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Marion’s hard water: unsafe or inconvenient? What residents should know.
The water is drawn from deep aquifers, is rich in nutrients and has perplexed Marion residents for years.
- Marion's water is classified as very hard, meaning it is rich in natural minerals.
- The city's water department assures it's safe to drink — even beneficial.
- For those who don't like hard water, there's a solution: water softeners.
MARION — Since Tina Stewart, 45, moved into her Marion home in 2000, she has replaced her hot water heater and her water softener three times each. Her sump pump and garbage disposal have fallen into disrepair multiple times, too.
The culprit, she says? The hard water that courses through Marion’s pipes and spits out at faucets, leaving its remnants in showers, baths and sinks.
Altogether, Stewart estimates she and her husband have spent thousands of dollars in related repairs over the years. Even then, she said they’re too scared to drink the city’s water.
“We started buying drinking water because we don't want to drink the water out of our faucets,” she said.
Marion isn’t the only Iowa town fueled by hard water. In fact, most of the Midwest and much of the United States draws on hard water, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Still, the water has left a bad taste in Marion residents’ mouths — literally. Some question the safety of the drinking water, and most complain about the hardness.
While Marion’s hard water may be an inconvenience, experts have assured it’s safe to drink. And, for those with the means and motivation, there are solutions.
Why is Marion’s water hard?
Hard water is defined by its high amounts of calcium and magnesium — natural minerals that are found in the human body, a variety of foods and certain types of rocks.
Marion taps into two deep aquifers — the Cambrian-Ordovician aquifer, commonly known as the Jordan aquifer, and the Silurian-Devonian aquifer — with wells stretching down hundreds of feet at four main sites. The water, which has percolated through rocks over time, has picked up natural minerals like calcium, magnesium, iron, potassium, sodium and sulfate along the way.
Once the water is pulled from the ground, it gets a shot of chlorine gas for disinfection. Flows from two wells are run through the city’s new $2.8 million iron removal plant that uses special filters to strip excessive iron, which can make untreated water murky. Then, the water is sold and sent to consumers.
“We're lucky,” said Todd Steigerwaldt, the general manager of the Marion Water Department. “We have affordable water because our treatment process is very, very simple.” Marion’s minimum monthly charge, which includes up to 1,500 gallons of water, currently starts at $15.25 and will likely increase July 1 to $15.40.
Water that tests over 10.5 grains per gallon is considered very hard. Marion’s water hardness varies between 18 and 20 grains, which translates to roughly a pound of limestone rock every 350 gallons of water, estimated Marc Daubitz, general manager of Culligan of Marion, a water-treatment equipment supplier.
Aside from Cedar Rapids, which pulls its water from shallower wells along the Cedar River, several other communities and private wells in the area draw from the same aquifers as Marion. The water hardness is about the same, said territory manager Josh Rodriguez of Culligan.
“People always tell me when I'm out in the field … how horrible Marion’s water is,” he said. “I kind of smile, and I usually tell them it's just the water in this whole part of the country.”
Is it safe to drink?
Rest assured: Hard water is safe to drink. Even more so, experts say it can be beneficial.
Calcium and magnesium are essential nutrients in the body, and deficits are associated to health problems like cancer, strokes and obesity, according to the World Health Organization. Drinking hard water may better contribute those minerals to our diets.
“A lot of people take multivitamins,” Steigerwaldt said. “Well, the extra minerals come for free in our water.”
That isn’t to say hard water can’t be a nuisance. It can cause scale — or mineral deposits — to build up on pipes, fixtures, sinks and more. The residue makes water heaters less efficient and can affect household appliances. The calcium also reacts and interferes with soap and cleaning supplies, creating a slick film on skin and surfaces.
All regulated contaminants in Marion’s drinking water are within state and federal guidelines, according to the water department’s annual water quality reports. Calcium and magnesium aren’t regularly tested because they’re not regulated. Measurements are taken when new wells are created, showing a range of 69 to 100 milligrams of calcium, depending on the well, and a range of 21 to 36 milligrams of magnesium.
Iron is currently tested daily at the iron removal plant, where the mineral is completely filtered out, Steigerwaldt said. The Environmental Protection Agency’s non-enforceable guideline for iron in drinking water is 0.3 milligrams per liter due to its impacts to water color, taste, scaling, corrosion and staining.
“The No. 1 thing we want to stress to our customers, to the general public, is that Marion is doing a great job providing safe potable water,” Daubitz said. “There should be zero fears that there's a health concern with the water coming into the home.”
Solutions available, if wanted
For those who don’t like their hard water, there’s a solution — one that Steigerwaldt calls a luxury and Daubitz calls an aesthetic discussion: water softeners.
The equipment is filled with tiny plastic beads that are saturated with sodium chloride, or salt. As the hard water passes through the machine, the calcium and magnesium ions in the water swap places with the sodium ions in the beads. A salt solution periodically rinses the beads to recharge them, and the process continues.
The result? Softer water — with a little extra sodium, so those with high blood pressure or kidney disease should consult a doctor before installation.
Daubitz estimates that about 85 percent of Marion homes have a water softener or filtration system on their main line. The price tags on the equipment can vary from around $600 to more than $5,000. But the softer water can alleviate damage to fixtures and appliances, require less soap and increase the efficiency of water heaters.
“For most customers, you can break it into under a dollar a day expense in their home,” Daubitz said. “It can actually become a financial positive choice.”
Cedar Rapids already has a softening plant for its city water. For Marion, though, softening water before it reaches homes could triple or quadruple current water rates, Steigerwaldt estimated. Since the city’s water infrastructure is not centralized, any softening equipment would have to be replicated at each of the four main sites along with labor and construction costs.
Steigerwaldt also said some customers — admittedly fewer — say they prefer the hard water.
“We do have a lot of customers, so we can’t please everyone,” he said. “(Water softeners are) customizable for the individual. They can have super, super soft water, or they can have hard water if they choose. They can kind of dial it into their own preference.”
Brittney J. Miller is the Energy & Environment Reporter for The Gazette and a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues.
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