Saturday, August 28, 1999

Water hookups have residents saying 'Ah'

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        ROSS TOWNSHIP — The sweetest-tasting thing to Ruth Denny doesn't come from a bakery or a Coke machine. It flows straight from her tap: cool, clear, safe water.

        Mrs. Denny and her neighbors at Venice Gardens in southern Butler County are taking delight in a commodity most people take for granted. And they are savoring a hard-fought victory in the battle to get city water piped to their homes.

        For years, contaminated well water caused Mrs. Denny and many other residents of Venice Gardens to endure health problems, ruined appliances and foul odors.

        It forced them to buy bottled water from stores or to fill water jugs at the homes of friends and relatives.

        But those problems are now in the past. This week, the last of the 282 Venice Gardens households that signed up for public water were hooked up to Cincinnati Water Works lines.

        This water project has brought badly needed changes to this subdivision, populated by mostly low-income, working people.

        For Mrs. Denny, it means she can stop buying three one-gallon jugs of spring water twice a week for drinking and cooking.

        Pat Hopkins can escape the awful stench from the well water and avoid replacing her water heater every four years because of lime deposits.

        And Geraldine King no longer will have to discard coffee pots every few months because of lime buildup.

        “I used to keep two kettles on my stove all the time to boil water for washing dishes,” said Mrs. Denny, 70. “It seems strange not to see the kettles there.”

        A group of persistent Venice Gardens residents, led by Jean Wagonfield, fought for years for water lines to replace the water wells that had been contaminated by septic tanks.

        They finally achieved their goal this summer.

        In late May, workers be gan installing almost 20,000 feet of water lines to serve the 282 homes out of a possible 300 that signed up for public water. All those homes now have water treated by the Cincinnati Water Works.

        “I'm tickled to death,” Mrs. Denny said. “I can't tell you how pleased I am to have the water.”

        Because of her medical technology background and compassionate nature, Ms. Wagonfield received many frantic phone calls from worried Venice Gardens parents whose children had unexplained intestinal problems.

        Having devoted countless hours to the fight for water lines, Ms. Wagonfield feels especially gratified to see her efforts pay off.

        “It's like I finally got over the top of a mountain,” she said. “I'm really pleased. Just because you're poor doesn't mean you should be put- upon.”

        Such a large-scale, long-term problem with water-well contamination is rare in the Tristate.

        Few other Tristate communities or subdivisions the size of Venice Gardens still rely on wells. Wells are common in rural areas, but generally are located on large tracts of land, not clusters of small lots, like Venice Gardens.

        Health agencies in Warren and Clermont counties in Ohio, Kenton, Campbell and Boone counties in Northern Kentucky and Dearborn County in Indiana said they have had no recent complaints about water-well contamination.

        Carlisle, a Warren County community, has experienced no water-well contamination problems since sewer lines replaced septic tanks in the 1980s, said Dan Collins, the county health department's director of environmental health.

        “I don't know of anybody who has had a chronic contamination problem like Venice Gardens had,” said Sharma Young, deputy director of field operations for the Butler County Department of Environmental Services. “People like having their own wells as long as there's no contamination. It's good, clean water and they don't have to pay for it.”

        Current building and zoning regulations would not permit the construction of a subdivision like Venice Gardens, where septic tanks and water wells were installed on tiny lots, many of them 20 by 100 feet.

Once a campground
        Venice Gardens, located along the Great Miami River just inside Butler County's southern border, had been a campgrounds until the 1950s. Housing construction began after the old Mount Healthy Drive-In awarded small lots in Venice Gardens as door prizes for its customers.

        As the community grew, contami nants from septic tanks began seeping into the water wells. In the early 1980s, residents noticed an increase in intestinal illnesses, and lime deposits from the water began disabling water heaters and washers.

        For years, a group of residents tried in vain to obtain help.

        The turning point came three years ago, when a study paid for by the residents revealed a high level of contamination in many of the water wells. That study gave public officials the leverage to obtain state and federal funding for a $1.7 million water service project in Venice Gardens.

        The Cincinnati Water Works agreed to manage the project and to provide $500,000 in matching funds for a $500,000 Community Development Block Grant. Butler County obtained a $650,000 state grant.

        The Water Works' matching funds eventually will be recovered through rates charged to residents.

        Butler County has tentative plans to install sewer lines in Venice Gardens, but federal funds won't be available for two years, said Bob Leventry, deputy director of administration for the county's department of environmental services.

        But right now, water, not sewers, dominates the thoughts of Venice Gardens residents.

        Aileen Ping said she believes the contaminated well water caused her grandchildren to have intestinal problems. The children, like many other community residents, could not take baths, and when they showered, they had to be careful not to let water get in their eyes or mouths.

        “We got our water line hooked up about six weeks ago,” said Mrs. Ping, 61. “I like it very much. It's unbelievable.”

Not all satisfied
        But not all residents are satisfied with having public water.

        Bob and Carole Pincombe, whose well was not contaminated, said they chose public water, but regret it now because the monthly water rates are higher than they expected.

        “Our bill in June was $53, and it was $32 last month,” Mrs. Pincombe said. “We're on a fixed income. I can't afford to pay this much for water.”

        More than 130 residents received free water line installation because their incomes were so low, said Bill Phelps, administrative assistant for the Water Works.

        “We're encouraged by the number of people who signed up for water,” he said. “We've admired the determination of the residents to get a solution to the problem.”

        The only work that remains on this project is to fill some wells with a composite material and seal them and to grade and plant grass seed in people's yards, which were dug up for the water line installation.

        Venice Gardens residents marvel not only at their clean water, but also at the increased water pressure.

        “Before, when you were in the shower, you couldn't hardly get the soap out of your hair,” said Michael Foley, 25. “You can't believe how nice it is now. There's even more water pressure in the garden hose when you go out to water the flowers.”


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- Water hookups have residents saying 'Ah'