Carson river water users battle arsenic

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Cory McConnell, Nevada Appeal

FALLON, Nev., May 21, 2004 -- While Fallon's taps have been gushing treated water for more than a month, many other western communities are still wondering how they will cleanse their drinking water of arsenic by a fast-approaching 2006 deadline.

The federal standard for the cancer-causing heavy metal in community water systems will drop from 50 parts per billion to 10 ppb effective Jan. 23, 2006.

For seven communities along the Carson River from Carson City to Churchill County, dropping arsenic in drinking water to the new limit will cost $20.3 million, according to a recent study - and that doesn't even factor in future population growth.

The report released by the Carson Water Subconservancy District last month outlines the most efficient ways to meet the new standard for major water systems in Gardnerville, Douglas County, Indian Hills, Carson City, Stagecoach, Silver Springs and Churchill County - all the major systems within the Carson River watershed.

The solutions range from drilling new wells to blending water with low-arsenic supplies to water building new treatment plants.

None of the suggested projects are the scope of Fallon's $17.5 million arsenic-removing water treatment plant, but CWSD Manager Ed James said most of the communities will still likely have trouble paying for them.

"I think they're all going to ask for extensions," he said.

The nearby city of Fernley has already received an extension. That municipal water supply, which hovers just under the old standard, won't have to meet the new limit until 2009 - three years after the rest of the nation.

In those three years, Fernley Public Works Director Kurt Kramer hopes the price of arsenic-removing technology will drop dramatically.

The city of Fallon met the new arsenic standard nearly two years ahead of the national deadline, but it received more than $16 million in federal funds to do it. Most small communities are trying to figure out how they can raise the money to meet the new standard too.

Most fix-it methods the subconservancy report suggests involve abandoning or minimizing consumption from arsenic laden resources.

In a desert, where water is a precious commodity, James said abandoned water supplies will eventually have to be re-tapped to keep up with population growth and be treated for arsenic.

But a series of pipelines and new wells could, James said, hold off the construction of treatment plants until their technology improves and their prices fall.

In the meantime, the subconservancy district is trying to build a coalition of affected communities to lobby for the kind of money Fallon received. It's too widespread of an issue, James said, to not get congressional attention.

"This isn't just a Carson Watershed issue, it's a huge issue for the whole West," James said.

In Nevada alone, about 140 community water systems are over the 10 ppb threshold.

Since the federal government mandated the costly new arsenic standard, James said the federal government should pick up some of the costs.

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