Arsenic has been known for centuries as rat poison, a pesticide for cotton and a weapon of choice for murder mysteries. At small doses it has been linked to cancer, skin and circulatory problems and possibly lower IQs in children.

And in rural communities east of Waco, getting the toxic heavy metal out of the drinking water may carry a price that’s hard to swallow.

Water suppliers serving about 14,000 people in eastern McLennan County and neighboring Hill, Falls and Limestone counties use groundwater with arsenic levels that exceed federal standards of 10 parts per billion. Communities affected include Axtell, Riesel, Perry, Elk, Prairie Hill and Birome.

A group of water suppliers have banded together to try to build a regional water system that would allow them to dilute their water with uncontaminated water, either from the city of Waco or an aquifer east of Groesbeck. But the solution will likely cause water rates to double or worse, officials with the coalition say.

“It’s really going to escalate the cost of water,” said Charles Beseda, president of the Falls-Hill-Limestone-McLennan Water Supply Corp., which is working toward the regional system.

“Everybody wants cheap water, but to get it treated and delivered, it’s going to cost a lot.”

The water systems had until 2015 under federal law to meet the arsenic standard, and several of them are now under state and federal enforcement and will face fines if they don’t fix the problem by 2017.

During the last five years, the FHLM group has been in discussions with the city of Waco about piping treated Lake Waco water to the affected area.

But the city of Waco has been reluctant to serve communities outside McLennan County, which it has considered its long-term service area.

$45 million system

In February, the FHLM group submitted an application to the Texas Water Development Board for long-term financing to build a $45 million system that would transport water from the Carrizo-Wilcox Aquifer in eastern Limestone County to the Axtell and Riesel area, branching out to Mt. Calm and Birome. The system would also branch west to Chalk Bluff, Ross and Gholson — McLennan County communities that have no arsenic problems.

The system would cost the average customer $724 a year, according to the TWDB application.

But Beseda said that proposal is only one of several. He said members are still talking to the city of Waco and McLennan County for a possible solution.

“Waco has reached out to us again,” he said. “We’re exploring all possibilities.”

Waco Deputy City Manager Wiley Stem said he talked late this week to engineers involved with the water supply corporations. He thinks Waco and McLennan County could work together to help solve the problem, at least within McLennan County.

McLennan County, along with its cities and the Brazos River Authority, has a state grant to do a 1.5-year study for a countywide water system that would link water suppliers and expand rural service.

County Judge Scott Felton heads the McLennan County Water Resource Group, which is doing the study. Felton said the group will meet with rural water suppliers at 6 p.m. March 31 at the Texas Farm Bureau headquarters, 7420 Fish Pond Road.

“We’re going to use the WaterSmart grant to work on ways to have conjunctive use of all our water, including the lake, the Brazos River and the Trinity aquifer,” Felton said. “By having a feasible and sustainable water plan with connectivity all over the county, in the long run it will pay off in this county being able to meet people’s wishes to grow.”

Stem said the proposed county system appears to be the best bet for solving the arsenic problem in eastern McLennan County, as well as providing a long-term, reliable source of water for the area.

But he said the approaching regulatory deadlines may require local governments to work together to find an interim solution within the next year or so.

“The problem is timing,” he said. “EPA wants them to have a backup plan.”

Beseda said the long-term solution may lie in building two regional systems, with Lake Waco serving McLennan County and the Carrizo-Wilcox Aquifer serving other counties.

He said filtration systems are another option, but that could cost local water supply corporations millions of dollars and wouldn’t provide any additional water supply.

Beseda, who is general manager of the Birome Water Supply Corp., said he is seeing groundwater levels drop 14 feet a year, endangering both the quality and quantity of future water.

“The arsenic is getting worse as we pump the aquifer down,” he said.

Beseda said the water suppliers will likely have to make a decision by June, when more detailed applications are due to the Texas Water Development Board.

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