FERNDALE - City officials did not know in advance that hard water from Ferndale's wells would stain or damage fixtures and appliances.
The consultant hired to steer Ferndale through the conversion from Nooksack River water to well water last year was not looking for this problem, according to data logs and memos from the city's water treatment plant and the consultant, RH2 Engineering.
In an interview, RH2 project manager Dan Burwell said water hardness is not a concern when testing a new water source because minerals are not a health hazard. It isn't even an inconvenience, the consultant said, as long as residents and businesses maintain appliances and equipment properly.
The Ferndale council unanimously acknowledged that the city's hard water is a problem it would like to fix. At the very least, it is willing to see how much the fix will cost. The council voted 7-0 on Dec. 3 to hire a different consultant, Wilson Engineering, to outline citywide water-softening options.
Dozens if not hundreds of residents and businesses have complained about the calcium in the water creating a bad taste and causing problems with everything from dishes to hot-water heaters.
The study will determine what it would cost to return the water to hardness levels typical of the Nooksack River, which provided Ferndale's water through the Public Utility District of Whatcom County from the 1970s through 2011.
That would mean coming up with an industrial-sized system for reducing the mineral content of the well water by more than half. River water was typically on the low end of the "medium hard" range, about 70 parts per million. The well water fluctuates but in recent months has been in the middle of the "hard" range, at 154 ppm.
Officials from the city and RH2 Engineering said they didn't know the water would be this hard. RH2 took four hardness measurements from 2007 to 2010 in the run-up to the switch, two in each of the city's two wells. Samples from Douglas Well, the harder of the two wells, were 111 and 116 ppm - at the high end of "medium hard."
RH2 acknowledged a much higher reading of 164 ppm from Douglas Well, from a different consultant in 1994. Even so, based primarily on its own measurements, RH2 reported to the city in a Jan. 17, 2012, memo that its well water would be "medium hard."
The consultants have been pressed to explain why the water has been so much harder after the switch. It could have to do with the unusually dry summer and greater-than-usual water use by farmers, they said at a Sept. 17 council meeting.
To have any chance of isolating causes for such a spike, water samples would need to be taken over three years at least, said Mike Olinger, the city's chief water treatment plant operator.
Before the switch, RH2 was more concerned with high levels of manganese and ammonia. They aren't health risks; the well water was clean in that regard. Manganese can stain laundry, and ammonia can lead to a bad taste and odor. The city successfully corrected the manganese and ammonia levels, according to RH2 reports and city data.
Even recent hardness levels around 150 ppm that have resulted in equipment working improperly or needing replacement don't qualify officially as a contaminant on the level of manganese or ammonia.
"That's considered, depending on your source, moderately hard to hard, but it's not extremely hard. So that's where we are," Burwell said. "We've met the intent of state law with respect to (water) source approval."
Burwell and City Council member Jon Mutchler have both said the solution is simple. Owners of appliances should follow recommendations for how often to clean and maintain them, to avoid stains or potentially damaging mineral buildup.
"There are many municipalities across the country that have much harder water than we do, and they live with it," Mutchler said in a Dec. 20 interview. "People rectify the situations at their homes, or they become accustomed to it. Our problem is, we had become accustomed to softer water."
Laurel Grove resident Garin Wallace said his water tests in the 180 to 200 ppm range for hardness, and he has put up with stained dishes, balky faucet shut-off valves and a coffeemaker that quits mid-brew. He doesn't think the suddenly higher hardness levels should be the responsibility of the water customer.
"Do you know anybody that flushes their hot-water tanks? I don't," Wallace said. "Most people don't have that ability."
Mutchler did say he was intent on fixing the hardness problem. Others on the council were less concerned about it.
Council member Paul Ingram said at the Sept. 17 meeting that no one in his homeowners association of more than 100 members had complained. He suspected water quality varied from one neighborhood to another. Olinger said water hardness should not vary within the city.
Mel Hansen on the council also had not seen adverse affects of the hard water at his home.
"Perhaps my water is hard, and I'm just more tolerant," he said.
Council member Brent Goodrich has been most vocal on behalf of residents dissatisfied with the water.
"I've complained a lot about the water since it was changed over," Goodrich said in an interview.
"Initially it was the taste. ... I didn't like it at all," he said. "As I used the water, I realized the mineral issues."
Mayor Gary Jensen still hears one complaint a day on average about the water, he said. He has urged the council to take action.
"Hardness is a real problem, and it leaves a residue. It's difficult for certain equipment," Jensen said at the Dec. 3 council meeting. "This isn't just, 'I don't like it, and I'm going to switch from Pepsi to Coke.'"
After the Wilson Engineering study, which should be completed in March 2013 at a cost of up to $30,000, the council probably will have a difficult decision to make. In its Sept. 17 presentation, RH2 said a water softener at the treatment plant would cost roughly $1.2 million to $1.4 million, plus $40,000 to $80,000 in annual costs.
The city will get $200,000 from the PUD as a refund, essentially, for payments Ferndale made for system improvements the city no longer uses. Council members have said that money will go toward the water-softening project.