It’s the water, and a lot more

That’s what we got up in Ferndale during the last year, water and a whole lot more.  That is a lot of minerals, scale, bad taste, maybe some manganese, calcium…a lot like Olympia bear of old, but better tasting than that tin can beer of yesteryear for sure.   I live in Ferndale, though not Ferndale proper so I get the city water but can’t vote for or against those who make the decision about what water is delivered to my tap.

I’ve wished that I had the time to write a proper blog post, but as of mid last week I hadn’t yet found the time.  So when I read that Ralph Schwartz was in the midst of writing an article for the Herald I contacted him to make sure a couple of the point I wanted to make would be in the article.  From talking with Mr. Schwartz I got the impressions that he had done an investigation into the causes of our current situation and that the City of Ferndale had realized that they needed a different engineering firm due to the failings of the firm that had set up the system.   I read the article today and I was disappointed to read that I was apparently wrong on both impressions.  The article Ferndale officials never saw water problems coming was so fluffy that it may have well been written by the City of Ferndale.  And the way my part came off was that I was more worried about my coffee pot than the health and well being of my fellow citizens…ok well if you know me that isn’t that farfetched, but I do stand more worried about my fellow water drinking citizens than my sticky kitchen faucet.
The City of Ferndale did make a mess of the situation and I can see a lot of red flags that were overlooked or underplayed leading up to our mess.  I won’t delve into conspiracy theories like the good water going to wash down coal dust at the new terminal or the mayor with a plumbing firm creating this mess to increase business.   I don’t hold any person or firm up as a not wanting to do the right thing.  I do think that all of the red flags need to be looked at to make sure we don’t make the same mistake again.  What I want to do, since I don’t have time to do a proper post is to start this post as a listing of things that I find, or have found that pertain to our our current situation.

I’ve got about 15 different points that range from why the water problem should have been expected, to how hardness effects cooking, to additional consumer costs from hard water and even to the dance that is being played with our health.   I will be updating the list with more and more points as I find the time to write the little bits.

Point 1 and I’ll start the bar pretty low.  There is more in the water than just bad taste and if you made your own pizza dough you would know that.  Even if you let your water stand to let any residual chlorine off gas, hard water will still toughen the dough and increase rising times.

Point 2 – Often when things don’t turn out as planned, people start pointing fingers.  Sometimes they point to blame and sometimes they point to avoid blame.   Such is the case with Ferndale’s new well water.

The consultants have been pressed to explain why the water has been so much harder after the switch. It could have to do with the unusually dry summer and greater-than-usual water use by farmers, they said at a Sept. 17 council meeting.

Bellingham Herald: Ferndale officials never saw water problems coming

I was at that City Council meeting.  While the council and many others were murmuring their agreement with the RH2 representative pointing fingers at the dry summer I was Googling precipitation figures because even though we had had a few recent hot days, I had no recollection of an overall  long dry summer.  As it turned out, when I looked at the rainfall for the 6 month period leading up to the dry summer comment, I found that 2012 was one of the wettest periods in the last decade only to be bested by 2011.
Capture 6 month accumulated precipitation leading up to Sept meeting
So why point fingers at the dry summer?   Because the dry summer, if it existed, was an easy target.  It couldn’t defend itself and it could point back at anyone leaving the finger pointers safe from blame.  However, if the dry summer had fingers, I’d guess they’d be pointing their middle ones at RH2 and the City of Ferndale.

The people of Ferndale need the problem solved and the first step to finding a solution involves accurately assessing the problem and it’s causes, not finger pointing.

Point 3 –  The Herald article I referenced above is titled Ferndale officials never saw water problems coming and I wonder why not?   In the article the City of Ferndale says they didn’t expect water this hard and their engineering firm RH2 says they weren’t looking for it.  So, why not look at water hardness when making a major change from river water to well water?  You don’t refinance a home and not have an expectation of what the new interest rate will be and you certainly expect your home loan specialist to look at the rate. Why not have the same type of expectations when you are restructuring your water supply?

