Drinking water problems linger long after flooding

Jeff Vonder, right, an employee of Omaha's Municipal Utilities District, hands Kim O'Connor of Pacific Junction, Iowa, a jug of water he had filled from MUD's emergency water supply. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — Several communities along the Missouri River continue to struggle to restore drinking water service weeks after massive flooding swept through the area.

People who live in the affected Nebraska and Iowa towns have had to adjust to boiling water before drinking it or relying on bottled water while officials work to repair the damage. The challenges each town faces after last month’s flooding differs, but they share the goal of restoring safe drinking water service quickly.

Last month’s flooding caused more than $3 billion damage in Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas and Missouri when spring rain and melting snow combined to overwhelm area rivers and inundate towns and land. But the damage is still being tallied.

In Glenwood, Iowa, officials used a boat this week to reach one of their three wells inside the water treatment plant and make repairs, while the other two wells remain underwater. But getting a well up and running is only part of the process. Glenwood City Administrator Angie Winquist said the city’s water pipes and towers need to be flushed and refilled before the water can be tested.

“It will be at least a couple more weeks, but that’s better than a couple months,” Winquist said.

Restoring drinking water is so time consuming, in part, because of all the steps required to ensure the water is safe. For instance, once the damage has been repaired and the system refilled, the water must test clean several times on different days.

So Glenwood will continue trucking in more than 6,000-gallon tanks of water to provide the roughly 275,000 gallons its residents are using each day.

Across the Missouri River in Plattsmouth, Nebraska, officials said it could be six months before they get their water treatment plant operating again. Fortunately, that Omaha-area city was able to connect to a nearby rural water system, but it doesn’t have the same capacity, meaning residents must continue conserving water.

About 50 miles further south, the flooding forced Peru State College to close for two days. Students were able to return because the campus itself wasn’t flooded, but the city’s water still isn’t drinkable.

Peru State spokesman Jason Hogue said more than 900,000 gallons of bottled water has been donated to the school since the flooding began. The city has been trucking water in from two nearby cities because its water plant remains flooded, but the water has to be boiled before it can be consumed.

Perhaps the biggest problem for some Peru State students and employees is that road closures have drastically increased their commute.

Hogue said it used to take about 30 minutes to drive to Hamburg, Iowa, but now it’s more like 2 hours. The school has offered discounted housing on campus to affected students and employees.

Hamburg was also hard hit by the flooding, and much of the town remains flooded because the water flowed behind a damaged levee and can’t return to the river on its own.

An emergency well was dug for Hamburg, but the boil order remains in effect.

Hamburg School Superintendent Mike Wells said the water system isn’t operating at full capacity, so half the school has flush toilets while the other half has to use portable toilets outside.

“The kids think they have it pretty tough,” Wells said. He joked that some have been trying to tell their grandparents about how bad they have it by using outhouses at school.

The school’s gym has been converted to a store of sorts where Hamburg residents can come to get supplies and help, and that will likely continue through the summer. Wells said the school is doing more outside activities and some dance in the classroom for exercise.

After the flooding, 20 of Hamburg’s 161 students transferred to schools in other towns. Another 32 are commuting to Hamburg to finish out the school year.

Wells said losing that many students would be a blow to his district, but he’s optimistic the town will recover.

“We have a strong community,” Wells said. “This will give us the opportunity to do things better.”

Categories: Local News, South Dakota News