Billings Gazette: Federal aid to help Worden and Ballantine fix contaminated water problem

by Rob Rogers

Help appears to be on the way.

Two years after the Worden Ballantine Yellowstone County Water and Sewer District had to declare its drinking water unsafe, $4.74 million in federal aid in the form of grants and loans is being made available to the district to help solve the problem.

Gary Fredericks, who serves on the water district’s board, called the news fantastic.

“Our people have done without water for a long time,” he said.

The Worden Ballantine water district had applied for the funding, which comes from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development program. Sen. Jon Tester announced on Thursday the water district’s application had been approved.

“Families in Worden and Ballantine have had to drink store-bought bottled water since their source of drinking water was identified as contaminated back in the summer of 2019,” Tester said in a statement. “Without (water) towns like these are at risk of drying up. That’s why investments like this are so critical – they help rural communities access drinking water from the tap once again, ensuring that their kids and grandkids will have safe, potable water for years to come.”

The USDA funds will arrive as $2.6 million in loans and $2.1 million in grants. The water district will use the funding to continue its search for a safe source of drinking water, construct groundwater wells, build a pump house to draw and distribute the water, and supply all the pipe needed to get water around the district.

The water district made the decision last year to abandon its decades-old primary water source after high levels of nitrates were discovered there in 2019. The nitrate levels were high enough to be mortally dangerous to infants.

The discovery of nitrates pointed to groundwater contamination in the underground aquifer where the district traditionally had drawn its water. Groundwater contamination meant that Worden and Ballantine were susceptible to all kinds of pollutants in their drinking water, not just the nitrates that had been discovered.

District technicians working with the Montana Department of Environmental Quality have been unable to find the source of the contamination and so the district’s board made the decision to abandon its primary source of water to seek a new one.

“It was a really tough decision,” Fredericks said. “We could spend a year and half looking for the problem and never find it.”

In the end, the district would have wasted valuable time in its search and in the process torn up perfectly good agricultural land.

“In the long run it didn’t make sense,” he said.

In the last year, the water district has dug six new wells, four of which produced clean water. Three of those were located in areas accessible to the water district and Fredericks said they’d like to find one or two more.

The new wells will join the district’s one backup well, which has never been contaminated. It’s a vertical well on the far side of the district; its primary well is horizontal, which maybe is why it became contaminated, he said.

By the end, the water district hopes to have five or six wells from which it can draw water as it works to solve the problem.

“We want to make it big enough that we never have to do this again,” Fredericks said.