants, taste, health impact and convenience.

Two-thirds of those surveyed use water softeners to reduce the build-up of minerals. But many can’t afford them or prefer not to, leading to the deterioration of their plumbing and appliances.

Liz Porter has replaced a dishwasher in addition to several shower heads and faucets in recent years, likely from the buildup from hard water minerals. But Porter can’t afford, nor does she have the space in her small house, for a water softener, even though she previously used one.

“I remember lugging the salt and having to take care of it,” Porter said. “I didn’t like the feel of the soft water and I didn’t trust that much input of salt.”

At Friends Care Community, which uses a high volume of water, water softeners are a necessity, but still don’t remove enough of the minerals that cake on the elder care facility’s showers, dishwashers and boilers.

“The quality of water is very costly to Friends Care because we must soften it for general use,” wrote Friends Care Executive Director Karl Zalar in the survey. “Even then the life expectancy of our equipment exposed to the water is diminished significantly.”

Another survey respondent said that hard water has cost their local business $600 just this month because of a toilet valve leak.

“I am not unhappy with the water taste but the hard water has cost our business a lot of money due to clogged toilets, limed fixtures, and leaks caused by sticky toilet valves,” they wrote.

But water softening, most commonly done at the household scale by replacing the calcium and magnesium ions with sodium ions, also has its drawbacks, according to those surveyed. Soap doesn’t create as many suds. Some surveyed so dislike the taste of softened water or are concerned about its health impacts that they use hard water instead for drinking and cooking.

According to Bates, water softened with sodium chloride, or salt, is not recommended for those on high blood pressure medication, but is otherwise not harmful. An alternative to sodium chloride for home water softeners is potassium chloride, though it costs four to five times as much per bag.

The City of Springfield uses lime to soften its water, a process more common at larger water plants, according to Bates. Whether Yellow Springs softens its water at the municipal level is an option worth considering, he added.

“If you spread it out over the whole community, the costs will be less than doing it at your house,” Bates said.

The full cost of local water

To purchase 1,000 gallons of water from the Village of Yellow Springs costs $4.40, a price the majority of survey respondents rated as satisfactory. But many customers pay more to improve the quality of water they drink, bathe in and clean with, according to the survey.

Eighty-six percent of survey respondents use some water quality device in their home. Two-thirds use a water softener. Seventy percent use pitcher filters like Brita or Pur or have filters installed on their faucets to treat their drinking water. And 40 percent of respondents use a whole house filter to clean all the water in their home.

Water softeners are the most expensive device, costing about $1,100 to $1,200 installed for local residences, according to Partee. Another $75–$100 must be spent annually on 40-pound bags of sodium chloride. Villagers also find that their water softeners must be cleaned and replaced often. Local resident Bill Short, for example, has gone through three water softeners in his 19 years in the village. If the survey sample is accurate, villagers might have an investment of $1.3 million in their water softeners, which have a 5-year warranty according to Partee, but can last up to 20 years in places with less hard water. Salt purchases could add another $100,000 per year in local costs.

Four of five respondents primarily drink tap water, but many filter the water before they consume it. Thirty-seven percent of respondents have filters installed at their faucets or in their refrigerators. According to Brita, carbon faucet filters can reduce amounts of chlorine, used at the water plant to kill harmful microbes, in addition to lead, asbestos, benzene and TTHMs, a byproduct of water disinfection that is present in local water at levels one-fifth of EPA requirements. Pitcher filters, used by one-third of respondents, cut levels of chlorine, and metals like copper, cadmium and mercury that may enter water from water pipes. The price to replace these filters might cost local residents $50,000 per year.

Another 40 of those surveyed have a whole house filter or a treatment system using reverse osmosis, distillation or ultraviolet. Partee often installs inexpensive water filters that start at $40 where the water line enters a residence and is amazed by how much sediment is trapped. But filters must be changed regularly, or they can be a haven for bacteria, according to Bob Kennedy of Aqua Falls.

Reverse osmosis systems can cost several hundred dollars and effectively take everything out of the water to the point where it might reduce the healthy minerals in drinking water, according to Bates. Ultraviolet treatment is unnecessary because water is already disinfected, he said.

But one out of every five villagers primarily drink water other than tap water. Instead they drink either bottled water purchased from the store (9 percent) or have their water delivered (10 percent). Aqua Falls of Enon is one company that serves Yellow Springs with bottled water from a spring 80 miles east in Fairfield County, from hot springs in Arkansas or locally purified using reverse osmosis. For a small community, a disproportionate number of residents opt for delivered water, likely because of the water hardness, according to Kennedy.

An average family of four will consume three 5-gallon bottles of water each month, costing $15 per month, in addition to a monthly cooler rental of $4–7, Kennedy said. Using the survey sample, Yellow Springers might be spending $40,000 each year on delivered water.

A matter of personal taste

Overall Village water received high marks for being convenient, healthy and good tasting, though opinions varied widely on water taste and whether contaminants threaten local water safety.

Herbicides used in the Glen, oil drilling toxins, contaminants from Vernay Laboratories and sewage treatment plant pollution were a few concerns survey respondents shared in an open comment field. Others wrote that the Village should resume the practice of adding fluoride to water for dental health, which was discontinued last year. About one-quarter of respondents said the level of contamination and health impact of local water was poor.

Local water tastes good to 40 percent of those surveyed, while 32 percent rated it as satisfactory and one-quarter said it was poor. One out of five of respondents regularly buy drinks like juice or soda instead of drinking tap water because of its taste.

“I grew up here and I’ve always like the taste of our hard water,” wrote one respondent. Another has “grown to love” the taste of local water. Other respondents said local water is unsafe to drink and they are afraid of industrial contaminants.

Keep local or consider cost?

More than half of those surveyed said it was extremely important (29 percent) or very important (24 percent) that the Village maintain its own water treatment plant and distribution system and many would pay a premium for local control. More than half would pay as much as $10 more per month for the water to stay local while one-quarter would be willing to pay $5 more.

But one out of four respondents said it was only slightly important or not important at all the Village maintain local control and that they would rather buy water from a neighboring city if it were less expensive. Several said it was inefficient for such a small town to operate its own water system.

“We have made many decisions throughout the years that have made Yellow Springs less affordable,” Connie Crockett said. “Number one is safety and purity, but that seems to be a wash between [Yellow Springs and Springfield], so why don’t we bring up the affordability?”

Other respondents said that neighboring communities don’t share the same ecological values as Yellow Springs and that they wouldn’t be as responsive to consumer opinion.

“We are so at the mercy of the environment around Springfield and I think it’s terribly important that our water is more protected than that,” Porter said. “I’ve always felt like I want local control. I don’t care what it costs.”

Another respondent asserted the importance of local decision-making.

“No matter how problematic village water is, at least solving the problems is possible,” they wrote. “Once we cede control to another municipality we can’t guarantee the results.”

Whatever is decided, one resident said they are glad that the Village is finally addressing the water issue.

“[Water] is a problem that the leadership in Yellow Springs has not taken seriously for many years,” they wrote. “Yes, we have art, yes we have green space. Yes we are cool but ultimately without water, roads and safety we have nothing.”

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One Response to “Villagers weigh in on their water”

  1. Great post Megan, keep it up..

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