The quality of drinking water for the City of Grand Ledge is an inconvenience, not a health risk, Public Service Director Larry LaHaie said. Many residents believe they are paying too much to be inconvenienced.
The city has a multistep water treatment process that removes iron and adds fluoride, LaHaie said.
“The treatment process, we pump it from wells and then it goes through an iron removal process, where actually it’s aerated and the dissolved iron in the water then bonds with the oxygen so that it can be filtered through, it’s like a sand filter almost,” he said.
“After that it is chlorinated for disinfection and we add phosphate for corrosion control,” he said.
The phosphate creates a thin film on the inside of the water pipes, which prevents lead and copper from leaching into the water, LaHaie said.
Lead levels not a health concern, treatments precautionary
“I’ll hasten to add that we have not had a problem with either lead or copper in our drinking water,” LaHaie said. “Just as a precaution we started doing that.”
The iron removal process is not perfect, so there is residual iron in the water mains, LaHaie said.
“It accumulates in places where then it comes out of solution in the mains,” LaHaie said. “At times, those sediments may get stirred up and residents might pick up some of it and get a brown water.”
LaHaie said those occurrences are rare, and that addition of phosphate should help offset the effect of any residual iron.
Michigan Department of Environmental Quality employee Mark Joseph elaborated on the water filtration process in an email.
“Chlorine is added as disinfectant to prevent bacteria from occurring in the drinking water,” Joseph said. “The city also adds fluoride to prevent tooth decay and began adding phosphate for corrosion control in July 2017.”
In 2017, only 10 percent of residents had six parts per billion or more of lead in their drinking water, which is significantly below the action level of 15 parts per billion. Only at that point, action must be taken, Joseph said.
Joan Rose, a professor in the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife at Michigan State University, said that lead levels can be difficult to monitor because the amount of lead in the water is not consistent.
“It kind of comes and goes,” said Rose. “It kind of sloughs off, you know, with the water. It’s sitting there and then a piece breaks off and it shows up at the tap. So you never know when you’re going to get a dose.”
Steve Mercer of Home Town Appliance in Grand Ledge said he gets calls every day from residents whose appliances have been damaged by calcium or iron buildups. The minerals accumulate “just like plaque in an artery” and can clog pipes and valves in appliances such as dishwashers and washing machines.
Mercer said he has seen new machines damaged in as little as six months. His repair services cost an average of $200 for parts and labor, and he usually recommends an in-line water filter to customers whose appliances were damaged by water.
The water is natural ground water, which is hard water, due to naturally occurring erosion. A water softener will solve the problem, LaHaie said.
Water softeners usually cost about $60-70 at a home improvement store, said Mercer.
Rose said the amounts of minerals that may be present in water systems that meet the primary health standards are nothing to worry about.
“You’ll get the same amounts or more from your food every day,” said Rose.
Janice Beecher, a professor in the Department of Economics at Michigan State University and director of the Institute of Public Utilities Policy Research & Education, said it would probably cost less to address the water hardness problem centrally than for every household to purchase their own softener, but a system change like that would probably be reflected in future water rates.
On community Facebook pages, residents complained about the water quality, but the Department of Environmental Quality did not receive any complaints about a chlorine taste or rusty water, Joseph said.
“I would encourage the resident or residents to contact the city so that the city may be able to assist the resident or residents in resolving their concerns about the water quality they are receiving,” Joseph said. “They have the staff and water quality test kits to verify chlorine and iron levels at the residents location. I would be happy to talk to the resident or residents if they want to contact me or I can contact them.”
Residents are concerned for several reasons about the quality of water in Grand Ledge.
“My concerns with the condition of the water are with my family’s health,” said Carrie Carlson. “Since the Flint water crisis, I’ve really been worrying about what is in our water. Why is it as hard as it is for ‘city water?’”
Several residents have complained about corrosion and the taste of the water, as well as the discoloration.
“It tastes horrible and is undrinkable unless you have a good water filtration system. Even with a water softener, the water had floaties in it,” said Heather Childs. “The taste and poor quality bother me most. I’ve never lived anywhere with such poor quality of water.”
The water turns white clothes brown within a few washes, said Carlson.
Most residents are aware of using a water softener to combat some of the corrosion, but say the softeners themselves have to be replaced often because of the buildup of minerals.
“If you’re paying for treated water, it should be fully treated and you should not require a water softener,” Childs said. “I’ve heard many stories about people going through water softeners in record time due to the mineral buildup and water quality.”
Drinking water discoloration is more likely to occur when the system is flushed, so the public should be warned ahead of flushing dates, said Bethel Skinker, DEQ’s Lansing district supervisor.
“So the people can know that some disturbance in the water mains while they are flushing could impact their water quality that’s getting to their homes,” Skinker said.
There was almost no water discoloration during the fall 2017 system flush, LaHaie said.
“Historically we flush the whole system as do most water systems in the spring and again in the fall,” LaHaie said. “We tried to do it last fall here and it was almost no discoloration, the water we were flushing. We didn’t get through the whole system, we called it.”
Several factors influence utility prices
Residents are not only unhappy with the quality of water they receive, but the price they pay for it as well.
“The price is my second biggest problem,” Carlson said. “It’s outrageous. For a family of five, we are paying $200 a month at least, sometimes it’s more.”
Mercer said he went to City Hall to complain about the water and was told, “OK, pay your bill.”
“I feel I don’t get listened to when I complain about it being expensive and the quality being poor,” said Mercer.
When he lived in Lansing, Mercer said his water bill was about $35 per month. In Grand Ledge, he pays about double.
There are many reasons water rates can fluctuate between cities, said Beecher. Variances can be based on the source of the water, the amount of treatment needed, and even population density.
The cost of water utilities is determined by primary safety requirements set at the federal level, as well as secondary characteristics like taste, color, and hardness, which are usually decided on by the individual water system, said Beecher.
Beecher said the price that customers pay is determined by the cost, but it can be raised to cover system improvements, risk management, or other government budget areas.
“At a minimum, you have to spend enough to make sure you’re meeting all the standards,” said Beecher. “But then, you know, there’s a lot of talk about what’s the right service level, and if people are unhappy that’s something that the community probably needs to come together about and have that conversation.”
Dealing with water quality can be like hitting a pothole on the road, Beecher said. If your car goes out of alignment, you wouldn’t expect the government to pay for it. However, at some point, the public may come together and decide that fixing the pothole is something they’d like to spend money on to avoid future problems.
City Administrator Adam Smith declined, via email, to answer questions regarding water, deferring to the city’s public statement from December 2016.
“Although the original public statement is from last December, it remains relevant and applicable today; December 1, 2017,” Smith said in an email.