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Sickness On Tap Drinking Water Problems Plague North Idaho As Communities Struggle To Keep It Clean

Sun., Nov. 10, 1996

A rash of drinking water problems in recent months has raised concerns about the safety of North Idaho’s community water systems.

Last week, 400 people were advised to boil their water when the city of Hayden Lake and the Avondale Irrigation District found bacteria in the tap water.

In September alone, 14 different Panhandle water purveyors found contaminated water coming straight from their faucets.

Earlier this year, more than 100 Girl Scouts fell ill from bad water while at a summer camp on the shores of Lake Coeur d’Alene.

Plummer has had three water advisories in the last six months, and schools in Rathdrum canceled classes in September when the city’s water turned up contaminated.

While most recent problems have not resulted in serious illnesses, they show how vulnerable drinking water systems are. And, with a large number of North Idaho water systems falling short of federal standards, communities are struggling to find the money to make the grade.

Some complain that the federal requirements are unreasonable, but regulators say the rules are necessary to ensure drinking water stays clean and safe.

“Drinking water is something we take for granted,” said Steve Tanner, a water quality specialist with the Idaho Division of Environmental Quality. “A lot of water has been underpriced for years.”

The worst incident in recent years happened at the Girl Scout Inland Empire Council’s camp on Lake Coeur d’Alene this past summer.

“When I saw that water sample, my eyes popped out of my head,” said Steve McMillan of the Panhandle Health District.

When Camp Four Echoes’ chlorinator broke down briefly in July, 26 staff members at the Girl Scout camp and about 110 campers became sick, according to the health district. Those stricken suffered nausea and diarrhea for one to three days.

“They had some of the most graphic stories of getting ill that I’ve ever heard,” said McMillan, who investigated the outbreak and traced it to the well, which was contaminated with fecal matter.

Problems on that scale are rare, however.

The recent water advisories stem from tests that show evidence of total coliform bacteria. Total coliform is not harmful itself, but its presence means that disease-causing bacteria might be in the water.

Total coliform can appear for many reasons. Frequently it’s from leaks in distribution pipes. The water in Hope, Idaho, has tested positive for total coliform every month for the past two years.

“The current system has been in for about 100 years,” said Shirley Ramey, Hope city clerk. “We have a lot of old pipes.”

In the case of Hayden Lake last week, water officials believe the problem was a line-break caused by construction of a sewer line.

Although most customers prefer the taste of non-chlorinated water, Avondale Irrigation will chlorinate the water until the sewer construction is done, said watermaster Todd Zimmermann. The advisory was lifted Friday.

Because many systems don’t disinfect their water on a routine basis, “we’re going to continue to see problems,” Tanner said.

The most violations of the Clean Water Act in North Idaho are from a failure to properly monitor water systems.

Water systems are required to test their tap water monthly. Of the approximately 550 water systems in the Panhandle, a total of 146 systems neglected to test their water regularly in the last year.

“Some of the smaller ones (water systems), where the monitoring is done with voluntary help, it’s not uncommon to miss a sample,” Tanner said.

Another common problem in North Idaho are the 26 surface water systems that the government considers inadequate.

North Idaho has a greater percentage of water systems that rely on surface water instead of wells than the rest of the state, so it has a higher percentage of systems that are considered vulnerable to contamination.

Most are under pressure to upgrade, but few have the resources to do it.

Tiny Murray, Idaho, is a classic example.

Harry Almquist, the 80-year-old owner of Murray’s water, can’t find a buyer for the system, which serves a grand total of 30 customers.

“There’s not too much interest because it is a lot of headaches,” said Almquist’s wife, Mary Lou.

The water now comes from Alder Creek. It’s naturally filtered through dirt to an intake pipe two or three feet below the creek bed, but that doesn’t satisfy the Clean Water Act and the regulatory agencies that enforce the Act.

So the Almquists spent $16,000 to dig a well. When the water didn’t reach homes on the edge of town, Almquist turned up the pressure at the advice of the agencies.

The increased pressure blew out the old lines and made the well worthless, so the town’s back drawing water from the creek.

Friend and part-time resident Mike Condon is trying to form a water district to assume responsibility for the system and get the financial burden off the Almquists.

“They (DEQ and other agencies) want a water system akin to the one in Spokane and there’s no way 30 people can support that,” Condon said. “It’s a terrible situation.”

St. Maries, Hope, Burke and several other communities are in a similar fix.

Hope is installing a new disinfectant system this month, called Miox, that reportedly doesn’t leave the water tasting like chlorine. The move is costing several thousand dollars.

Wallace and Mullan managed to win federal grants to build a high-tech membrane system to filter their surface water. St. Maries is considering a revenue bond election for February to pay for improvements to its system.

But the election route doesn’t always work. Last week, East Shoshone Water District failed to pass a $125,000 override levy to pay for the replacement of several water lines in its antiquated distribution system.

More funding options may soon be available, however.

With the reauthorization of the Clean Water Act this year, Congress made available $1.3 billion in federal dollars for a revolving loan fund specifically to help water systems meet federal requirements.

Idaho is slated to receive $14 million, but only if the state comes up with $2.8 million in matching funds.

“In the Idaho state budget, that’s a lot of money to ask for,” said Lance Nielson, chief of the state DEQ’s drinking water program. “We are very hopeful and optimistic that the Legislature will somehow find the money.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo Graphic with map: Water woes

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