GARDEN CITY, Kansas — For almost three months, people living in a mobile home neighborhood just east of Garden City’s limits haven’t been able to drink their tap water.
“Sometimes you can take a shower, and it comes out yellow … like sand,” said resident Jesus Cruz.
The problem began with low pressure. That can allow bacteria to grow and sicken people if they drink it. State officials have ordered the owner of the water system to fix it. Repairs are underway, but the time spent driving to pick up water is wearing on some residents. Especially in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic.
Mineral buildup in metal pipes is part of the problem. Eventually, the build-up can weaken water pressure. That “hard water” is found throughout Kansas water systems.
Although changes to the water source have resolved water pressure issues, until tests deem the water safe and the owner permanently fixes the water system, many residents will continue to rely on bottled water.
The Towns Riverview subdivision is divided into two neighborhoods. Residents in the northern section live in brick homes and residents in the southern portion live in mobile homes. The boil water advisory for Towns Riverview North was rescinded on June 30.
The two neighborhoods were getting water from Garden City’s water system, but because of ongoing pressure issues, the southern neighborhood has been temporarily hooked up to a well.
Delmer Towns II is the water manager of Towns Riverview and the grandson of the water system owner, Delmer Towns. Towns II said that three years ago, the subdivision was placed on city water because uranium levels from the well were too high.
“We got a booster pump set up, city water ran out here — that was a half a million dollars to get everything out here,” he said. “We had customers with very little water pressure to none at all, in some cases in some houses. So we’ve been replacing valves and digging up meters and replacing meters.”
Andrew Whelton, an associate professor of civil, environmental and ecological engineering at Purdue University, said a variety of bacteria can grow and infiltrate the water system when water sits in pipes.
“If the stagnated water contains high levels of lead or copper,” he said, “there can be a few adverse health effects, such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, gastrointestinal distress, abdominal cramps.”
Jon Steele, a circuit rider and technical assistant with the Kansas Rural Water Association, has been assisting with the Towns Riverview South water system. He said some lines have been replaced.
“Nine main line valves that were in the south part of the system that were ... basically restricted from mineral deposits in the pipe,” Steele said. “So many times where you might have a four-inch line, it could be pinched and as much as 50% plugged up.”
On May 8, the Kansas Department of Health and Environment issued an emergency administrative order that required the owner to provide drinking water, portable toilets and showers and submit dialy pressure readings. The order estimates that 970 people receive water from the Towns Riverview systems.
Towns appealed the order. That stopped potential fines of up to $5,000 per day.
The Finney County Commission passed an emergency resolution declaring a public health emergency in Towns Riverview on July 6. Commissioner Lon Pishny represents the district and lives in the northern neighborhood. He said the order will make county funds available for drinking water.
Living in Towns Riverview South
On a hot July afternoon, residents drove to fill up large jugs from a milk tanker filled with water parked in Towns Riverview South. LiveWell Finney County, a community health coalition, received a donation from Blue Cross Blue Shield that they used to pay for the water.
Executive Director Callie Dyer said the organization plans to continue distributing water through the summer.
“(For) at least 15 homes,”she said, “we had to carry (water) inside because they were elderly and could not carry the cases of water.”
Employees from the Finney County Health Department and Finney County Emergency Management and several nonprofits are also part of water distribution efforts.
Dianne Conner has lived in Towns Riverview South for 30 years. Several packages of bottled water and five-gallon jugs sit on her kitchen floor. Shortly after she moved in, Conner said she saw “a yellowish oil” ring in a cup of water she left sitting out and hasn’t drunk the tap water since.
“We change faucets in the bathtubs and showers probably on the average of once a year because of the acid, or whatever is in the water, literally eats through the spouts,” Conner said.
She also gives her Jack Russell Terrier, Caramel, bottled water because of the current do-not-drink order.
Last summer, Conner noticed a lack of pressure when she turned on her garden sprinkler. Instead of fanning a layer of water, the sprinkler released a trickle.
“And then it went from there around Thanksgiving to where you would turn the faucet on and it would be maybe a pencil stream,” she said.
Omar Chairez has lived in the neighborhood for eight years. Not only does it take time for him and his family to go out and buy water, but the extra trips mean more chances of being exposed to COVID-19.
“It makes it even harder,” he said. “We’re taking risks going out to get water.”
On top of that, southwest Kansas has had multiple days of triple-digit temperatures this summer.
“We have to shower by bucket,” Chairez said. “I’m six-three, I got a small bathroom where we live in this trailer park area … I’ve got to bend all the way down. It’s back-breaking and it hurts after a while.”
Fixing the system
Towns II has been replacing galvanized pipes and is waiting for results of uranium tests from the well. But the well is a temporary solution for the neighborhood.
In an email, Ashley Jones-Wisner with KDHE said, “Water infrastructure projects take time to develop and construct. The owner has replaced valves and fixed leaks. The long-term solution is under development.”
Water customers have been charged a $100 flat rate, but the Kansas Corporation Commission has ordered that meters be installed and monthly bills be distributed.
In June, the KCC order declared the system a public utility. That makes it subject to significant changes, including installing meters that measure water quantities, providing customers with detailed bills and opening a checking account dedicated to water operations.
The order also states that "Towns Riverview has been operating in violation of the public utility act since approximately 1975, as it failed to seek and obtain certification as a public utility before providing service to its customers."
Chairez said his family was charged the flat rate even when it had little to no water.
“It’s awful that we have to pay the same amount even though we don’t get all the amount we should be getting,” he said. “It’s unfair.”
Corinne Boyer covers western Kansas for High Plains Public Radio and the Kansas News Service. You can follow her on Twitter @corinne_boyer or email cboyer (at) hppr (dot) org.
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