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Thursday, April 28, 2005 09:59 am

Got water?

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COVER PHOTOGRAPH BY NICK STEINKAMP

Since he was a child, Brett Dixon’s drinking water had come from the brick-lined well in his family’s front yard. Their home — a quaint stone structure tucked behind a row of blue spruce on Route 97 — is a former schoolhouse from the Civil War era. Dixon marvels that children wet their whistles from the very same source more than a century ago.

But today, Dixon shudders at the notion that a child or anyone else would dare drink from the well.

“I’m afraid for my neighbors,” he says. “People don’t realize it, but the water’s just not safe out here.”

Dixon learned this lesson the hard way.

Six years ago, he contracted a bacterial infection that ravaged his intestines. He experienced intense nausea and upper-abdominal cramps that plagued him for months.

“My bones hurt; my body ached; I thought my stomach would explode,” he says. “I felt like calling in a coroner.”

His doctors blamed the well. But the alternative, Dixon quickly discovered, was expensive. He plunked down $1,000 to install a concrete cistern and filtration system and now spends $1,500 a year to have water hauled to his home.

Dixon says he wishes he could tap into a public water main, but none runs near his property. This may seem odd, given that Dixon lives just five miles west of Veterans Parkway and two miles south of a public water plant.

“It’s not like we’re in the hillbilly boondocks,” he says.

Today Dixon, 46, is a member of We Want Water, a politically active grassroots organization whose members insist that water should be provided to all residents who live within the Curran-Gardner Public Water District, just west of Springfield.

Officials estimate that more than 500 households, or roughly 20 percent of all those in the district, lack access to public water. And like Dixon’s, the vast majority of private wells are said to be contaminated and potentially harmful.

We Want Water’s demands have stoked a surprising amount of controversy, pitting neighbor against neighbor in an area where development is putting new pressure on rural-level services. Some residents support dramatic steps: A few wouldn’t mind if the city of Springfield expanded water service to the area, while others want to resist any urban encroachment.

But all agree: Change is inevitable — and costly.

The Curran-Gardner Public Water District extends east-west from Veterans Parkway to just beyond Farmingdale Road and north-south from the winding Sangamon River past Interstate 72 to Mansion Road.

One of about 100 in the state, the rural water district was created in 1966 with the help of a grant and a 40-year federal loan. The district’s boundaries have swelled over the years. Most recently, in 2000, it annexed three new territories, adding hundreds of homes. Today the district comprises an extensive maze of some 60 miles of water mains and serves about 2,000 households — three times its customer base in 1970.

As the district has changed, so, too, have the expectations of those living within its borders.

Melge Meier represents what some call the water district’s old-guard leadership. He engaged in a bitter public feud with We Want Water that led to his resignation in 2002 from the Curran-Gardner Public Water District Board after serving 16 years, many of them as chairman.

During the district’s early years, Meier says, many households opted to use their own wells rather than tap into public mains. “There has never been an expectation that everyone in the district would be served by public water,” he says.

We Want Water has tried to change that by framing the issue as a public-health emergency. Five years ago, the group had some 250 wells in the district checked. Samples were collected and passed on to the county health department for testing. Nearly 80 percent of the wells —­ some of which are hand-dug and predate the Civil War — were found to be contaminated.

Meier says that although most wells were safe back when the water district was first formed, the widespread use of farm chemicals has polluted private water supplies with nitrates and other toxic elements. Other wells may simply need repair. A poorly sealed lid or cracked bricks in a well’s frame may make the well susceptible to surface contamination from rains or burrowing animals.

Compounding the problem, most wells in the district were installed before the state’s passage of well-safety regulations, according to Jim Stone, director of the Sangamon County Public Health Department.

“There’s a litany of wells out there that could be problematic,” Stone says. But, he quickly adds, “In 15 years, I’m not aware of any waterborne illnesses reported in Sangamon County.”

Stone’s assertion is hard to swallow.

Public-health officials warn that because of their weak immune systems, infants and the elderly are most susceptible to illness contracted from contaminated drinking water.

