Letter to the Editor

Three possible solutions

Monday, December 29, 2003

Dear Constituents,

In the ongoing controversy over solving McCook's water problems three factions seem to have evolved.

One faction, including the majority of the City Council members, is in favor of investigating whether development a new well field may be the best solution. Another faction seems to be of the opinion that we should delay, delay, delay finding a solution in hopes that the standards will change and no new investment would be required.

The third faction seems to be of the opinion that the best solution would be to build a water treatment plant and start treating our water immediately. I would like to explore each option from my present understanding. The Council's tactic of exploring a new well field in the Ogallala aquifer has one big advantage and that is our plan of action is blessed by HHS (Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services) the state agency with oversight of municipal water systems.

The northern well field also has the potential of being the least-cost solution when projected over a twenty-year period. The faction touting delay in doing anything to solve McCook's water problem is making some assumptions that I don't think hold water. (Pun intended).

McCook has been under an administrative order for too high a nitrate content in our water since 1986. HHS has approved out present plan for solving the water problem with the stipulation that whatever solution we adopt must be online by 2006. No matter how we delay or ignore the problem, we must provide water with less than 10-ppm nitrate to our customers by 2006. McCook's water seems to average 12-ppb arsenic and we have been assured that we must have a solution to that problem when the new standard is effective in 2006. The uranium standard of 30-ppb takes effect in 2004. McCook's water from the present well field runs about 35-ppb uranium. There is provision for delay in implementing both the arsenic and uranium standards but non-compliance is not an option.

At least one of the persons that circulated the petition to stop development of the northern well site promised a petition signer that by delaying any water solution McCook would be able to get a grant (free money) to solve our problem.

Be assured that city staff is investigating all possibilities of getting a grant to help solve our problem. Grants are never a sure thing and I have no confidence that any free money will be forthcoming. Efforts are being made with our three elected federal representatives to attempt to get relief from the arsenic and uranium standards. Concurrent with the efforts to gain relief from the standards we are also requesting monetary help. My feeling is that we will have a better chance of getting some monetary help than we have in getting a change in the water quality standards. To date there has been no promise of federal money from any of our elected representatives.

Last summer following a series of meetings a group of informed citizens recommended that the Council adopt water treatment as the ultimate solution to our water problem. I took their recommendation to heart and voted to begin the treatment project. The City staff prepared a plan of action to treat and sent it up to HHS for approval. Then the contamination problem from a plume of spilled diesel fuel under our 4 million gallon reservoir and the location or our intended site for the water treatment plant came to light. The HHS's response was whoa, stop backup, we will never approve placing a water treatment plant on a site impacted by pollution and oh by the way your 4 million reservoir has to be moved. Our City engineer estimated that it would cost in the neighborhood of $4.0 million dollars to relocate our 4 million gallon reservoir and site for the water treatment plant. To me it is only reasonable that the party responsible for the diesel spill should pay for moving the 4 million gallon reservoir and pay for a new site for a water treatment plant, the $4.0 million engineer's estimate. Further if $4.0 million could then be applied to offset the cost of a new well field to the north, that solution would only cost the taxpayers some $6.0 million.

Unfortunately I do not have a great deal of confidence that the party who caused the diesel spill will pony up the desired $4.0 whether for a new well field or a treatment plant. Most of the citizens of McCook will remember that not long ago the city was operating a landfill for solid refuse. The state changed rules and required that to continue to operate the landfill it would be necessary to install an impervious liner to prevent groundwater pollution. The council at that time, including one of the present members, decided to fight and delay at every turn the state's order to install a liner. You know the result of that action, no more landfill and the higher solid waste removal bills that you now pay.

The faction that supports building the treatment plant promises that the government will be setting new standards that will eventually require treatment no matter what we do. That could happen but my crystal ball doesn't see it within twenty years. By then a new well field will be paid for and an additional treatment plant would not be a terrible burden. Unfortunately a water treatment plant built now would only have a twenty-year life. At that time not only would the treatment plant have to be rebuilt, at somewhere near the original cost, but the new requirements, if any, would also incur additional expense.

McCook's most pressing problem is the nitrate content of our water and unfortunately nitrate removal is the most expensive. Building a plant to treat for nitrate is more expensive than a new well field but the yearly operating costs of treating are what makes that solution by far the highest cost of any option. Treating for arsenic and/or uranium is relatively inexpensive in relation to nitrate removal. A treatment plant built now will require 20 years to pay off have to be rebuilt just at the time a new well field will all be paid for. The most economical solution really is to locate a source of good water in the Ogallala aquifer that won't require any treatment for at least twenty years.

Dick Trail

McCook City Councilman

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