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New water supply cleans up old problem in Monroe County

Ultra and nano filtration at Whiteford Township water treatment facilityMany homes in Whiteford Township in Monroe County have had unusable water wells contaminated with pathogens such as E. coli. This may be tracked back for over 100 years.

The contaminated well water was partly due to the use of improperly constructed septic systems in an area vulnerable to groundwater contamination because of local geology.  In most of Michigan, access to groundwater that is a safe and reliable source of drinking water is easy. This is because layers of soil and rock filter water slowly and protect aquifers below from surface contamination. Not so in southwest Monroe County. This area has a type of natural rock called karst limestone, with a thin layer of soil cover above it. Think of Mammoth Cave with its eroded passageways that allow water to move much faster than it can in sand, silt, or clay. Monroe County has features something like Mammoth Cave but not so well developed that a person could go spelunking there. Learn more about caves in Michigan at Something About Caves.

Walt Ruhl, Whiteford Township supervisor, spoke on the effects of polluted water: "Cemetery records going back to the 1880s show the cause of death for many people was acute nephritis, which is a medical term for kidney failure. One cause of kidney failure is chronic exposure to E. coli bacteria." Besides the danger from microbial contaminants, natural groundwater in much of Monroe County is extremely hard and corrosive. Additionally, agricultural chemicals harmful to human health, such as atrazine and glyphosate, have entered the aquifer through pores in the soil and limestone.

In the 1960s, several homeowners connected pipes to a 200-foot deep well constructed on the fire department's property. Upwards of 15 homes were at one time connected to this public well. At some point, the fire department well became subject to the Safe Drinking Water Act, first as a Type I community well, then as a Type III public well, due to a reduced number of homes connected. Drinking water samples from this well and others in the area detected E. coli bacteria. Some well samples even had small crustaceans present. The fire department well was categorized as a Type II noncommunity well so testing and local health department oversight would be required. A 2007 Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) letter recommended that municipal lines be extended from another system as groundwater safety could not be depended on.

In 2015, local government officials applied for a United States Department of Agriculture Rural Development loan to finance a complete drinking water treatment plant and 11?miles of distribution piping. The township qualified for grants to cover approximately 50 percent of the cost of the entire project. The DEQ, now the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE), issued permits for the work in November 2016. Treatment includes hydrogen sulfide removal, a bacterial barrier ultra-filtration, membrane softening, corrosion control, and chlorine for disinfection. This high-tech treatment system was selected as a form of "complete treatment" required by a DEQ determination that groundwater was under the influence of surface water. A concrete tank stores the finished water, and pumps send water out to the water mains.

Construction was completed in late 2018 and formal approval to provide water to the public was granted in January 2019. In mid-June 2019, the last home using the fire department well was connected to the new Whiteford Township community water system. More customers have signed up and will be connected when weather allows. The plant is operating 12 hours a day to keep up with demand, which includes bulk sale of water to agricultural and residential customers. Many other potential customers, both business and residential, are clamoring for clean drinking water from this new water supply. Plans are being made for an expansion of the treatment plant and distribution system, and financing is being sought for those projects. One of the customers will be a small apartment community with its own community water supply system that is in very poor condition.

For more information about drinking water, please visit the Michigan Drinking Water Website.

Having clean drinking water is essential, and it has become a reality in Whiteford Township through the cooperative efforts of many agencies and individuals in government, private industry, and the public.

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