BILLINGS - Residents in Worden and Ballantine may be without clean tap water for a year or longer as officials try to pinpoint where surface water is penetrating the ground water that supplies the Worden-Ballantine Yellowstone County Water and Sewer District water system, officials said Tuesday.
Yellowstone County health officials said Tuesday that all customers using the Worden-Ballantine water system are not to drink or cook with water from the tap. Boiling tap water only serves to make it more dangerous. Only bottled water is safe.
The problem started in May, when high nitrate levels prompted a warning for infants to avoid to consuming tap water.
Worden-Ballantine water district board spokesman Gary Fredericks said a solution can't be found overnight.
"Could we get lucky? Yeah," Fredericks said Tuesday. "Do I think we will? Probably not. We’ve got an unknown quantity coming from an unknown source in a long system of infiltration that ultimately ends up as our water supply."
Fredericks said this summer water from the Worden-Ballantine system twice tested above the acceptable limit for nitrates. Those spikes were an indication of the ground water being contaminated.
In July, the Montana Department of Environmental Quality ordered a microscopic particulate analysis from the Worden-Ballantine system. The test had to be sent to Denver so technicians could count every particulate with a microscope. Results took about a month to come back.
"Our test failed," Fredericks said. "They found things in our water that are not supposed to be there. The microscopic test proves that the surface water got in."
This leaves water system staff between a rock and a hard place.
The usual solution for residents would be to boil tap water before consumption. Boiling kills any harmful pathogens or microorganisms found in the water.
But there is no telling when nitrate levels may spike again. And Fredericks said boiling water only serves to concentrate nitrates to a higher level.
"This is a dangerous problem because we don’t know when and if other microbes might find their way into the system because we don’t know where it’s coming from. " Fredericks said.
Water district staff are pulling maps from the archives that date back to the original Huntley Project irrigation system in the 1930s - all to try to pinpoint the origin of the contamination.
The contaminated water is a problem for the Huntley Project School. Students from Worden, Shepherd, Huntley and the surrounding area all send kids to school there. The first day of school at Huntley Project is Wednesday.
The town of Huntley operates on a separate water system that has not shown contamination.
Fredericks figures it's a long shot to try and pinpoint the source of contamination. But water district staff are working to find it. Fredericks said the long term solution may be the construction of a water treatment plant.
"Hopefully we will find something that is an obvious source," Fredericks said. "If that's the case and we can shut that off and our testing returns to normal, we may have bought some time. Even then it won’t be a permanent solution because of the type of system we have. We may be facing a water treatment plant."
In the mean time, the roughly 400 customers hooked up to the Worden-Ballantine water system are told to only drink and cook with bottled water. The tap water is not safe for consumption.
The water district only has about one pallet of bottled water to give away to residents in the area. That pallet is only being given to parents of infants aged up to six months.
"We’ve got to give it to the most acute risk we can find which are those children,"
The communities of Worden and Ballantine are searching for water donations and volunteers to help distribution.
If you are able to donate water, it can be dropped off at the Worden-Ballantine Yellowstone County Water and Sewer District office at 2447 Main St. in Worden between the hours of 7:30 a.m. and noon.
If you can't make it during those hours, give them a call at (406) 967-2550 to arrange an appointment to make a drop off.