Water Treatment Expenses
Safe drinking water costs money. There are the economic costs of installation, operation, and maintenance of treatment systems that remove nitrate from drinking water supplies. Safe drinking water requirements put a financial strain on smaller municipalities and rural water treatment plants who are dealing with source water that is contaminated with unsafe concentrations of nitrates, resulting in higher operation costs that inevitably get passed on to the customers.
The Cost to Small Communities
Creighton became the first community in Nebraska to build a reverse osmosis plant constructed to treat nitrate and provide safe drinking water to its residents. In 1993, the cost of the original plant, excluding engineering and equipment, was $605,507. An additional $1.2 million has since been invested to rehabilitate the plant and the operation and maintenance costs over the past 5 years have been over $1.8 million. The increased costs to keep the system running have driven up the cost to the consumer to over $60 per month.
The community of Osmond, Nebraska recently completed construction of two new wells and other improvements, investments that were required as the existing wells were failing to meet the needs of its residents due to excessive nitrates. It’s a circumstance that annually repeats itself in communities all across Nebraska as water utilities struggle to provide quality water to their customers at affordable rates. For example, the communities of Dodge and Plainview are both looking for quality groundwater sources outside of their city limits. To pump water from these wells, up to 5 miles from town, the additional costs for the system will be approximately $2-3 million for each community.
Other states are not immune, in October of 2017, Hiawatha, Kansas, began building a new water treatment plant that included an ion exchange system. Nitrate levels in Hiawatha had hit 11 ppm a few months before – it was one of several times the town has warned residents not to drink tap water. The plant cost the town of about 3,300 an estimated $3.5 million, which does not include the operations and maintenance costs.
The Cost to a Private Well Owner
For a private well owner, installing a reverse osmosis system in their home is often the quickest and easiest solution for the high nitrates in their well water. The average monthly cost when using a basic system is around $35 per month. When multiplied for each of the 23 years since the establishment of the first groundwater-quality management area, some families have invested almost $10,000 to have clean, safe drinking water in their homes. A worthwhile investment to protect the health of their families, but a drag on the personal finances of those who are impacted.
A recent study in northeastern Nebraska has revealed that nearly 82% of wells were at risk of exceeding the 10 mg/L of nitrate. The cost of remediation for domestic wells through reverse osmosis treatment in this area average from $4 – $164 total regional cost per household per year, depending on the threshold for treatment. The study estimates that with the current trends, over the course of 20 years, residents in northeast Nebraska could see remediation costs as high as $400,000 – $5,400,000 based on an estimate of $13 – $508 per total number of households per year.
Ion exchange and distillation were the next most cost-effective options. Nontreatment options include building a new well or purchasing bottled water, both of which are more expensive in the long run than using treatments. Reverse osmosis treatment was the most expensive option, due to high initial costs and operation and maintenance costs of the system. These high costs may discourage some households and communities from pursuing treatment, leading to possible health impacts due to nitrate exposure.