More to town of Red Cliff’s water woes than a leaky tank
Patching a leak in Red Cliff’s water treatment tank might satisfy a state order, but it doesn’t guarantee that tap water will be safer for the town’s residents.
The town has been admonished by the state’s Department of Public Health and Environment to fix its leaking water tank in a month. The town also has up to four months to comply with numerous other orders, including development of an operations and maintenance manual that if followed will keep the two-year-old treatment plant functioning properly.
The town’s residents have endured on-again, off-again orders to boil tap water before drinking. When the water plant is not operating properly, water mains fill with untreated water from Turkey Creek. Several residents have contracted giardia – a persistent parasite that can cause stomach cramping and diarrhea – from drinking the untreated water.
Longtime resident Buster Beck, who worked for the old Red Cliff water plant, thinks the enforcement order is “a joke.”
“If they have serious leaks, definitely, they should be fixed,” he said. “But I don’t think they have anything real serious going on.”
The town is taking steps to comply with the order, but, Town Administrator Guy Patterson argues, residents won’t see much of a benefit. The real problem is that the town’s residents use more water than the water plant can treat.
“It’s not going to make the water safe for the 2-year-old who lives down the street,” he said.
A complex issue
Red Cliff built a new drinking water treatment facility in April of 2002 in hopes of fixing the town’s ongoing water problems. Since then, the town’s residents have endured nearly 11 months of off-and-on boil orders.
The reasons for those orders have varied from operator-error to mechanical failures. The water tank is leaking and needs to be fixed. But banishing the need to boil drinking water may be more complex than that.
Most Red Cliff residents leave their faucets running – or “bleed their lines” – during the winter to prevent water pipes from freezing. During those periods, the town uses more water than the plant can filter, Patterson said.
Town Board Trustee Jim Bradford agrees that consumption is part of the problem. But it’s likely more than that, he said. The plant does need to be fixed, Bradford said, but its employees need more training to effectively run the plant.
The enforcement order threatens to fine the town $1,000 per day if it fails to comply. Town officials also could be prosecuted if they fail to abide by the sanctions. Still, the enforcement order is a good thing in Bradford’s mind, he said.
“It probably should have happened years and years ago,” he said. “There’s always rumors flying around that we are going to get fined, that there will be liens on people’s property. This makes it pretty clear what it is (the state) wants to see from us.
“I think it will provide some motivation to really buckle down and solve this once and for all,” he said.
The town is considering installing water meters on residents’ homes. Bradford would prefer to see the insulation of water lines to older homes, which typically have the worst problem with freezing water pipes.
The enforcement order is the health department’s best “judgment on what the deficiencies are and what needs to be corrected,” said Christopher Dann, spokesman for the agency.
“However, it sounds like what they possibly are suggesting is that the engineering is not up to speed with the demand, and that may be true,” Dann said. “But that’s not the focus right now. The immediate concern is we have out-of-compliance issues we need to have resolved.”
State and town officials agree that the town has a problem with its water treatment facility. But not all residents agree with that assessment.
Beck, for instance, has never boiled his water. He’s never contracted giardia, either. “I don’t know anyone who has gotten giardia who ever caught it from the Red Cliff water plant,” he said.
Penny Salvito has an under-the-sink water filter in her kitchen. The town’s water problems haven’t been that much of a problem for her. Bathing, however, is another issue.
“But I can see how if you have children it would be a problem,” she said.
She’s more concerned as a property owner with what could happen if Red Cliff is fined for noncompliance, she said.
Bradford said he got giardia his first spring in Red Cliff.
“It’s not fun,” he said.
He also has installed a water filter in his kitchen sink. To deny the town’s water treatment problems is “a crock,” he said.
Trustee Betty Sandoval, a longtime resident and former mayor, said she understands that the town needs to be in compliance with state regulations. However, she rarely boiled her drinking water and has never gotten sick from the tap water, either, she said.
The Board of Trustees is tackling the issue with a sense of urgency, she added.
“We are meeting a lot more often to make sure we get things taken care of,” Sandoval said. “I think it’s going to be solved.”
Staff writer Tamara Miller can be reached via e-mail at: firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling 949-0555 ext. 607.