Jeff King has to haul water by wagon with his two draft horses to keep his pigs, cows and chickens hydrated and to water his gardens. The salt content of local groundwater is far too high to drink and will kill his plants.
The cavalry has finally arrived for the salt-stricken residents of Plank Road, though its vanguard is a lone water buffalo.
The water buffalo, actually a 500-gallon, trailer-mounted tank filled with fresh water, is the first step in combating a long-standing problem with massively salty groundwater for homeowners. Arriving Friday is a 5,000 gallon tanker of fresh water.
Jeff King and Cheryle Saltmarsh, who live together on Plank Road, are organizing their neighbors to make a collective plea for assistance, and have a roster of a dozen others filling out nuisance complaint forms to submit to the Clinton County Health Department. Another resident came to them following the March 28 town meeting, where the town board declared the undrinkable water situation an emergency.
King started construction on his Plank Road home in 1997, when he was highway superintendent. When he first drilled his well, the water was great, he said.
Now, said Saltmarsh, “It’s like we’re living right on the ocean.”
Residents aren't sure yet what's causing the problem, but an investigation will soon be launched.
"If I were living on a salt mine, I'd be a rich man," said King. "But I know I'm not."
People had approached government entities for help one at a time in the past, said Saltmarsh, but were dismissed as having individual problems. Getting everybody to file complaints together was key to seeing action, said Saltmarsh.
John Kanoza, director of environmental health at the Clinton County Health Department, said the Environmental Protection Agency regulates the public water supply, but doesn’t regulate private wells. It’s the same for his department, which is tasked with enforcing the EPA’s regulations.
What his department does have is the nuisance complaint program and an emergency assistance program.
“This is clearly an emergency,” said Kenoza. “You’ve got to cut through the red tape and get something done as quickly as you can for the residents.”
That’s when they sent over the water buffalo, which has been filled and maintained by Dannemora town employees.
The State Emergency Management Office provided a trailer tanker, like the ones milk is hauled in, to fill with water and take to the afflicted neighborhood. The health department’s scrubbed and sanitized it, and will deliver it early in the week.
Clinton Correctional Facility is also involved in the relief efforts as the 5,000 gallon tanker will be filled there.
“Everybody has a part in this,” said Kenoza.
The state Department of Environmental Conservation and Department of Transportation will be investigating the cause of and possible solutions to the issue.
The area affected is close to the state Department of Transportation highway garage, and initial concerns are that salt there is leaching into the groundwater, causing the high levels of sodium and chlorine.
Recommended sodium levels in water shouldn’t exceed 20 milligrams per liter (mg/L), said Kenoza. Even that can be too much. Kenoza has high blood pressure, and he said that level can interfere with his blood pressure and cause health problems.
Though he doesn’t have a specific chemical analysis, the water tested has 11,000 mg/L of suspended solids. If that’s roughly half sodium and half chlorine, then the water may have more than 5,000 mg/L of sodium.
King and Saltmarsh have to boil water to wash dishes and the high suspended solid content has ruined appliances and plumbing fixtures. To get potable water, they’ve drawn from the spring for years, a practice the County Health Department frowns on as that water may contain e. coli.
Making the situation more stressful is King’s hobby farm. He has a couple beef cattle and other animals. He is daily worried about maintaining the animals’ water supply along with his own. The town meeting March 28 let out after 8 p.m., and King estimated that he’d need a couple hours to get enough water for his animals.
“This is 2012, and I’m living in the 1800s hauling water,” he said.
King said that despite the years of difficulty, he’ll keep pushing for a solution to the water problem. With no drinkable water, his property is worthless.
Recently, He couldn’t secure a loan against his land for a reverse osmosis machine to clean the water because the bank doesn’t see value in the land as collateral.
“I’m not going to stop. What I’ve worked for all my life is worth nothing,” said King.