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In central Illinois, small towns face a big responsibility to protect water quality

person gets a cup of water
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Like many communities in Central Illinois, Danvers' water supply comes from the Mahomet Aquifer, an underground resource that runs underneath more than a dozen counties and provides more than 220 million gallons of water a day for over half-a-million people.

The wording on the public notice the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency required the Village of Danvers to circulate was difficult to miss — bold and in all capital letters, its two instructions were simple: DO NOT GIVE TAP WATER TO INFANTS, DO NOT BOIL THE WATER.

Dated Dec. 20, the public notice was the byproduct of routine testing of the village's water system around a month earlier, on Nov. 24. Those results showed Danvers' water had violated a state standard for manganese — a mineral that, if ingested in excess, causes health problems.

Shortly after that notice was distributed to village residents, an 800-member Facebook group called Danvers Village Public Information lit up with seemingly more questions than answers and, in the absence of answers, fear about the community's water source.

"The only reason I found out was because of social media," Sherry Nevius, a 20-year Danvers resident told WGLT. "Had they done a better job of letting us know, I probably wouldn't have been really upset about it."

In a way, the situation playing out in the Tazewell County-bordering town (with about 1,000 residents) that sits about 20 minutes west of Bloomington highlighted long-underlying challenges facing some Illinois public water supplies: Their location makes them more prone to having water with higher contaminant levels, and towns with small staff have to navigate water systems that, in the past few decades, have shifted from being hands-off to requiring professional-level knowledge to operate them.

Initially, as comments on social media debated whether the village's water was safe to drink at all, or give to pets, WGLT reached out to Mayor Chris Siscoe and water superintendent Brad Bode for context. But neither Siscoe nor Bode responded to repeated requests for comment.

So, in the absence of context provided by local government leaders, WGLT spoke to water quality experts, the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency and Danvers residents to understand what, exactly, was happening with the village's water — and whether or not concerns about it had been overblown, or underscored.

Here's what we found out.

'The problem we have in Illinois is that a lot of our groundwater has high levels of manganese in it'

Like many communities in Central Illinois, Danvers' water supply comes from the Mahomet Aquifer, an underground resource that runs underneath more than a dozen counties and provides more than 220 million gallons of water a day for over half-a-million people.

Despite whatever images the word "aquifer" may inspire in layperson's mind, the Mahomet Aquifer isn't an underground body of water, like a river or a lake.

Instead, it's a thoroughly-soaked rock, or piece of sediment — like sandstone, gravel or sand — that has absorbed water over the years. The water seeps down from the surface and is pulled deep underground until it can no longer drain — or, in technical terms, until it hits "impermeable" rock. As the water is pulled downward, a natural purifying process occurs.

According to Illinois State Water Survey groundwater hydrologist Steve Wilson, the quality of that water varies, depending on where it's being drawn.

"It's really dependent on the source material that's in the aquifer," he told WGLT. "For instance, in Champaign County, we see a little bit of arsenic, but not a whole lot, whereas in Tazewell County, there's a lot more of it. That's just because there's more natural arsenic in the grains of the aquifer — in the sand and the source material."

Arsenic is an apt example for Danvers: From 2006-2016, the state EPA issued 42 notices to the Village regarding elevated levels of arsenic in its water. Following the completion of a $3.2 million water treatment plant in late 2015, there have not been any notices issued for arsenic since 2016.

In fact, government records show no violation notices of any kind were issued to the village until late 2021.

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The public notice provided in Danvers about the drinking water. This was dated for distribution on Dec. 20, 2021.

So what, if anything, changed between 2016 and 2021?

A spokesperson for the state EPA told WGLT in a statement that it wasn't the standard for manganese levels in water itself.

Known as the "maximum contaminant level," the state standard for public water systems serving 1,000 or more people has been a maximum of .15 milligrams of manganese per liter, a rule that has been in place "for decades and has not been changed," IEPA spokesperson Kim Biggs said.

Aesthetically, the presence of the naturally occurring mineral in water in high enough levels can cause discoloration, staining of appliances or smell badly.

But the MCL rule is designed as a protective measure against excessive consumption of manganese, which can lead to neurological difficulties in children and, over a prolonged period of time, various nervous system disorders like Parkinson's Disease.

Illinois' standard for how much manganese is allowed in public water supply is stricter than the federal EPA's, which allows for 0.3 milligrams per liter, an amount the agency has decided is the maximum amount that is safe to consume over a "lifetime" without a person experiencing "potential neurological impacts."

"I think because of the recent understanding that manganese is more than a static problem, it makes sense that they're enforcing that rule," Wilson said. "The bottom line is that it's a good thing that they're requiring communities to meet the manganese standard."

Wilson also added that high levels of manganese in water from sand and gravel aquifers in other parts of the state — meaning the issue is "not unique here."

