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Worrying about water

Monday, March 21, 2005

BENTON, Mo. -- Having clean drinking water is something most schools don't have to worry about thanks to regulated city and county water supplies.

For administrators at Kelly schools, though, it's a different story. They are constantly on the lookout to make sure the school's water supply keeps flowing and that it's safe enough to drink.

The district is officially supporting a measure on the April 5 ballot in Scott County to form a rural water district that would encompass all areas in the county not currently served by a public water supply.

Kelly has to maintain its own well to provide water to the district's 1,041 students. The water, like that from many wells, is hard, with heavy mineral deposits. Filters like the one on the ice machine in the kitchen have to be changed frequently.

"This filter on the ice machine is where it's most noticeable," said Bill Nall, the school's custodian and maintenance man. "We change it about every three weeks, and when we do it's so black you'd think it was a charcoal filter."

Nall pulled off the current filter, which had only been in place for a week, to demonstrate. Black flecks of mineral deposits were already visible on the filter, which had started to turn a dingy brownish-white.

Even though the water is safe to drink, seeing the conditions the filters get in is disturbing, said superintendent Don Moore. "That can't be as good for you as the pure water the county would get to us."

If the measure passes with a simple majority, then the water district -- an idea that has been kicked around for years and is something that many neighboring counties have -- would be formed and funding can be sought for the $20 million project. Construction could then start as early as 2007. For Kelly schools, it can't come soon enough.

"Our well's up to it's capacity now," said Moore. "Not only is it up to its capacity, it discolors our pipes with the residue of hard water over the years. We would like to switch to another system."

Kelly isn't the only school dealing with maintaining its own well. Scott County Central has to go through those hassles, as well.

"First of all, costwise, we spend a lot of time and money," said superintendent JoAnne Northern. "We have a big water softener we use, we have to test our water once a month and send it off.

"It always comes back safe. However, just the time and money involved it would be nice to not have to worry about if the water's rusty, or hard water."

Clean water for $150

These two school districts are major reasons Scott County Commissioners Martin Priggel, Jamie Burger and Dennis Ziegenhorn are supporting the formation of Scott County Public Water District No. 4. But it's not only the schools that would benefit, they say.

"Every part of the county needs this strongly," said Burger, who lives in Benton and wouldn't be in the district. "The cheapest thing to leave our kids for $150 is good, clean, safe drinking water."

That $150, payable in installments, is the connection fee users of the system would pay. The monthly cost for service would depend on how many of the district's 3,700 potential customers did sign on for the service. If 80 percent of those signed on, the average monthly water bill would be $40.50 per month. If 60 percent signed on, the charge would be $47 per month.

The option to sign up is just that, an option. Commissioners and project engineer John Chittenden with Waters Engineering Inc. said no one would be forced to sign on.

Nor would there be any tax increases for county residents. The cost would be paid for by grants and low-interest loans, to be paid for by a bond issue commissioners would like to get on the August ballot. The bonds would then be paid for through the users' water bills.

For many people who would be serviced by the water, that's a small price to pay.

Norman Gribler, who lives in the Rockview community just north of Chaffee, is worried about water contamination in his community of about 60 people. The houses, each with its own well and septic tank, sit on lots fairly close together. The water table is high, making for shallow wells that are much more apt to be contaminated.

Roger Nuemeyer, who lives north of Sikeston, has had to deal with the cost and hassle of having a contaminated well. When he built his home about five years ago, tests showed his well had bacteria in it. He had to put on a sterilization system to fix the problem, costing him between $500 and $600 with about $100 per year in maintenance.

"I think it's good to have a water system for the entire county as far as property values and safe, clean drinking water for the entire family," Nuemeyer said. "We're putting septic systems in and putting in shallow wells next door. There are going to be a lot of problems."

Many shallow wells

The Scott County Health Department estimates that up to half the county's wells have the potential for contamination due to the conditions Nuemeyer described.

"We have individual wells and individual septic systems all over the place," said health department administrator Barry Cook. "We've got lots of really shallow wells in Scott County ... as shallow as 12 or 15 feet, so you have the potential for surface contamination or septic contamination from their own yards. There's a lot of potential problems there."

Sometimes public systems do get contaminated, but the occurrence is rare, said Cook. "Compared to everybody having wells the risk is well worth it."

An initial random survey done to gauge support asked 350 potential users -- about 10 percent of the possible customer base -- whether they would support district formation. Chittenden said 93 percent pledged support.

Commissioners are also saying the formation of the district would help to attract businesses that wouldn't want to hassle with the cost of installing a well. That's why Ziegenhorn, who lives in Sikeston, supports the idea.

"We're looking for industry to come into the county," said Ziegenhorn. "A good, clean water supply is the first attraction."

msanders@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 182


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