In Cottage Grove, a city of brown grass and wilted flowers, the Long Thirst is about to end. At least for now.
A controversial watering ban imposed in May by the City Council will end Tuesday, following a unanimous vote of the council last week to rescind it. At the same time, the council issued a plea for conservation and a warning that lifting the ban doesn’t mean that anything goes.
City leaders imposed the ban on Cottage Grove’s 35,000 residents after discovering that traces of decades-old 3M Co. contamination in city wells registered too high under new state Health Department guidelines. Declaring a local state of emergency, the city shut down eight of its 11 wells while assuring residents their drinking water was safe.
To hear resident Dana Johnson tell it, elected officials took a pounding for the ban.
“Many residents I’ve seen on Facebook are extremely upset, calling out the mayor. It’s unfortunate because it’s not his fault. The accusations being slung around are really ridiculous,” Johnson said.
But on Tuesday, residents can again fill their pools, water their parched gardens and lawns, and play in sprinklers at the Highland Park splash pad.
“I’ve been crying at my house with my brown grass, which got a little greener today,” Mayor Myron Bailey said at the council meeting. “I still encourage everybody to use every available opportunity to conserve this precious resource for us. Frankly, it will also help your water bill.”
Bailey acknowledged anger from many residents as well as thanks from others. Given the long history of 3M pollution in Cottage Grove’s drinking water, he said, he doesn’t regret the council’s decision.
“We would be sending contaminated water into homes in Cottage Grove and we wouldn’t let that happen,” he said.
New carbon filters being installed on city wells will “capture all the PFC [perfluorochemicals] chemicals,” said City Engineer Jennifer Levitt. “Residents can be very confident that the water they are consuming is all below the health-based value.”
Bailey said the state will pay the estimated $3 million cost of the massive filters. The city’s long-term solution, he said, is to build a treatment plant that permanently manages threats to water.
Rebecca Cuellar, whose family has a large vegetable garden, was disappointed when the ban was imposed but wound up agreeing with it because “it was important to deal with it when it was a matter of inconvenience rather than a crisis later on.”
Residents make do
Cuellar’s family saved water for their garden by placing buckets in their shower stall. At Johnson’s east side housing development, where association rules don’t allow rain barrels, residents captured rain with buckets on their decks.
“People sure were clever with how to collect water without using their hoses,” said resident Tony Flandrich. “It’s a tough situation to put everybody in, but the big picture should be that the water [that] people are drinking is the priority.”
The state’s updated limits, half the level recommended by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, reflect the latest scientific findings on the exposure and health effects of chemicals known as PFOA and PFOS. They are among the class of chemicals called PFCs that were made for decades at 3M’s Cottage Grove plant.
Decades of research links exposure to PFCs in drinking water to certain cancers, liver and thyroid ailments, and to developmental problems in infants. Water with PFOA or PFOS, even at levels above the new recommended limits, does not represent an immediate health threat, officials said.
In May, 3M’s medical director said the new guidelines were “overly conservative” and that PFOS and PFOA do not present health risks at levels “typically found in the environment or in human blood.”
Cottage Grove’s decision to suspend the watering ban presumes that Well No. 10, the city’s largest, will be operational and safe by next week.
And there are conditions for residents: an odd-even watering schedule at corresponding addresses; no watering between noon and 4 p.m., and on the 31st of any month; watering no more than twice a week; and participation in the city’s rain barrel rebate program.
The City Council also set down penalties for violators. Written warnings will be issued for a first offense, followed by misdemeanor charges for repeat offenders.
Police Capt. Pete Koerner said officers expect to face enforcement challenges when the ban is lifted. Before the recent council decision, police took 53 complaints about illegal watering. Twenty offenders were given a verbal warning and seven got a written warning, but no citations were issued, Koerner said.
For decades, 3M chemicals were used in the manufacture of consumer and industrial products from Scotchgard to Teflon, solvents and firefighting foam. 3M stopped making those chemicals at its plants in Cottage Grove in the early 2000s.
Cuellar and Johnson commended the mayor for his approachability despite some hostile reactions.
“I’m going to trust the city knows what they’re doing,” Johnson said. “Mayor Bailey is willing to talk to everyone and answer questions. He couldn’t control the findings.”
Staff writer Josephine Marcotty contributed to this report.