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Riesel gets state loan to remedy arsenic water woes

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The city of Riesel, which has been out of compliance for two decades for the levels of arsenic in its water, is the beneficiary of a no-interest, multimillion-dollar loan from the Texas Water Development Board to help fix the dilemma.

The board passed a resolution last week approving $5.86 million in financial assistance, which includes a $5.36 million, no-interest loan and a $500,000 grant — or “loan forgiveness” — from the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund for water system improvements in the eastern McLennan County town of 1,300 residents.

The focus of the project is to reduce the naturally occurring arsenic content in Riesel’s drinking water supplies. To do that, the city plans to drill a new, shallow well in the Brazos River Alluvium Aquiver that will provide low to no arsenic concentrations. The city will blend water from the new well with water from its current system to dilute the arsenic content to acceptable levels.

Riesel’s groundwater supplies in the Trinity Aquifer routinely exceed the maximum level for arsenic of 10 parts per billion, with test results being as high as 32.2 parts per billion, according to the Texas Water Development Board. The 10 parts per billion standard has been in place for 20 years.

Riesel City Secretary Alisha Flanary said city workers regularly test the arsenic levels in the city’s system, and the levels average 13 to 15 parts per billion.

“You would never know it was there,” said Flanary, a lifelong Riesel-area resident. “It doesn’t affect the taste, and the safe level used to be 50 parts per billion before the EPA (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency) lowered it. There is actually arsenic in our air, in our water, in our fruits and vegetables. It is a naturally occurring metal that is everywhere.

“We have this water coming from a well that is 3,500 feet deep, so it is going to be naturally occurring there. We all drink the water as city employees. We all grew up on it and we have seen no ill-effect and no evidence of anyone getting ill. If there was, there would be immediate action,” she said.

The EPA changed the threshold in 2001, based on studies indicating long-term ingestion of arsenic at lower levels could increase risks of certain cancers, cardiovascular disease and diabetes. The lower limit also allows for variation in individuals’ ingestion of arsenic from sources other than water and variation in individuals’ ability to metabolize arsenic.

The city has been in violation since the EPA began requiring compliance with the lower threshold in 2006 and has been under enforcement by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality since 2010.

Besides the new well, the project includes a new pump station, new ground storage tanks, a disinfection system, blending equipment, pipes and other equipment, according to the city’s funding request to the Texas Water Development Board.

The city expects the design phase to be completed by March 31, 2022, and construction to start by Sept. 1, 2022. Construction should be done by February 2024, according to the city’s proposal.

Waco attorney Mike Dixon, who represents the city of Riesel, said the city is appreciative to the Texas Water Development Board and that the project would not have been possible without the board’s loan assistance program.

“Every water supply corporation and a lot of cities are dealing with these very same things,” Dixon said. “Almost all the water supply corporations going up Interstate 35 are part of a cooperative working to deal with their arsenic problems. This is a challenge for water supply companies and small municipalities all over the state.”

The delay between the new EPA limit taking effect in 2001 and the 2006 start of compliance requirements followed reviews of the costs of complying with the new standard, including for smaller water systems.

Dixon said the arsenic levels in the water should not pose a risk to customers.

Flanary said a 90-year Riesel resident walked into City Hall and complained that the arsenic content in his drinking water caused his male pattern baldness. City officials were skeptical of his claim, she said with a laugh.

“We are extremely fortunate that Texas has this program,” she said. “The Texas Water Development Board has assisted us to receive this funding at 0% interest, and that saved us millions of dollars. We have been researching this for 10 years now, and they want us to go ahead and take care of it.”

Dixon and Flanary said city officials have been planning for the water improvements for years and gradually have been increasing water rates in anticipation of the project. The city, which has a $2 million annual budget, will issue certificates of obligation to fund the loan and will pass along the additional cost to Riesel residents. However, Dixon said it will not be a drastic increase.

According to Texas Water Development Board proposals supplied by the city, an average residential water customer using 7,000 gallons a month pays $64.50 for water under current rates. The projected water rate would jump about $4 a month, the proposal indicates.

Riesel Mayor Kevin Hogg said the arsenic level in the water “doesn’t seem to be a level of high concern” for his constituents.

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