BILLINGS — A recent spike in nitrate levels in the water at the Worden Ballantine Yellowstone County Water and Sewer District prompted officials to reissue a health advisory Tuesday to avoid drinking the water.
For the past few months the water system has had an acceptable level of nitrates, but the latest test found a spike above acceptable levels, said Gary Fredericks, a spokesman for the water board.
"We anticipated that with this very dry winter we’ve had and a lack of runoff, we were going to be facing a more concentrated level of nitrate. And sure enough, that’s what happened," Fredericks said.
The spike occurred because there is less ground water available at the source to dilute nitrates to a lower level, Fredericks said.
“We test pretty regularly, fairly constantly actually since we’ve been on the nitrate warning last year. We were watching the levels slowly creep up as the water table went down. We were anticipating that this could happen. That’s why the warning we put out says re-issue on it. Because it’s the same warning," Fredericks said.
Worden Ballantine water district officials are required to re-issue the nitrate advisory every 90 days. This is because the water system has been under a nitrate warning since last summer. That's when surface water was found to have contaminated the ground water.
“Quite honestly, we never recommended that people drink the tap water. Honestly, even the Montana Department of Environmental Quality left that up to the general public to decide for themselves based upon what they’ve read in the warnings that were issued," Fredericks said.
The district serves about 300 customers in and around Worden and Ballantine, including Huntley Project schools in Worden. It does not affect customers in the town of Huntley, Billings, Laurel, Shepherd, Lockwood and other parts of unincorporated Yellowstone County.
“The district boundaries follow pretty much the city boundaries of both towns. (The advisory applies to) the town of Ballantine, the Town of Worden and a very narrow area in between those two towns along the road. And that’s it. It doesn’t affect anybody outside of Worden and Ballantine," Fredericks told Q2 over the phone.
The miscommunication arose because the proper name for the district contains the words Yellowstone County.
“Yellowstone County is a part of our name because we are an organized board under Yellowstone County. So they assume right a way that its affecting them at their location in Lockwood or Laurel or wherever. And that’s just a misunderstanding," Fredericks said.
Here are some safety guidelines for water pertaining to residents in Worden and Ballantine.
- Do not consume or cook with tap water
- Do not boil water (this only makes the water more dangerous)
- People at risk of medical complications if consumed: compromised immune system, infants, seniors and pregnant women
Bathing, laundry, and washing dishes with tap water are all safe to do. When bathing young children however, make sure they don't drink the bath water by accident.
Pets are also okay to drink the tap water, Fredericks said.
“The biggest problem with the pets is that we’re chlorinating pretty heavily. A lot of people don’t like the chlorine. And I don’t blame them, I don’t care too much for it myself," Fredericks said.
"We all drink this water. We are all served by the very district we serve on as the board. Our children and grandchildren are affected as well. We are very eager to come up with a solution that is long-term and safe for the generations coming up. Hopefully they won’t ever have to deal with this," Fredericks said.
The problem for the water district is pinpointing where surface water is coming into contact with ground water. The Worden Ballantine system is fed through miles of underground collector drains. The point of contact could be anywhere.
“Finding it and fixing it has proven to be just about impossible," Fredericks said.
This has led the water district governing body to explore options to upgrade the current system, including wells and a water treatment facility.
Fredericks said wells create their own set of problems. The cost is about the same as a treatment facility and there's no guarantee wells will be clean.
"You don’t even know what the nitrate levels of those are going to be until you drill them. And you may end up drilling a well that’s got high nitrates ... There’s no guarantee that by drilling wells, it was going to be a permanent solution. And we’re going for a permanent solution," Fredericks said.
While Fredericks can't speak for the entire six-member board, he said it has been looking at the treatment facility option.
"But in my personal opinion that’s where we’re going to be. I think most of the rest of the board is probably in agreement on that. But we haven’t had a chance to vote on anything because we still have to look at our engineering reports," Fredericks said.
The board still has to see the engineering reports and present them to the public before making any final decisions.
Fredericks said there will be work done in the spring and summer towards a solution. But that solution could be a year or two off.
"We’re looking at a variety of financing options too. The bottom line is that we don’t want to wait very long. We’re just as tired of this as the public is. We have to do it in a sensible way and one that can be supported long term," Fredericks said.
Bottled Water Distribution
Last year, Worden called on the greater community for help in the form of bottled water donations. Fredericks said the community stepped up to help.
“We were able to fill our building and a semi trailer full of donated water. We only recently ran out of those supplies," Fredericks said.
The Worden Ballantine water district was giving away two pallets of water to residents per week on average, Fredericks said. While the need isn't necessarily dire yet, Fredericks said more bottled water donations would be welcome.
“We are still looking for more because we’ve got a lot of storage room. And we’re going to have to continue doing this for a while. We still have our semi trailer here. We need to fill it up … if we could get pallets of water, we would love to get them," Fredericks said.
To donate, get a hold of the water district office at 2449 Main St. in Worden by calling 406-967-2550