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On January 1, 2017, the KHI News Service became part of KCUR public radio’s new initiative, the Kansas News Service. The Kansas News Service will continue to cover health policy news and broaden its scope to include education and politics. All stories produced by the former KHI News Service are archived here. Stories and photos may be republished at no cost with proper attribution and a link back to KHI.org.

Turning from the tap

Uncertainties about water quality in Hiawatha create tough trade-offs for low-income families

By Sarah Green | August 11, 2015

Turning from the tap
Photo by Sarah Green Mike Nichols, city administrator in Hiawatha, says the city is working to secure funding, including federal grant money, to build a new water treatment plant with the capacity to serve surrounding water systems.

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.

Natalie Horton doesn’t drink the tap water in Hiawatha. Neither does her 2-year-old son Silas. 

Photo by Sarah Green Natalie Horton buys bottled water at Wal-Mart for herself and her 2-year-old son Silas rather than drinking water from the tap in Hiawatha that has high nitrate levels.

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She already thought the water smelled and tasted funny. About a year ago, she read a Facebook post from a friend that said the water in Hiawatha wasn’t safe to drink. 

“I heard we had nitrates in our water, so now I buy only bottled water,” she said. 

Horton, 29, who is beginning work as a certified nurse assistant at a senior care home, said she buys at least two cases of water each month from Wal-Mart in order to avoid the chemicals, which are regulated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and primarily used in fertilizers.  

She spends about $4 for each case of 24 plastic bottles, or $8 total. She uses her public food assistance benefits to purchase the water. 

“I’m really good about managing our money and buying the necessities first,” she said. “Water is a necessity. Later in the month, I might have to make some choices between other things. But we always have water.” 

Horton said last year she called the city’s water department, which told her that the water was safe for most people to drink, with the exception of pregnant women and babies younger than 6 months. 

“If they say it’s safe, I believe them,” she said. “We shower in it, and cook in it, and wash our dishes in it. But I won’t drink it.” 

‘A sensitive situation’ 

Mike Nichols has been the city’s administrator since December 2013. 

He has worked in other cities with water remediation projects, including one instance when a business improperly disposed of chemicals, affecting the city’s water quality. 

The nitrate situation is more difficult, he said, because there is no single source of the contamination. Nitrates are used in fertilizer in both urban and rural areas, are sometimes naturally occurring or can be found in runoff from animal feeding facilities. 

They are often found in especially high concentrations in rural areas with a great deal of agricultural land. 

“Unfortunately, the residents in the city and the businesses in the city bear the brunt of the cost,” he said. “It’s a sensitive situation.” 

Hiawatha’s water system has been operating under a consent agreement with the Kansas Department of Health and Environment since September 2014 because of high nitrate levels, he said. The city has shut down one of its water wells south of town because of the high levels in that location, he said, and the state must test the water each quarter. 

The city is in the process of securing funding, including federal grant money, to build a new water treatment plant with the capacity to serve surrounding water systems, Nichols said. 

The high nitrate issue isn’t new.  

“I wish we could have fixed it yesterday,” he said. “It isn’t pleasant.” 

City staff and elected officials have a hard time distributing factual information and counteracting rumors, Nichols said. A current concern among those in Hiawatha is how the city’s elderly residents might be affected by its tap water.  

“KDHE says they aren’t a population at risk, but that information is still going around,” he said. 

A frustrating expense 

Jennifer Mendez’s doctor told her to avoid drinking Hiawatha’s tap water when she was pregnant with her oldest daughter. 

Photo by Sarah Green Jennifer Mendez’s doctor told her to avoid drinking Hiawatha’s tap water when she was pregnant with her oldest daughter. She also used her SNAP benefit to purchase water, regularly hauling home 3-gallon bottles she filled at a filtered tap at a local store.

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She also used her SNAP benefit to purchase water, regularly hauling home 3-gallon bottles she filled at a filtered tap at a local store.  

“It was cheaper for me to reuse my own,” Mendez said. “When you have an infant, you go through a ton of water. I put it in her bottles, and had to use it to wash all the bottles and nipples.  

“It’s frustrating, because you are choosing between water and other things. And you still have to pay for the water from the city, but you can’t drink it.” 

Mendez’s daughters are now 6 and 4, and she still buys bottled water for her family. She also has purchased a water filter, which makes the water taste better and makes her feel safer. But she’s worried about additional drawbacks. 

“Now that I have little kids, I know that fluoride is the best thing for their teeth,” she said. “When kids don’t drink tap water, they’re missing out on all the fluoride that could be helping them.” 

Each morning, she said, she fills up a reusable water bottle provided by the parent-teacher association at her oldest daughter’s school. Each child receives a bottle at the beginning of the year, she said, which comes home every night for cleaning and refilling.  

Mendez isn’t sure about the source of nitrates or the specific health effects. She said she wished the city would do more about the issue, but she hasn’t spoken with any elected officials about her concerns. 

“It’s frustrating, because you are choosing between water and other things. And you still have to pay for the water from the city, but you can’t drink it.” 

- Jennifer Mendez, whose daughters are 6 and 4

“I know I’m just one person, and sometimes that’s all it takes,” she said. “I don’t even know if it’s just me. People who can afford water probably don’t care. But when people have to pick and choose, it’s kind of a big issue.”  

‘Get good information’ 

The Hiawatha City Commission meets about every two weeks, Nichols said, sometimes more often, with frequent public presentations about the city’s water situation. Every meeting includes a public comment session. 

“It’s hardly a packed house,” he said. “Usually there are two citizens who show up for every meeting. I know people have busy schedules, and sometimes the last thing you want to do is to sit through a city commission meeting. But that is another place for people to ask questions and get good information.” 

And Nichols has a firsthand understanding why people in Hiawatha are concerned about the city’s water. 

“I drink tap water, and our kids are growing up — the youngest is now 4,” he said. “My wife wants a reverse osmosis system. I keep telling her to hold on, we’re building a treatment plant for that. I fight this even at home.”