It’s seems almost inconceivable that the City didn’t really have expectations for water hardness, but it’s conceivable to me that an engineering firm, which is trying to make a profit, would try to do the minimum required in order to minimize costs and maximize profits.  So I wondered what the City really asked for and I wondered what RH2 really looked for?  That question led me to a pilot study that the City of Ferndale contracted with RH2 in October of 2009, just after RH2 presented the results of their feasibility project.

RH2 deliverables

Calcium and magnesium are the major players in water hardness so it appears the City, whether they knew it or not, was looking for hardness.   And if RH2 delivered on the deliverables then they were looking for hardness whether they admit it or not.   Obviously I wondered what the results were of the testing and comparison to previous reports, but I couldn’t locate them online.  I just sent off a public record request to the City of Ferndale for these deliverables so we will see shortly what the City of Ferndale and RH2 could have known about potential hardness issues.  Meanwhile Point 4 will certainly be written before the public records are available and it will point to a couple of red flags waving over the hardness issue from long  before the pilot study.

Point 4 – Red flags waving in the wind.  The introduction to the City of Ferndale Water Supply Feasibility Report contains this chart, so I would assume the Mayor, the City Council and all other decision makers would have studied it prior to their decision making.

capture feasability chart

This chart show the state of the water coming out of the ground at both wells that we are now receiving water from.  This represents the water in it raw untreated state and would be used in decision making about what types of treatments would be needed.

Red Flag One – Which numbers go with which well?  are they combined?  Oh, well maybe it’s the first two columns for Douglas and the second two…OK, that’s not really a red flag, but WTH why not label things.   BTW I found the same chart in the appendix and the first two measurement columns are from the Douglas Well and the other two are from the Shop Well.   The actual first red flag, in this chart depicting levels of contaminants of concern, was the absence of magnesium and calcium from the chart.  Were the major players in water hardness not tested or were they not presented and in either case, why not?

Red Flag Two – Total Dissolved Solids (TDS) There apparently was a lot more stuff in the water back in 94 and 99 then there was in 07 and oddly both wells were over the limit and now they are not.  In the case of the Shop Well the newer reading is about half of the older which should be a red flag all on it’s own.

High TDS may indicate hard water, which causes scale buildup in pipes and valves, inhibiting performance. Since TDS is related to water hardness, using a TDS meter can be your first step in determining the degree of hardness of the water. Generally speaking, the higher the level of TDS (ppm), the higher the degree of hardness.

Premier Water Test Instruments

Red Flag Three – TDS again.  TDS is related to water hardness, but because not all of the things in the water contribute to directly to hardness, there is no exact correlation, but the correlation is pretty darn close.   The following chart is from Xylem, a company that deals with water quality issues and it gives a pretty clear indication that the water supply was in the Hard to Very Hard range.  Oh, and those aren’t water temps in the 3rd column, they are French degrees which is a way of measuring hardness.

Capture hardness conductivity tds

Red Flag Four – Conductivity.  It’s the stuff in the water that conducts electricity, not the water itself and a couple of the biggest movers in this department are our hardness favorites, magnesium & calcium.  So looking back at the data we see numbers from 504 on up to 948 which clearly lands our raw well water in the upper end of the hardness range with our primary well, the Douglas Well, in the Hard/Very Hard category.

Between TDS and conductivity, if City officials didn’t see the hard water issue coming down the pike then they weren’t paying attention.

