While the murky, odorous drinking water emerging from the taps of Sedalia over the past week is now running clear — officials say a few “pockets” remain in the lines in some areas — the future of Spring Lake as a water source remains somewhat cloudy.
Over the Independence Day weekend the city water supply was, through human error, mixed with an excess of water from Spring Fork Lake. A surface water source, the lake water gave the potable water supply a murky look, a musty smell and an earthen taste. While the water was harmless according to water officials, it was less than pleasing to the palette.
Sedalia Water Department Manager Charles Brosch said as soon as they discovered the problem they started to rectify it.
“We shut the lake off as soon as we found this out,” Brosch said. “We started flushing different areas around town where the complaints were coming from. The flushing like that and the usage we have every day and mixing the well water into the system has pretty much taken care of it.”
Now, after a week of flushing and the public using the water, only a few pockets remain in certain areas.
“We do get a call every now and then. There are still a few pockets of it out there that people are complaining about, but our calls are likely to be one or two a day from an area, and the guys go out and flush that area. It’s just about all gone right now,” Brosch said.
While the water department’s primary water source is deep wells in various locations, Spring Fork Lake does contribute to the supply. However, the future of the lake as a water source remains uncertain.
“This problem came from the lake. The only thing we can do, if we are going to use water from the lake, is be prepared for it,” Brosch said. “We have to know at certain times we are going to be on our toes, catch this as it comes into the plant, and stop it there, before it goes out into the system. Again, it’s just the taste and odor — it’s not bacterial contamination you deal with — when you deal with a surface water supply.”
That taste and odor comes from decaying plant matter, dead fish and animals and other organics, according to Brosch.
“You’re dealing with a surface water supply that has everything under the sun into it,” Brosch said. “Our guys are out there trying to take all this out, but every once in a while you are going to have something get through and over the years this has happened countless times.”
Cutting off the supply from Spring Fork Lake is an option on the table, but there are drawbacks. Well water is of much higher quality, but also has a much higher mineral content. This in turn requires a water softener at the home or treatment center itself, or residents facing higher home maintenance costs related to mineral build up in hot water heaters or other plumbing fixtures.
“It’s a catch 22 — it’s kind of a trade-off,” Brosch said. “You get into having to soften this well water, so that you don’t have these problems, and that’s very expensive as well. What are you going to do with the sludge that this softening creates? You have to have a disposal area for that and it’s one thing on top of the other.
“We have done a balancing act over the years trying to blend the lake water with the well water to create water that’s not going to give us a problem with taste and odor and it’s not going to ruin the hot water heaters. You also have a brown color that we have to treat over there and algae blooms from time to time. It’s difficult to treat this surface water.”
Dredging the lake, in order to return it to its original condition, may be a partial solution, but there are obstacles to that process as well.
“Eventually we are going to have to do something. The lake is silting in to a point where we have a very small window of usability in that lake,” Brosch said. “If we dredge it, we’ve got to have someplace to put all that silt and it’s a huge amount of silt that would come off that lake. There is no place around there that would take this stuff and land apply it.”
Even if the department could find a disposal method for the silt, the process is cost prohibitive at this time. If they do restore the lake in the future, the department is still dealing with a surface water supply that is open to contamination and all of the state and federal regulations regarding such sources.
“We’ve had estimates of anywhere from $5 to $10 million. This is not anything new. We’ve talked about this for years,” Brosch said. “We knew this was coming and we’ve tried to make the best decision for the community. Right now, looking at Spring Fork Lake and the cost of rehabilitating it, it’s just too much.”
A water system based completely on deep wells may be the best option, Brosch said. He said the lake is becoming very shallow and was never designed to supply a city of this size, adding that the central Missouri aquifer, based on engineering studies, is in no danger of running dry.
“That lake is just not that big. People say ‘what about a drought? You’ve got to have it as a backup for a drought.’ Well, surface water is the first thing to go,” Brosch said. “You get a drought and you are pulling 1 to 2 million gallons a day out of it (Spring Fork Lake), you’re going to be able to watch it go down. I have been here for 40 years and I have seen it. This groundwater is just the way for us to go right now. It’s not just me saying it, engineering studies have told us the same thing.”
Thus, the future of Spring Fork Lake remains unclear at this time. While the public was never in danger from contaminants, the department fielded several calls about the quality of the water. Whether the item will appear on the agenda at the next department meeting is not confirmed, but the issue will likely be discussed.
The department will meet again at 8:30 a.m. Wednesday. The meeting is open to the public.