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Water we going to do now?

Packed house for Gallery Acres West meeting with DNR

SOLON– It was a long meeting.
So what comes next?
Members of the Solon City Council and a standing-room-only crowd packed into City Hall Tuesday, Oct. 24, to question representatives of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) about efforts to resolve water supply issues for a nearby rural subdivision.
No official action was taken from council members and it wasn’t clear whether the marathon meeting shed any new light on how best to deal with unacceptable levels of arsenic in Gallery Acres West’s (GAW) drinking water.
The subdivision’s homeowners association is seeking to partner with the city to extend the municipal water supply three miles west to serve 14 residences adjacent to the Lake MacBride Golf Course off Highway 382.
City Council members agreed to have city staff research the proposal, but support for the project soured after it was learned the DNR wasn’t interested in coordinating with other county subdivisions which might face the same problems in the near future.
And that’s where the conversation picked up Oct. 24.
A healthy cross-section of the public spent the better part of two hours airing their opinions– from Solon taxpayers concerned about the expense and Gallery Acres West residents trying to explain their difficult position to a rural resident who wondered how his subdivision’s water supply could be acceptable when it was private but not once it turned public.
Bearing much of the questioning and shouldering the load for explaining the state’s narrow focus was Mark Moeller, a water supply engineering supervisor for the DNR.
Moeller started off the two-and-a-half hour meeting with a brief history.
“I’ve been working with Gallery Acres for over a decade now in trying to get them safe water and in compliance with the state drinking water act so there arsenic levels are at safe levels,” he said.
According to documents submitted GAW homeowners association, the subdivision’s water supply fell out of compliance when the Environmental Protection Agency reduced the maximum arsenic content in 2001.
Since then, the homeowners group has investigated multiple options and lobbied state legislators for compromise solutions, like treatment devices in each home, something Iowa does not allow, although other states do.
A required preliminary engineering report eventually identified the few options available, and the GAW is pursuing what was selected as the best option– hooking up to an existing municipal system.
Other alternatives included drilling a new well and constructing a water treatment facility, but there are challenges with each of those, Moeller noted.
A new well also might also have high arsenic levels, he said, while treating the supply would generate permit issues for the disposal of the discharge, which would contain arsenic.
GAW residents would prefer to get out of the water business altogether, citing the high cost of operation and increasing regulation.
That leaves finding another supplier for GAW water needs.
“DNR supports that project, it’s a viable solution,” Moeller explained.

But taxpayers of Solon are feeling pressured to participate, and their number one concern is the stress the project will place on infrastructure they have invested in over decades, Mayor Steve Stange noted.
“They’re upset about having to fund somebody else’s water issues,” he said. “The state, the county, the DNR, the federal government should own this before the local taxpayers of Solon have to cover this.”
Patti Cale-Finnegan, the state revolving loan fund coordinator for the DNR, said the city would be able to recoup its costs.
“We’re talking about the possibility of really adding a customer,” she said. “So that you would sell water to systems outside your city limits.”
The city and Gallery Acres West would have to work out the details of an agreement that compensates the city for overall impact, she said, a common practice across the state.
GAW has qualified for a 75 percent forgivable loan to help finance the construction of a water line from the city limits to the development, Cale-Finnegan noted, an enticement the DNR can offer only a few targeted public health problems. GAW would be responsible for the remaining 25 percent of project cost.
Determining who owns the line and how maintenance costs are built into pricing is something the city could determine with the help of a specialized independent consultant, she said.
The cost of extending service to Gallery Acres West has been estimated at $780,000 for a 3-inch line and $981,000 for an 8-inch main. A smaller line could serve the GAW population, but a larger line would be needed if other developments wanted to join.

While the forgivable loan would be specific to Gallery Acres West, there are other households currently served by nearby rural systems which may experience regulatory problems in the future.
“Would that be an option for Gallery Acres and DNR to work with other associations and developers to distribute the risk a little bit more across multiple communities?” asked council member Lauren Whitehead.
“Right now, DNR’s role in this is directly working with Gallery Acres and their compliance schedule with us,” Moeller responded, acknowledging there are other associations in the area interested in the line.
“That needs to work itself out,” he continued. The DNR wouldn’t be opposed to other systems connecting on, he said, but it wouldn’t be the DNR’s role to facilitate.
There are issues with other local associations meeting the requirements for discharge permits, he added.
“This could be a potential solution down the road for them,” Moeller said.
Iron filtration is a common treatment for arsenic, noted Becky Schwiete of the DNR, but the arsenic pulled out during the process cannot be discharged into the watershed feeding protected Lake Macbride.
“It’s just kind of a catch-22 here,” Schwiete said. “Treatment isn’t that difficult for arsenic. It can be pretty simple. But because of the discharge issues, it’s difficult and expensive.”
One development, she said, Macbride Pointe, will take about a year to accrue enough violations to warrant the attention received by Gallery Acres West.
“Sounds like there’s many developments even in our neighborhood that are in different statuses,” council member Mark Prentice said, noting it was confusing. “I would really like to know how many other developments would be interested in hooking up to Solon.”
Kelli Scott of Synder & Associates, the engineering firm assisting Gallery Acres West, said GAW has been in contact with representatives from Macbride Pointe, Twin View Heights and talked to the DNR regarding other developments treating for iron or arsenic currently in the discharge permitting process.
Together, they represent about 240 additional connections, Snyder said.
“We’re dealing with 14 tonight,” Stange noted. “But to not realistically understand that with the regulations that are coming, these other developments are going to be knocking on the door in five years or less, probably.”

Later in the meeting, former council member Sue Ballantyne questioned the county’s role in approving subdivisions with water quality issues.
“Where is the county in all of this?” she asked. “If they’re the ones that are issuing these building permits for these developments, and they keep issuing development permits, why aren’t they responsible for this?”
Whitehead said she had emailed two supervisors but had not received a response.
“The citizens of Solon are being asked to solve a problem we didn’t create,” Ballantyne continued. When she moved to Solon 30 years ago, she could have moved wherever she wanted. “I chose to live in town because I wanted the city streets, the city water, the city sewer. I paid for that for 30 years with my taxes.”
While sympathetic with the problem, she said the rural residents pay taxes to Johnson County. “Why isn’t Johnson County accepting any responsibility for this,” Ballantyne said. “Why aren’t they part of this discussion?”
The mayor and city council members are expected to continue the discussion, with possible action on the Gallery Acres West request, at a regular Nov. 1 meeting.