Point 5  – Sodium – Sodium and Chloride go hand in hand.  What we normally call “salt” is actually sodium chloride (NaCl) and when dissolved in water its splits apart into sodium and chloride.   There are other contributors of chlorides in well water, but sodium chloride salt is the big contributor.  If you look back a couple of charts you will see that both sodium and chloride are present in higher levels.  The chlorides are also a bit of a red flag not because of the overall level being harmful, but because in the primary Douglas Well the 1994 level was 175 and in 2007 it was 56.  One reason why we should care about this was actually pointed out very nicely by RH2 in their report to the city.

the level of chloride indicating saltwater intrusion is 100 mg/l.  The Douglas Well was measured to have Chloride levels of 175 mg/l in 1994 and 56 mg/l in March 2007.  The Shop Well has chlorides present as well, but they are lower than 100 mg/l.  However, the conductivity and Total Dissolved Solids (TDS) levels are high enough to present some concern.  It is obvious that there is influence from a source of salts in both of these wells.
The DOH will most likely require frequent monitoring of chlorides if these wells are placed into service.  And if chlorides do rise over the threshold of 100 mg/l, there use may be reduced or curtailed seasonally so that seawater intrusion is reduced.

“curtailed seasonally” means that the well may be unusable to us at certain times of the year because it is being refilled with saltwater from Puget Sound rather than fresh water from our NW rains and mountain snow.  What this also means is that to maximize output from the wells the sodium levels in our water will always be an issue.  Couple that high sodium water with hard water and you have a potentially serious health issue for some Ferndale residents.

For normal, healthy persons, the amount of sodium in drinking water is a minor contribution to their total dietary intake of sodium. However, for those people who must restrict their salt intake to control certain medical conditions, sodium in drinking water can be a major concern. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has proposed a recommended concentration of 20 milligrams per liter (mg/1).

South Carolina Department of Health

RH2 appeared to be on top of this issue and even referenced the EPA 20 mg/l number as guideline level, but I’ve yet to see any commitment to hitting that number 20 mg/l versus riding the 100 mg/l well shutdown level.

As a consumer we should all be worried about high sodium levels in our water, but we should be doubly or triply concerned if the City delivers high sodium water and chooses not to treat the hardness issue at the system level, leaving the individual consumer to deal with the hardness.   Typical home water softening systems work by swapping our hard water friends calcium and magnesium for….wait for it… wait for it…sodium.   Yes, if you treat your already sodium rich hard water at home you are probably adding even more sodium in the process and the harder your water, the more sodium you will be adding.

If you’re on a diet that calls for very little sodium and you’re concerned about the amount of sodium in your softened water, talk with your doctor. He or she may suggest testing the sodium concentration of your water or switching to a type of water-purification system that doesn’t replace magnesium and calcium with sodium.

Mayo Clinic

It’s true that compared to a Big Mac the amount of sodium we might have in a glass of treated water might seem like very little, but stopping at a fast food joint is a bit more of conscious choice than turning on the kitchen sink.  And having high sodium water in your home means that you will be hit with a constant unending barrage of additional sodium.  Sodium water, sodium coffee, sodium Kool-aid, sodium water for cooking, sodium ice cubes, there will be no getting away from it, so even the small amount will continue to add up.

Research shows a dose-dependent relationship between consuming too much salt and elevated blood pressure. When salt intake is reduced, blood pressure begins decreasing for most people within a few days to weeks. Populations who consume diets low in salt do not experience the increase in blood pressure with age that is seen in most Western countries.

CDC – Center fro Disease Control and Prevention

We have already switched to the 3 gallon refillable water jugs at Haggen, but so far that is used mostly for drinking.  We may need to upgrade to 5 gallon jugs unless the City of Ferndale treats our hard sodium rich water at the system level.  Anything less than that is what I would consider a step backwards.

Point 6 – Is the solution really that simple? Wait and see.

Burwell and City Council member Jon Mutchler have both said the solution is simple. Owners of appliances should follow recommendations for how often to clean and maintain them, to avoid stains or potentially damaging mineral buildup.

“There are many municipalities across the country that have much harder water than we do, and they live with it,” Mutchler said in a Dec. 20 interview.

Bellingham Herald: Ferndale officials never saw water problems coming

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