Homeowners in Solon not alone in clean water quandary

SOLON ? The Solon City Council hopes to decide by the end of the year if it will allow a nearby housing development afflicted with too much arsenic in its drinking water to connect to the city?s clean water supply.

Some in the Johnson County community of about 2,500 people say they?re morally obligated to provide safe drinking water to Gallery Acres West?s roughly 40 residents, while others oppose the proposal to extend a 3-mile pipe to a housing development that isn?t a part of Solon.

If the project is approved, it would be an unprecedented move for Solon, but not be the first time a municipal supplier took on customers from a nearby community water system.

Between 2012 and 2016, the number of public water supplies in Iowa declined from 1,123 to 1,094. At the same time, the number of people served by those supplies increased from 2.76 million to 2.82 million people, according to data provided to The Gazette by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.

Officials with the Iowa DNR say the decline in community well systems, paired with more than 51,000 new customers to such supplies, likely is the result of smaller systems being absorbed by larger rural utility providers or municipal systems.

Becky Schwiete, environmental specialist senior with the agency?s Water Supply Operations, said people on small public wells may seek to connect to a larger provider for added water capacity or ? as in Gallery Acres West?s case, because their water is contaminated. Growing cities also can absorb outlying supplies through annexing.

But sometimes it?s simply for convenient, clean water, she said.

?These homeowners associations, they don?t have the infrastructure that a municipality or rural water (provider) does. They don?t have anybody in charge. It?s a group just like Gallery Acres ...,? said Schwiete. ?To have safe water served to your door ... as opposed to battling each and every month to know if the water coming out of your well is safe, it?s just an ease.?

Located next to Lake Macbride Golf Course, Gallery Acres West?s community well has arsenic levels nearly twice the safe threshold set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

To address the issue, the Gallery Acres West homeowners association has asked to connect to nearby Solon?s municipal water supply.

Deemed a matter of public safety, the state has granted the homeowners association a 75 percent forgivable, $1.04 million loan for the project. The association would be responsible for the remainder of the loan, which comes with a 1.75 percent interest rate.

Gallery Acres West has a few options to address its arsenic levels, including trying to drill a new well, but state and local officials argue connecting to Solon is the most surefire solution.

With more than 35,000 ? or 6 percent ? of the roughly 591,000 domestic wells in Iowa expected to have unsafe levels of arsenic, the number of small water supplies looking to connect to safe, treated water is expected to increase.

While contaminants can lead to such connections, Chad Coburn, executive director with Poweshiek Water Association ? which serves about 6,900 water meters across nearly 3,200 miles of water lines ? said the biggest driving force behind those connections is that small well operators simply want to get out of the water business.

?They?re not water people, they don?t want to deal with the testing. they don?t want to hire someone, they just want it to come out of their faucet. If they can wipe their hands of it and know their water needs are being taken care of, they?re more than willing to pay a bill,? he said.

Solon residents don?t need to look far to find a comparable scenario.

Earlier this year, the Iowa City Council voted to connect the 23-lot subdivision Lacina Meadows ? located south of town ? to city water.

In Lacina Meadows? case, the contaminant was radium, which, when consumed, can increase the risk of cancer.

With a forgivable loan similar to that provided to Gallery Acres West, all the homes in Lacina Meadows will be connected to the city water service and the former public water supply will dissolve. Work on the project is expected to begin next year.

To address maintenance costs with the added infrastructure needed to connect to city water, Lacina Meadows customers? will be subject to a water rate that is 1.5 times the regular rate.

It?s possible Gallery Acres West customers would see a similar increased rate structure, officials said.

Matt Tapken, chief operations officer with Poweshiek Water Association, said rates often are adjusted for new customers so that existing ones aren?t burdened, but also to cover any additional costs associated with added water use or infrastructure upgrades.

?You have that ability to set the rate out there so it doesn?t impact the town, but also some of that revenue generated, it may be a case where you get a new well a little bit sooner than you would have before,? Tapken said. ?Through these projects you can really strengthen your system.?

Mark Moeller, water supply engineering supervisor with the Iowa DNR, added that a municipal water provider needs to ensure it has the capacity before it takes on more customers.

?When we look at the design, we as the DNR need to ensure there?s enough capacity and flows to be able to serve these new customers,? he said.