Editor’s note: Throughout this week, KHI News Service will publish a series of stories that explore water issues in four Kansas communities and regions, including how people access water, the economics of water and challenges of drinking it. Freelance journalist Sarah Green interviewed more than 50 Kansans in person, over the phone and via email over seven months to find these stories.
Contaminated water is just a part of life in the south-central Kansas farm town of Pretty Prairie.
The city of about 650 in southern Reno County has had a problem with nitrates in its public water supply for more than 20 years.
It’s impossible to point to the exact source of the contamination of the aquifer that feeds the city’s main wells. Nitrates are used in fertilizers applied to cropland and lawns. The town’s agricultural roots are hard to miss, with grain elevators located next to the high school and agricultural equipment and related businesses scattered throughout the city.
The EPA’s maximum limit on nitrates in drinking water is 10 parts per million. Tests on Pretty Prairie’s water have found that it contains 20 parts per million.
A matter of routine
In the human body, the nitrates become nitrites, which rob infants of oxygen. The chemicals contribute to methemoglobinemia, or “blue baby syndrome,” in which infants can become gravely ill or can die.
City officials, who test the water routinely, have purchased bottled water for pregnant and nursing women and their infants — the two groups considered at risk for health effects from nitrites — for the last 20 years or so.
It’s a matter of routine here for pregnant women and new moms: Sign a piece of paper at the clipboard behind the desk at the city office building and receive a voucher for water. Drive a block down the street to Strohl’s Oil Company — the town’s supermarket closed some time ago — and turn in your voucher to the clerk. Leave with four gallons of water at a time. Come back when you need more.
“I find out when all the women in town are pregnant,” said Kay Volpe, a clerk at Strohl’s. “I have to find out if they are telling people or if they are keeping it a secret, so I don’t get in trouble.”
The city does a “real good job” of getting the word out about the free water, Volpe said. Word of mouth is a primary communication tool in Pretty Prairie; the city also alerts families of the program when they move in and come to the city office to set up their utilities.
City residents, by and large, are content with the program.
“It’s a free service,” said Dennis Detter, a teacher and assistant coach for the Pretty Prairie school district. His family received free water most recently when his wife was pregnant with their fifth and sixth children, daughters who are now almost 2 and 4. “Why not take advantage of it?”
Addressing the problem
The city has been able to satisfy state and federal regulators with its responses to the elevated nitrate levels in the public water supply, said James White, the city’s treasurer. The bottled water program has worked well for the city, he said.
But now Pretty Prairie faces stronger pressure from state and federal public health officials, White said, to further address the problem. One possible solution is a treatment plant that could cost up to $2.5 million.
The city has hired an environmental attorney from Wichita to interact with the Kansas Department of Health and Environment and the Environmental Protection Agency. An engineering firm has drawn up plans for a couple treatment options. A hydrogeologist has tested the city’s water wells.
An older solution never implemented because of the cost — a pipeline that would bring in clean water from a nearby community — could be back in play.
“When you’re looking at a $2.5 million treatment plant and you see oil and gas pipelines running all over the county, maybe it’s not so bad after all,” White said.
Another option that the city and its residents appear to favor, but regulators like less, would be to install a point-of-use filter in individual homes.
Regardless of which option they find to be most feasible, city officials need to come up with some cash in a hurry.
Last year, the base charge for water for Pretty Prairie residents increased from $16 to $22, White said. A few households that use city water but are outside of city limits saw their charges increase from $22 to $44, he said.
Depending on the treatment option that the city decides upon, that base charge could increase to $80 or $100 in the coming months.
“There are people who sleep here and then travel to Wichita to work who will have to come home to pay a $100 water bill,” White said. “Hopefully people won’t move away because of that.”
White, who grew up in Pretty Prairie, knows about the town’s water supply issues. He left town to attend college and work, then came back to be closer to family.
His mother, because she is older, prefers to buy bottled water. But he drinks the water. So do his kids.
“People drink it all the time,” White said.
‘Never had an issue’
Casey Adkins, who works in the repair shop at Strohl Oil Company, also drinks the water.
“I’ve never had an issue with the water here,” he said. “Most people in Pretty Prairie live to be very old. We’ve got a woman in the nursing home who’s 102. They’ve been drinking the water their whole lives, and there’s nothing wrong with them.”
Others have installed their own home filtration systems. Tammy Payne, a secretary at Pretty Prairie Grade School, said she and her husband purchased their system when her children, now 12 and 11, were very young.
She received bottled water from the city when she was pregnant, although she said the contamination “wasn’t as bad” then.
“But we drink a lot of water in our house,” Payne said. “And if it’s not safe for anyone under 6 months, I figure it’s not safe for anyone.”