WORDEN — About 300 customers hooked up to the Worden Ballantine water system have been without clean tap water for more than a year and a half, as the Montana Department of Environmental Quality reissued a high-nitrate advisory Monday.
"Basically, nothing has changed. Our water is still under advisory and will remain that way until we develop a new water source that meets all of their requirements," said Gary Fredericks, board member of the Worden Ballantine Yellowstone County Water and Sewer District.
For safety, people in Worden and Ballantine should not drink or cook with water from the tap. A common water purification technique of boiling does not work, and only serves to further concentrate the nitrates in the water. Pregnant women or infants six months or younger are especially at risk of health complications from consuming water with high nitrate levels.
The water is still safe to wash clothes, dishes and bathe in.
The advisory does not affect people in Shepherd, Lockwood, Billings or Laurel. Read the full high nitrate advisory by clicking here.
Since the summer of 2019, many residents in Worden and Ballantine have been getting their consumable water from a bottle. The water district's governing body has been trying to find a solution since then.
“People have more or less have had to deal with it on their own. We do supply bottled water to people that need it, who can’t afford it or just plain need our help. We’ve been doing that. That’s been a continuing challenge, but we’ve been able to meet that challenge so far," Fredericks said.
The problem lies with the current water system, Fredericks said. Nitrates seep from surface water into the ground water, then into miles of underground collector drains. Finding a main source of contamination has proven unsuccessful.
Fredericks said the board has opted to drill water wells instead of construct a treatment plant. So far, six test wells have been drilled, four of which made it to the required depth of 25 feet underground, Fredericks said.
“So far, so good. We also believe (wells) give us the most long-term protection until or unless we eventually do have to build a treatment plant somehow or another. But not in my lifetime, I’m hoping," Fredericks said.
The wells were a cheaper and faster water system to implement over the treatment plant, Fredericks said. A treatment plant would have required the water board to purchase land, run piping and build the plant itself, a more expensive option than wells, Fredericks said.
“Water wells, if they’re drilled within the system, it’s a short haul from there to our main lines. So the piping wasn’t as big of an issue. We also get rid of the ground water problem and we don’t have to build a treatment plant. We’ll still chlorinate the water, but we won’t have to build the filtration system and all of that," Fredericks said.
The eventual production wells will be drilled about 25 feet under the earth, far away from any surface water that may contain nitrates and poison the well, Fredericks said. Water district staff are also testing other wells in the area to ensure the new drilling doesn't negatively impact other water levels, Fredericks said.
“In the long run, each well as it comes in can be put online and when we reach a volume of water that is suitable to meet our daily needs, we’ll be able to shut down the other system, even if we’re not completely done with all of the wells. Because we’re putting in enough wells to make sure that we have an overabundance of water," Fredericks said.
When construction is complete, Fredericks said the price tag will be more than $1 million.
“It’s going to be well over $1 million before we’re all done. That’s a lot of money for this little area. That’s a lot of money for this district. We’re working with granting agencies and the Department of Natural Resources. There’s a lot of hoops you have to jump through and that’s what’s been taking the time," Fredericks said.
Even though the high nitrate notice says the date the problem will be solved is in 2023, Fredericks said that's accounting for the worst-case scenario. He said the wells should be up and running before that date.
“Even though the notice said 2023, I would like everyone to know that’s allowing for a whole lot of problems that we hope we don’t have," Fredericks said.