H2bid Blog

Lessons From Camden Ohio’s Water Emergency

Most residents of the United States take their overall water security as a given; certainly, some in the desert southwest worry that they will need to make choices between which fields to water and which to abandon but very few worry about where they will get their fresh drinking water. Imagine if that changed. For the residents of one small town in western Ohio, it did change; their town’s water supply became so fouled that it was impossible to supply the residents with drinking water and emergency measures had to be put in place. In this, the first of a three part series, H2Bid will examine this catastrophe and its impact on the town of Camden, Ohio.
Camden, Ohio, is a small town in the southwest corner of the state; in the summer of 2010, Camden residents began noticing that their tap water exhibited a salty taste. The town’s local water service supplied drinking water to roughly 2,500 residents; this water was drawn from three main well sites. The town’s mayor and council wanted to understand what was happening, so they took action to test the water.
In August, 2010, the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency (OEPA) tested the water and determined that one of the three wells showed significant salt and brine contamination and a second well was exhibiting signs of rising salt levels. The first well was deemed unfit for drinking and was immediately taken out of service. A few weeks later, the second well was taken out of service as well; the third well was taken offline to avoid any potential that heavy use would further foul the aquifer. By the fall of 2010, the entire well field was contaminated and deemed completely unfit for drinking.
After the first well’s contamination was discovered, Camden’s mayor and city council began to immediately distribute bottled water to the town’s residents. Each home was allotted one gallon of water per day; households with children were given two gallons each day. Even with this assistance, the residents’ anger grew; hand-made signs asking how this happened lined the streets and town council meetings ended in arguments and yelling. The OEPA attended a few of those meetings and attempted to help the town’s citizens understand the issues.
The OEPA believed that uncovered salt piles on a property were a potential cause of the contamination. The scientists believed that salt runoff from those piles flowed into a streambed that was dry during summer months. This water, high in salt concentration, then soaked through the streambed into the aquifer. This contamination likely happened over the course of one or more years, as the salt piles were first identified in 2009. At that time, the OEPA and the city of Camden asked that the salt be covered or removed; it is plausible that such a cleanup would have saved the city’s well field, though it will never be known for certain.
In the fall of 2010, the city of Camden faced tough choices. The nearest municipal water supply, the Southwest Regional Water system, would be a good alternative to the town’s fouled water supply, but it would take several months and an estimated cost of $400,000 USD to connect Camden to the system. Alternately, the town was drilling exploratory wells in a different area to find out if a new well field site could be established. The cost of establishing a new well field would be less than connecting to the Southwest Regional system, but it was not a certainty that a new, uncontaminated aquifer with sufficient water volume could be identified quickly.
In two articles, next month, H2Bid will explore how the contamination happened and what is being done to mitigate the situation for the residents. In addition to exploring the causes that led up to this town’s unfortunate situation, H2Bid will look at what could be done differently so that this situation does not repeat itself in another town. Hopefully these lessons can be reduced to practice and new processes implemented in time to avoid another Camden.