Brett Dixon isn’t the only person in the rural water district known to have gotten sick in the way he did. A 3-year-old boy named Christopher Dillon contracted an intestinal virus that required the removal of nearly half of his colon. He spent a month in an intensive-care unit, hooked to a dialysis machine, and suffered a series of seizures that doctors worried would leave him brain-damaged.

“It was the scariest thing I’ve ever experienced,” says Karen Wills, the boy’s mother.

Wills says that her son’s doctors suspect that the child became ill after drinking well water pumped at the family’s home, located in a small subdivision off Farmingdale Road just south of the district’s lone water tower.

After six months, Christopher’s colon healed and the colostomy he had undergone was reversed. Today the healthy 8-year-old dreams of one day driving a tractor on his own farm.

But his illness is frequently cited by those who pushed for action by the water-district board.

Two summers ago, when Luke Roy became the manager of the Curran-Gardner public-water plant located on Hazlett Road, the challenges he faced seemed overwhelming.

“I don’t want to criticize, but the water district was seriously struggling when I got here,” says Roy, who was formerly employed by the city of Waverly.

Roy’s problems started as soon as he took the job. Two of the district’s four wells, all of which are located on the north side of the Sangamon River, across from the treatment plant, were contaminated by bacteria in a recent flood. Roy relocated these wells above the floodplain — something, he says, that should have been done long before.

“There’s a lot of things I definitely would have done differently,” Roy says.

The problems go beyond contaminated wells, which remain the sole source of water for hundreds of households in large expanses of the district.

Bob Dalton, who in 2003 became chairman of the seven-member Curran-Gardner Public Water District Board, is concerned that the district’s infrastructure is not equipped to handle a major fire. This is particularly worrisome, he says, for Pleasant Plains Middle School and Farmingdale Elementary School, which share a block along North Farmingdale Road.

Dalton explains that many of the water lines in the district come to a dead end. Connecting, or “looping,” the lines would dramatically increase the number of gallons of water per minute that a hydrant could deliver.

“There’s a real problem of insufficient fire flow to those schools,” Dalton says. “Hopefully we can get it fixed.”

We Want Water chairman Jim Mitchell blames the water board, most recently led by Meier, for allowing the district to devolve into its current state of disrepair.

Meier says that financial constraints kept the board from expanding the district’s infrastructure. The board has no power to levy taxes, he explains, so most of its annual operating budget comes from the water sold to customers. “We Want Water thought that by making a lot of noise, the board could come up with money to run water lines to them,” Meier says. “But this was not a high-dollar operation — we weren’t in a position to run pipes all over the place.”

But Mitchell contends that the water board was incompetent and shortsighted. He says that the board neither created a master plan for the district nor aggressively pursued state and federal grants to help maintain and expand the area’s infrastructure.

Mitchell also accuses the board of cronyism, recalling its dubious decision to install a water main along Farmingdale Road that connects to a former board member’s home but bypasses a subdivision on Roberts Road with a dozen households that continue to rely on bad wells. Christopher Dillon, the 3-year-old who became deathly ill, lived at the time with his family in the Roberts Road subdivision.

Meier says no favoritism was involved: Residents could have paid to install a main to serve their subdivision but elected not to.

A few years ago, Mitchell requested and examined some of the water board’s records, including audits dating back a decade. Those records led him to believe there were financial irregularities, but he says he never verified his suspicions.

“My goal was to get water to everybody,” says Mitchell, a retired homicide detective for the Sangamon County Sheriff’s Department. “My goal wasn’t to arrest anybody.”

In 2002, We Want Water succeeded in its first step of wresting control from Meier and the other members of the water-district board.

For decades, the Republican-controlled Sangamon County Board appointed the district’s board members. We Want Water successfully pushed for a ballot referendum to let voters decide whether to elect their trustees. The referendum passed, and We Want Water immediately began slating its own candidates for the board.

“We had to break up the ol’-boy clique,” says Tom Owens, a founder of We Want Water and former chairman of the Sangamon County Democratic Party.

The campaigns for the board were surprisingly contentious, especially in light of the fact that trustees serve without compensation.

We Want Water sought to paint the board as incestuous and ineffectual; board members distributed fliers condemning We Want Water’s “radical agenda” to “force drastic increases for current water customers.” Both sides complained of dirty politicking.