"The only way to know, though, is to test," he said.

The standard for testing for the contaminant, along with it's maximum acceptable level has not changed, according to IEPA spokesperson Biggs, and has been in place "for decades."

Biggs said that what has changed is what treatment options it will allow regarding manganese. Until "recently," the state allowed water treatment plants to put a chemical into the water supply that would effectively neutralize the affects of manganese.

Biggs said the state no longer allows that practice, known as "sequestration" because it "...could result in increased lead levels in drinking water."

Because neither Danvers' mayor or water superintendent responded to requests for context on the matter, it's unclear whether this process was ever used at the new water treatment plant.

The notice that Danvers residents received in late December said the problem was with a "media filter" that had not been working properly; at board meetings in early 2022, Bode detailed the processes of ordering a replacement and having a company representative visit the site to go over "operating parameters."

'The old days — just coming in and reading a couple of meters and mixing a batch of chlorine — are gone'

The work of Bode and others publicized at trustee meetings and detailed in government records exemplifies a shift in the job of a "responsible operator" of a public water supply system, Illinois Rural Water Association executive director Frank Dunmire told WGLT.

"Nowadays, it's a profession," he said. "That's what we've been impressing on the water and wastewater operations specialists out there: The old days of just coming in, reading a couple of meters and mixing a batch of chlorine, are gone."

"It is becoming more difficult to get 'responsible operators in charge' — that's what the state calls them," Dunmire said. "Trying to get those people licensed is a job itself, as is trying to get small municipalities to realize, 'Hey, we don't have a laborer anymore ... We've got a professional now and we have to step up to the plate, raise the rates and pay operators accordingly.' You've got to make it more appealing to get in and not micromanage them."

Dunmire said that at a recent conference, he told a group of water operators that he could summarize the issue some municipalities are facing in two words: Elected officials.

"The bottom line is that it's a good thing that they're requiring communities to meet the manganese standard."
Illinois State Water Survey groundwater hydrologist Steve Wilson

"We need to get them trained," he said.

In Illinois, people who are elected to positions like that of a village trustee are not legally required to go through training regarding public water supplies. While not every municipality operates its own water supply, Dunmire said he believes training elected officials would help them better understand their role in maintaining the water supply.

Water operators "are usually working for a city council, village board, something like that," he said. "I've had mayors walk into water treatment or wastewater treatment facilities and tell them, 'You need to do this or that.' And (the operator will say) 'You can't do that here. You're not licensed — it's my name on that sheet of paper, not yours.'"

Dunmire said that, among the best things that local government leaders can do to support their water superintendents or operators, is take stock of the big picture — like finances and infrastructure needs — and act accordingly.

He also said he's sympathetic to the plight that operators in small towns are in whenever a violation does come down from the state. In some cases, the state has changed a standard that now puts the supply in violation suddenly.

In the case of manganese levels, he said, he believes the change at the state level is that "now they're enforcing it."

"Changing something that you've been consuming for 20 or 30 years... to something more stringent — would it bother me as a consumer? No," he said. "Every water operator out there does his best to treat the water to the best of their ability and resources available to them from their administration, because they and their families are also consuming that water."

'Have a better system of notifying us'

Residents who spoke to WGLT said the levels water itself wasn't the most jarring aspect of the news.

Elizabeth Boyer Wood said she'd lived in the area long enough to know that she wouldn't give straight tap water to an infant — and she wouldn't drink it herself without a filtration system. That's just part of life with that town's water supply.

When the manganese issue was publicized in late December, Wood said she'd seen a woman with disabilities on Facebook saying she was out of water.

"I took her a case of water, but I was just like, 'How many other people don't have Facebook?' Or, maybe some didn't get the letter, or maybe got it and didn't read it," she said. "Why didn't they notify us all sooner? It doesn't make any sense."

Nevius, who also said she wished village officials would have notified everyone faster than they did, said she never received a letter — nor did anyone else in her apartment complex of Briarwood Manor.

"Had they notified us in a timely manner, say within five to seven business days of when they knew this happened, I wouldn't be so concerned because that would have given me ample time to get water," she said. "But to only be able to find out through social media, or on Facebook — there's a problem. I just want them to have a better way to notify us."

It could be that local village leaders agree that a better notification system could be put in place: Text messages received by Siscoe, Danvers' mayor, indicate a frustration with the town's primary means of communication: Facebook.

One text to Siscoe on Dec. 29 read, "Have you been keeping up on the Danvers FB site? I hate to sound like a broken record, but we really need to be keeping the community updated about the water. Maybe something can be posted tonight? Thank you, Chris."

In response, Siscoe said he'd spent time at the plant, working on the issue alongside Bode, adding, "I do not get on Facebook. I find it to be unhelpful in any situation (personal opinion of course). Have been considering deleting my account since I don't look at it anymore."

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