On line at last

The Hillsboro water-treatment plant went back on line with Marion Reservoir at 1:30 p.m., Friday, to the delight of city officials and staff-but 22 days of coping with the local emergency left them weary, wiser… and certainly less wealthy than they were.

Above all, though, the city’s strategy assured residents of Hillsboro and Peabody that their drinking water is absolutely safe-and will continue to be regardless of what the algae situation might be at the reservoir in the future.

Test results received from an Ohio lab Friday showed the water-treatment plant, after some modifications to its procedures, is able to keep toxins well below the safety standard established a week earlier by the Kansas Department of Health and Environment.

“I’d say we probably have the safest water on this side of the Mississippi right now,” Hillsboro City Administrator Steven Garrett said Monday. “We have applied a higher standard for our water than we’re required to do. And we think that’s the right thing to do.”

Since June 5, when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers office at Marion Reservoir identified a potentially toxic anabaena algae bloom in the water, the city has been trucking in water for local use and asking citizens to conserve.

The water-use restrictions, which became mandatory about a week into the emergency, were to be officially lifted at Tuesday’s meeting of the Hillsboro City Council. But the city quit enforcing the restrictions as soon as the water plant came back on line Friday afternoon, Garrett said.

It didn’t take long for the water plant to return to business as usual once the test results came in.

“Basically, we were running the plant and then wasting the water some hours before that to get ready to have the water back on line-which we were ready to do,” Garrett said. “We’re tired of being in crisis mode.”

As it turned out, Garrett said the city made the right decision to shut down water production when the blue-green algae bloom was first discovered because the water likely would not have been safe to drink.

“I don’t think we could have handled (the toxins),” he said. “We added powder-activated carbon (to the treatment procedure). Without the carbon, the results wouldn’t have been the same.

“It took some time to get that in place, and then to get the results so we would be able to tell you that we’ve got negligible residue of toxins.”

The rarity of this kind of algae bloom in Kansas is what made the situation drag out as long as it did, Garrett said. No one at state or even federal agencies seemed to know what level of toxins was safe.

“To the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency), this problem doesn’t really exist-but it is a problem and we’ve addressed the problem,” Garrett said.

Until KDHE finally established some guidelines-and then test results confirmed the local plant could reach them-the city continued trucking in water from the city of McPherson and Rural Water District No. 4 in an effort to keep pace with its customers in Hillsboro and Peabody.

The city Marion, which also uses the reservoir as its water source, lifted its usage restrictions June 19 after establishing alternate pumps at Luta Creek that were able to generate enough water to meet that community’s needs.

Without the luxury of a second water source, Hillsboro’s trucking and related expenses continued to mount.

In all, Garrett estimated the city spent abut $30,000 that it would not have otherwise spent.

“At this point I don’t have an answer where that’s coming from,” he said. “I’m not a big fan of surcharges for situations like this, although that might be something we may need to look at.

“The standard (of water quality) we’ve place upon ourselves is something that wasn’t in the mix before and, depending on what the cost (of maintaining that standard) is…that may be reflected in future water rates.”

Garrett said it doesn’t appear likely the city will receive any financial assistance from state or federal agencies, even though Gov. Kathleen Sebelius did declare a “state of disaster emergency” for Marion County during the first week of the crisis.

The only tangible assistance to come out of her declaration was the free use of one tanker truck and driver during the ordeal.

“I’m not even sure how many trips it made, but it is pretty substantial,” Garrett said. “That’s probably the most aid we got-we paid for the rest of the aid.

“Even after the governor declared an emergency, some questioned whether it really was an emergency-and I think wrongly so,” he added.

“But I think that probably helped screw up any sort of (other) aid that may or may not have been forthcoming.”

Regardless of what financial strategy the city council eventually devises to cover the expense, Garrett said the economic situation could have been worse.

“There are a lot of folks who helped us,” he said. “There was darn little price gouging, and we got a lot of help. I think folks should be paid for a day’s work, and I don’t think anyone took advantage of us.”

Garrett said he also was grateful for the way the city’s water customers responded to the ongoing situation.

“The people in Hillsboro and Peabody really worked with us and really understood why we weren’t going back on line,” he said.

“Just from my conversations with people, they wanted to return to life as normal but they knew we wanted to be able to look them in the eye and tell them that, yes, we are sure this is OK.

“I’m really glad we were able to deliver that as quickly as we could,” he said. “I think it’s a contract we have with them-that we will be sure of what we’re doing, and they will work with us as long as they know we’re doing that.”

Garrett also praised the work of city staff during the ordeal.

“The staff did a good job-which I expected them to do,” he said. “They dealt with state agencies, federal agencies, private agencies-this was a big deal. They were able to keep me informed on various issues of the day, and I appreciate that.

“From the women in the front office all the way to the water plant, I think the staff did an excellent job.

“That first week, there was a lot of overtime because we had a lot of questions to be answered and a lot of work to be done,” he said. “Basically then, this thing just boiled down to a waiting game.”

Garrett said his initial aggravation about how long it was taking the lab in Ohio to release its test results eased when he learned more about the testing procedure.

“I had a pretty stern discussion with the guys at the lab,” Garrett said. “In the process of that stern discussion, I found out this kind of test usually takes about a month.

“To get the results back in nine days took some big dedication on the part of the lab.”

Garrett said Hillsboro’s immediate water problems appear to be solved, but he said some issues need to be worked through in regard to short-term and long-term strategies at Marion Reservoir.

“As for me as a city administrator needing to treat water, it’s not an issue for us,” he said. “But for me as a person who realizes the lake is a huge economic boon to us, I’m not so sure that something doesn’t need to occur-something more short-term than long-term.

“I sure would like to have someone think about it.”

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