On the surface, the district’s first-ever election, held in November 2002, didn’t yield much change. Six of the old-guard board members kept their seats. We Want Water gained some representation as Mike Irwin, the group’s original chairman, won a seat on the board.

The real shift in the board occurred a week later. At the first water-board meeting after the election, Meier publicly announced the termination of veteran water-district employee Todd Folder, who openly supported We Want Water during the campaign. Meier cited poor job performance as the reason for Folder’s dismissal, though some suspect it was retribution.

Then, to the surprise of many, Meier and vice chairman Jim Davis both resigned.

“Today we have a financially sound district, a controlled budget, and an experienced, good manager,” Meier said in his resignation letter. “I wonder what the future will be. Remember that I did not vote for the mess you are about to get into.”

Despite Meier’s apparent hope that the board would collapse without his leadership, much progress has been made since his departure.

The current water board bumped the water rates for the entire district and tied future rate increases to inflation. We Want Water members say that the old board, led by Meier, allowed the infrastructure to languish by not increasing the water rate for several years at a time.

The board has also stepped up efforts to receive government loans and grants.

In January, the board submitted an application for a $400,000 grant from the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity. The grant, which may be issued next month, would be used to extend water mains into Springfield Township, a low-income area located in the northwest part of the water district where wells have tested positive for fecal coliform bacteria, nitrates, and other contaminants.

The board has also requested a $4 million loan from the U.S. Department of Agriculture that would be used to maintain the district’s infrastructure, expand the water plant by building two more wells, and erect a pair of new water towers on the northern and southern ends of the district, one of which would be located near the Pleasant Plains and Farmingdale schools.

“There’s still friction between We Want Water and some board members,” says Dalton, the board’s current chairman. “My attitude’s been ‘Let’s not point fingers; let’s work together and find solutions.’”

Earlier this month, We Want Water quietly expanded its influence on the water board with the election of prominent local attorney Don Craven, who has lived in Gardner Township for most of his life.

Craven, who in 2002 made an unsuccessful bid for the state Legislature against Springfield Rep. Raymond Poe, says that Mitchell, the We Want Water chairman, tapped him to run for the board.

Mitchell says his reasons for recruiting Craven were twofold. First, Craven sympathizes with many of the concerns raised by We Want Water, even though his own home has access to a public water main.

More important, Mitchell says, it may be beneficial to have a lawyer with a track record of successfully suing municipalities on the water board to help stop Springfield’s westward expansion.

“I am prepared to take aggressive legal action to protect the interests of this water district,” says Craven, who will be sworn in as a trustee next month.

When the rural water district was formed nearly 40 years ago, Springfield’s western boundary ended at Chatham Road. The development boom triggered by the construction of White Oaks Mall a decade later has stretched Springfield’s corporate limit past Veterans Parkway and, at some points, even beyond Bradfordton Road.

According to state law, the city can offer water and sewer services to customers within a mile of its borders. Many of the new subdivisions that have sprouted in the water district in recent years are connected to Springfield-owned water mains operated by City Water, Light & Power.

Springfield officials predict that the city will one day absorb several outlying rural communities as it continues its westward expansion.

“Eventually we’re going to take them over,” says Todd Renfrow, general manager of CWLP. “It’s just the way the city’s moving.”

Residents of the water district haven’t had much to agree on in recent years, but they appear to be uniting against a common enemy: urbanization and further encroachment by the city of Springfield.

This may seem self-defeating; annexation into the city could mean an expansion of water mains to people such as Brett Dixon who spend boatloads on water.

Earlier this month, voters elected to incorporate Curran as a village. Now members of both the water board and We Want Water talk of incorporating Gardner Township as a way to fend off the city’s advances.

“We don’t like to see Springfield expansion into our neighborhoods,” says Irwin, the water-board member. “We like the quiet life. We don’t want to see any more dense populations out here.”

Such sentiments are commonly expressed by residents of western Sangamon County. But, like it or not, the countryside is becoming more citified every year.

“This area’s going to expand,’ Mitchell says. “It’s just a matter of how to control it.”

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