Some Kansas communities have taken steps to rid their drinking water of harmful elements such as uranium and arsenic, but residents in several small towns are facing considerable rate hikes to pay for the improvements the federal government insists they need.
The Environmental Protection Agency requires community water systems to test for various substances, including naturally occurring uranium. Testing is required because long-term exposure to uranium can lead to an increased risk of cancer and other health problems, according to the EPA.
If the water tests come back repeatedly above the federal threshold, the communities then have to take steps to get the elements out of the water. Those steps include finding new water sources and building water treatment plants. The federal government offers loans and grants to help build the multi-million treatment plants and new delivery systems, but the communities are responsible for paying to maintain the facilities.
Clay Center, which has about 4,300 residents, built a $10 million water treatment plant to clear the water of uranium that can occur naturally in underground aquifers. But water rates there are now about three times higher than they were before the plant was built in 2010. The payments have gone from about a $9 minimum to $30, and most of the hike goes toward maintaining and operating the plant, utilities supervisor Bill Callaway said.
"It's a hardship on people," Callaway said. "... Everybody loves the water. They don't like the price."
The Kansas Department of Health and Environment said of the five communities with excessive uranium in their drinking water, only two — Timken, population 75, and a Garden City subdivision with about 860 residents — have not taken any action to comply with the federal regulations. KDHE said enforcement action is under consideration for those two communities.
Mike Tate, chief of KDHE's bureau of water technical services, said there is no fixed time for communities to reach compliance and that the department is reviewing the cases of Timken and Towns' subdivision.
In Lakin, a southwest Kansas town of about 2,200 residents where uranium levels have hovered above the federal threshold for a few years, residents are now paying water rates about 10 times higher than they had before the city began construction last spring on a $6.5 million nano-filtration water treatment plant. Lakin hiked a minimum water bill from $4.17 a month to $40.16 per meter to pay for maintaining and operating the new plant, which is expected to begin operations this spring, said Fred Jones, Lakin city administrator.
"The bad news is that adds a fairly big impact," Jones said. "But water is a humongous issue out here, you know. We're having to deal with it, and I think other communities are going to have to deal with water quality issues ... because the regulatory requirements are not relaxing."
He said some residents have complained about the spike in water bills, but he also has heard from residents who've been told not to drink the water in town because of the uranium. The new water treatment plant will also deal with the increasing presence of nitrate in the water, Jones said.
Page 2 of 2 - "So, you know, it's one of those things if you're not in compliance it has to be addressed and it's really not for us to negotiate," Jones said.
In the northwest Kansas town of Atwood, where arsenic had been a problem in the water, water bills have more than doubled since the town of about 1,100 started piping arsenic-free water in from new wells north of town.
Delmer Towns, who developed the Towns Riverview Subdivision in Garden City and owns the rights to wells that supply water to the residents there, said an engineer estimates it would cost about $5 million to build a treatment facility for the subdivision's water supply. Towns said he can't afford that.
Towns, however, said residents could choose another solution.
"Everybody drinks bottled water," he said.