Along with the weather, fishing and speculating how much the Alaska Permanent Fund dividend will be each year, swapping tales of distasteful water is an easy way to strike up a conversation on the central Kenai Peninsula.
Live here long enough or move around the area enough times and residents develop a lexis for describing what comes out of their taps much like wine connoisseurs contrast different vintages and varietals — except the wannabe sommeliers are more likely to use favorable terms.
Cloudy with a bouquet of rotten eggs, leaving an indelible green circle around the bathtub and rendering every load of white laundry somewhat gray.
Drinking water is something Alaskans can love to hate, or at least debate. Which is better, Kenai’s or Soldotna’s? Chances are, the arguments miss the point, involving factors that are distasteful — like color, smell and taste — but not mentioning the invisible contaminants that may be harmful, like arsenic.
In that regard, the argument’s clear, even if the water isn’t — Soldotna is in compliance with the Environmental Protection Agency’s maximum limit of arsenic allowed in public water sources, and Kenai is not.
Well, thenIt’s not for a lack of trying, though, according to Kenai City Manager Rick Koch. Kenai’s water woes just happened to be the luck of the draw, or drill, as it were.
“Soldotna had better luck finding wells with low arsenic,” Koch said.
Soldotna has plenty of wells that provide water with arsenic levels below the EPA’s limit — Well B on Aspen Drive, Well C behind Soldotna High School, Well E at the airport and the newly drilled Well C-2, near Well C, will start providing water soon, said Steve Bonebreak, public works director for Soldotna. Well R-1 is barely above the 10 ppb limit, but would only be used in the case of emergency, like a forest fire, Bonebreak said. Of the city’s production wells, arsenic levels range from 4 ppb to 9 ppb, he said.
“We’re fortunate to have wells that meet the new arsenic regulations. They serve good water to our customers that meets the new regulations without the added costs of any kind of arsenic treatment,” he said.
Kenai is in a different boat. It has only three production wells, all drawing off the Beaver Creek aquifer in the vicinity of the Kenai Spur Highway and Beaver Loop Road. Well 2 tests fine for arsenic, but wells 1 and 3 fail the new EPA limit. In the city’s 2007 water quality report, 27 ppb was the highest arsenic level listed.
When the EPA’s 10 ppb limit went into effect in 2006, Kenai was granted an exemption to allow more time to find a solution to its water problems.
“EPA developed an exemption procedure and said water systems needed more time to research options and pilot study treatments out there and could request an extension of time to complete the process,” said Susan Bulkow, the local Alaska Drinking Water Program coordinator with the state Department of Environmental Conservation. “In the meantime they’re required to issue public notice so the public is aware of the fact they have high arsenic levels in the water.
“The city of Kenai started trying to solve their problems earlier than most water systems by piloting studies of some different treatment options, and study of the water. These efforts have been ongoing. I feel confident that the city of Kenai is trying to solve the arsenic problem.”
Water treatment is an option, but not one the city wants to pursue, Koch said. There are two types of arsenic found in water. Arsenite is relatively inexpensive to remove through filtration. The other — arsenate — costs about the same to treat as removing color from water — the tannins and other elements that make water look dirty, a common complaint in Kenai, Koch said.
“One of the types of arsenic is easy to remove. And of course that’s not the kind we have,” he said.
Removing arsenate from the city’s water would involve building large holding tanks where chemicals can be mixed with the water that bind with arsenate and turn it into arsenite, the kind of arsenic that can be filtered out. Not only is that costly, it would produce large amounts of wastewater, which would eventually be flushed into Cook Inlet. That may be a problem in the future, if beluga whales’ endangered listing results in tighter restrictions on wastewater discharge, Koch said.
If existing water isn’t treated, then new water must be found. But unlike Soldotna, which replaced its offending well with a new one, Kenai has had a harder time finding a spot for a new well that meets requirements.
The city has been drilling test wells looking for another suitable water source, even before arsenic became a hot-button issue, to increase the city’s production potential and avoid water shortages in high-demand summer months.
“Some places you don’t have the challenges that we have here in the city of Kenai,” Koch said.
It was already difficult for the city to find a new well site with decent water volume, high enough water pressure, low enough color and a lack of other contaminants. Finding one with those attributes that also tested low enough for arsenic only added to the difficulty.
“What we have under our feet is very jumbled up, there’s just not any consistency in what we find in wells,” Koch said.
In lieu of finding a new water source, Kenai has decided to make the most of what it has — Well 2. Koch said the city plans to increase production of Well 2 and bring a new, 16-inch diameter well online in the same vicinity to tap into the same water source.
That will allow the city to take wells 1 and 3 offline and bring its arsenic level in line with EPA requirements. In order for that to happen, Well 2 needs to be upgraded to allow higher production and Well 4 needs to be constructed and connected to the water grid. The city also plans to upgrade about 3,200 feet of aging, 10-inch water main along the Kenai Spur Highway that’s currently the city’s only connection from the wells to the rest of the water grid.
Those projects have a budgeted price tag of a little over $3.5 million. Koch said the city has the money for those projects and expects them to be completed by the end of the year, which is when Kenai’s exemption from the EPA 10 ppb arsenic limit expires.
Koch said the 10-inch pipe connecting the wells to the rest of the city has too small a volume to serve the city’s expanding water needs. The longer-term plan is to run a new, 16-inch main from wells 2 and 4 under the Kenai Spur Highway, along Beaver Loop Road, down Togiak Street, over to Lawton Drive and up Swires Road.
Even farther down the road is a plan to run city water all along Beaver Loop Road and up Bridge Access Road back to the city, in order to boost development in those areas and get residents with high-arsenic private wells access to cleaner water.
In the meantime, Koch is hoping science catches up with the EPA’s lower arsenic limit.
“I think the day’s going to come when somebody’s going to figure out arsenic. It’s better to live with some amount of color in the water and hope technology improves in the area of arsenic removal, and I think that it will,” he said. “We’ll keep looking. We’ll respond to what we have to respond to now and work hard to clean that water up.”