Since the water level in Mountaintop reached historic lows in January, it’s been an uphill battle for residents.
The water system, which in some areas is almost 100 years old, has problems that span nearly a decade. In the past three weeks, residents have been describing water that is brown and filled with dirt, that cuts off sporadically or smells too strongly of chlorine. Some even reported the water has given them rashes.
Jim Yost, chairman of the Mountaintop Regional Water Authority, said things are “in much better shape” than they were eight months ago at the height of the water crisis. The things people are complaining about, he said, are mostly due to the MRWA improving the water system.
DEP steps in, water authority must submit ‘corrective action plan’
The state DEP has been keeping a close watch over the MRWA since the events of January 2018 that Yost calls a “critical condition.” At that time, the system was experiencing water outages due to extremely low water supply and the water was not safe to drink, so MRWA issued a boil water advisory.
DEP entered into a consent order and agreement with the water authority in June, said Megan Lehman, community relations coordinator for DEP’s Northcentral regional office. Under the agreement, MRWA must submit a “corrective action plan” to DEP by Dec. 24, 2018, which must include a “detailed schedule of actions that will be taken to correct the violations identified in the order.”
Some of those violations include having unmetered service connections, 40 percent or more unaccounted water loss, an inadequate supply of water and failing water lines. MRWA’s plan must include waterline replacement projects that will help reduce unaccounted for water by 10 percent or more, repairs to failing water lines and finding another water source to supplement existing water sources.
So far, said Yost, MRWA has not submitted that plan, but Ken Belden, an engineer from Gwin Dobson and Foreman in Altoona, is in charge of drafting the plan. Belden could not be reached for comment on this story.
But if the authority does not submit a plan or find other sources of water to feed the system, it could face civil penalty under the Pennsylvania Safe Drinking Water Act. The maximum penalty for violating the act is $1,000 per day for each violation.
Fixing the system
In order to fix the leaks caused by high pressure, the MRWA has to shut off the water before cutting the pipes to patch the leaks. Compared to January, when the water was down to merely 2 feet above the pumps in some areas, many residents’ water tanks are full and leaks have been fixed on their service lines, said Yost.
During the weeks of Oct. 15 and Oct. 22, MRWA was installing pressure reducing valves and meter pits in different locations within the water system. “The installation of the valves are required repairs to help isolate locations for leak detection,” wrote MRWA Treasurer Lori Rigg in a Facebook comment.
“They will be installing pressure-reducing valves along Route 879 and also installing a meter pit at the crossroads of Routes 879 & 144. Customers in these areas may have little to no water pressure and cloudy or dark water. After the completion of the projects, the main lines & hydrants will be flushed,” said a release sent out by the MRWA three weeks ago.
Along Route 879 to Pine Glen, there were several miles of water pipe and no meter to alert the authority if there is a leak, Yost said.
“Overall, it’s gonna help tremendously,” said Yost.
But the fixes come at an expense. The meters cost around $34,000 each plus the cost of the pit, valving and labor. Pressure reducers are around $8,000, plus the valving and cost to install them.
“We’re spending a lot of money to make the system (better),” said Yost.
Mountaintop residents: water is ‘not in any condition to drink’
Though MRWA is required by law to notify its customers before doing work on the system, Melanie Hockenberry said she never got such alerts.
“I was given no warning of any work being done,” she wrote in an email. She sent a photo of brown water coming out of her bathtub, saying the picture was about a week old.
“Water is still yellow,” she wrote, “but definitely not in any condition to drink.”
Other residents said they still do not trust the water. Dana Tumbleson, who works for and is a resident of Snow Shoe Township, said he and his family “buy bottled water for our own sake.”
They don’t allow their animals to drink the water from the system, instead opting to give them water from mountain springs in the area. There are a few spots people go to, Tumbleson said — Devil’s Elbow near Yarnell, the spring on Reservoir Road near Interstate 80 and the spring on Ridge Road near Clarence.
“I’m sick and tired of paying for water I can’t even give to my animals without worry,” said Ashley Hauser, a mother of three who lives in Moshannon.
Hauser and her family have to buy a case of 24 bottles of water multiple times a week.
“That is adding up to the point where we aren’t going to be able to afford getting safe drinking water,” she wrote in an email. “There are springs around here we go to fill up on fresh water, but that is still using my gas and resources when I’m already paying for water I should be able to drink and have access to whenever I need it.”
And it’s not only safety that is an issue with the water.
“The toilet no longer flushes correctly due to sediment buildup,” wrote Hockenberry. “And I know my clothes and washing machine are getting ruined from the water.”
Tumbleson said he had a similar experience with his toilet.
“If you get too much dirt (in the water), it messes with the guts in the toilet,” he said. With too much dirt in the toilet, he said, the water starts to run more to compensate for the added mass, which is a waste of water and a costly repair to make.
But Bonnie Gunsallus, who works for the Mountaintop Sewer Authority, said she thinks some residents are being too hard on the water authority.
“People don’t understand that it’s an old system,” she said.
Tumbleson, too, said he knows the water authority is doing all it can to fix the leaks in the system and get the water level higher. He doesn’t have a Facebook account, but he said “it’s a shame” what people say on the website about their water and the water authority.
“I think they’re too hard on (the MRWA) sometimes,” he said.
Authority acknowledges problems with communication
The Mountaintop water authority alerts its customers of any work being done on the system through an emergency notification and alert system called SwiftReach, said Yost.
The authority also posts updates and alerts on Channel 4, the local cable news channel.
But while the authority has tried to make sure it has updated phone numbers for its customers, Yost said it is missing new contact information for many people.
On some of the water bills that get sent out, the authority has included a reminder to customers that they must update their phone numbers by calling the authority.
Typically, said Yost, if the water authority knows ahead of time when and where maintenance crews would be doing work on the system, they will notify customers who are shown to live in that area where work is happening.
Recently, the water authority’s secretary found that the map they had been using to identify areas where customers lived was not accurate, Yost said. There was no way to calculate how many people may have missed being called because of that error.
But sometimes, there is an emergency leak and no time to notify all the customers that work is being done, said Yost.
What’s next for Mountaintop?
Though the water authority is still two months away from submitting a corrective action plan for the water system, residents feel they can’t wait for the situation to improve.
“We are desperately looking for another place in Milesburg or surrounding areas due to the Mt. Top water,” wrote Hockenberry in an email.
Hauser, who has been a resident of the area for almost her whole life, said the water situation over the past year and a half has been “outrageous.”
“People keep saying we shouldn’t be complaining but I pay my water bill to have water. Not for it to be out for 2 days, dirty the days following, and still having to purchase water,” she wrote in an email. “I’m really hoping the community can come together and find an actual solution because we are at our wit’s end and we have 3 small children along with animals who need water every single day.”