Brown water becomes a way of life
By ALEX LEARY, Times Staff Writer
SOUTH DUNNELLON -- For as long as anyone cares to remember, the water that pours from the taps in this tiny community of timeworn homes and dirt roads has been awful.
It smells and looks funny and has an off-taste, not that many people care to pour a glass. To wash clothes without a splash of Iron Out is to risk a trip to the department store.
"You have to let it run because if you don't, it will be brown," said Mable Smith, 60, who works in a foster home on Lefant Terrace. She opened the refrigerator and held up a pitcher. "You see that? It's got a little brown to it."
Unable to afford repairs to the private system, which is more than 20 years old, and with patience wearing thin, the South Dunnellon Water Association went in search of a solution.
Community leaders thought they found one in the form of a $750,000 state grant. The money would pay for a new well, farther from the Withlacoochee River, and water lines that do not leak.
"We were all slapping one another on the back," recalled Zoe McLendon, president of the water association.
It only seemed easy. Over the next few months, the optimism would fade, leaving behind bitter feelings toward county government.
South Dunnellon once again felt like an outcast.
Residents accuse county of ignoring their needs
The water association could not seek the grant on its own. Under state rules, the paperwork has to be filed by a local government, in this case Citrus County. So South Dunnellon residents began a lobbying campaign.
"The grant window is open until May 2002, so time is of the essence," resident John Rogers wrote in a February letter to county officials.
That window has shut and South Dunnellon, never a player in county politics, is feeling the pinch.
Residents accuse the county of ignoring their needs in favor of a higher profile concern: the Chassahowitzka and Homosassa sewer projects, which have been the recipient of millions of grant dollars in recent years.
"All of the grants have been going to that area. All we needed was one grant, for one year," McLendon said.
"They should have just told us we were wasting our time," said Rogers, who met with county staff and appeared at County Commission meetings.
Located at County Road 488 and U.S. 41, and not far from the Marion County line, South Dunnellon is home to only a few hundred people, mostly African-Americans.
With the exception of the stately homes on the bank of the Withlacoochee River, the dwellings are small, their sand driveways filled with tired economy cars.
"Just about all the people here are on fixed incomes and most don't go out to vote," said McLendon, who ran unsuccessfully for County Commission in 2000. "So we tend to be ignored by the politicians."
County officials deny favoritism is at work, even though some acknowledge the appearance.
"I understand their perception that some of the wealthier areas seem to be getting help," said Commissioner Josh Wooten. "But I'm not ready to concede that."
South Donnellon ranked low in priority of projects
Deciding which project to submit for state funding came down to an analysis by Summit Professional Services, a Tallahassee consulting firm the county hired.
Aside from the South Dunnellon and Chassahowitzka/Homosassa concerns, the firm also considered a housing rehabilitation package.
South Dunnellon did not fare well. Grants consultant Lisa Oakes said the project would score low under the Community Development Block Grant program, in part because there were no matching funds, unlike the Chassahowitzka proposal.
Another problem, she wrote in an e-mail, was the association had not obtained documentation from a state agency "certifying that there are any health problems that can add points to the application."
In public meetings and in interviews with the Citrus Times, McLendon has suggested that the water may be making people sick. Several residents on the 187-customer system have developed cancer and other illnesses, she said.
"I don't believe too much in coincidence," McLendon said as she gave a tour of the pump house, located next to a baseball field off U.S. 41.
Her words have gained attention, yet McLendon concedes there is no proof to back her suspicion.
County Health Department records reveal no organic or radiological contaminants in excess of allowable limits, according to a summary by Gary Maidhof, the county's director of development services.
Iron and other "secondary" contaminants were found at high levels but "these are deemed aesthetic, not health concerns," Maidhof wrote in his report.
Further, state inspections have determined a series of operational deficiencies related to iron filters, he said, adding the problems can lead to colored and odorous water that can lead people to believe their water is contaminated.
"It's a nuisance in that it stains things and gives the water a bad tastes," said Marybeth Nayfield, the health department administrator. "But healthwise, it is no problem."
Still, Nayfield plans to investigate the cancer claims further by interviewing the residents McLendon said have become sick.
What is not in question is that the water system is a major inconvenience. The problems have come and gone over the years, but most residents stick to bottled water for drinking.
"I'm just afraid of it," said Sylvia Gunter, a school custodian who spends $38 a month for Culligan water service. "I'll cook with it, but I let it run awhile."
Other residents complain their laundry can turn brown if the iron levels are high. The water system has filters but they have not always worked.
The problem is exacerbated by brittle water lines. Earlier this year, McLendon said, between 4-million and 5-million gallons were lost over a two-month period before the source of a leak could be pinpointed.
Some officials say it would not make sense to get water from the city of Dunnellon because they would be running more expensive water through the same cracking pipes.
There is also the possibility that residents could drill their own wells, which could be a less costly option than replacing the existing infrastructure. But McLendon said residents have tried wells in the past and the water has suffered from the same iron problems.
County vows to look for alternative funding
Despite passing over the project for the state grant, county officials have pledged to look for alternative funding sources.
"We're trying to help them all we can," said Assistant County Administrator Ken Saunders, adding that the grant consultant is due to report on possible sources by May 22.
South Dunnellon's water system is already saddled with debt, so residents reject the possibility of a low-interest loan. The average water bill is $20, according to McLendon, and that amount would increase with more debt.
In flusher economic times, the possibility of obtaining a different grant would be easier. But with the state and federal budget tight, South Dunnellon may be looking for a while.
"There's not a lot of money out there," Maidhof said in an interview.
With about 200 private water systems in Citrus County, South Dunnellon is hardly alone. The county is identifying the top 12 systems to take over, opening up a much larger funding source, but South Dunnellon has not been considered because the next closest county water line is relatively far away in Hernando, Saunders said. If grants are not available, Saunders believes a solution could lie with the proposed buyout of Florida Water Services by the Florida Governmental Utility Authority, a four-county consortium that buys willing utilities and keeps ownership until interested counties and cities are ready to take on the debt.
Florida Water, which operates 15 systems in Citrus that serve 7,000 customers, has a line near South Dunnellon that could be extended, he said. Doing so, however, could result in higher water bills because residents would pay connection fees to cover the cost of expansion.
The $520-million buyout is meeting resistance from local governments that feel the costs to customers could be too high, among other concerns.
What will happen next for the residents of South Dunnellon is unclear. If grants are unavailable this year, community leaders will once again ask the county to seek funding in the next Community Development Block Grant cycle.
"If we don't get that grant next year and it goes to Chassahowitzka," McLendon said, "I think that's a crying shame. We need the money."
© 2006 • All Rights Reserved • Tampa Bay Times
490 First Avenue South St. Petersburg, FL 33701 727-893-8111