San Juan businesses, residents face ‘huge hardship’ with bad water

Some residents believed drought conditions aggravated the nitrate problem in the San Juan wells.

Ice cream shop co-owners Margot Tankersley and Naomi Medina were outside their Third Street business Thursday afternoon chatting with San Juan residents Katie Cullum and Phyllis Teshima when the topic of water came up. With elevated nitrate levels in the local supply, the county health department in May ordered residents and businesses to stop using it, for the most part.
“You can’t even boil it. The city’s really up a creek,” said Medina, pointing to San Juan’s contaminated wells that spurred a health department order halting most uses of the supply in the tourist town of 1,900 residents. “The only thing it’s good for is the toilet.”
Her daughter, Tankersley, recalled when the health department came to Margot’s Ice Cream Parlor in early May and shut down the espresso machine. Fortunately, Tankersley had been buying her water for coffee at Hollister stores.
Others haven’t been as fortunate. Over at Dona Esther Mexican Restaurant down the street, the extra cost has added up to more than $1,500 a month. That’s because Dona Esther uses immense amounts of water with food preparation and beverages.
“It’s a huge hardship,” said co-owner Tami Castaneda.
In its 32 years, the iconic restaurant hasn’t experienced any other water problems this bad, she said.
“When the big earthquake hit, it was nothing like this,” she said.
San Juan’s water supply has been high in minerals for decades. Now it’s downright unsafe, leaving residents and business owners peeved about extra costs and wondering when the problem will get fixed. City officials have told residents they shouldn’t drink it or cook with it – boiling the water actually makes the problem worse – while it is particularly dangerous for infants and pregnant women. Council members June 17 approved a softening system for more than $700,000, with installation expected to last 10 weeks after a final approval from the state.
As time goes on without decent water, business owners such as Castaneda have complained about continuing to shell out a “premium” for the tainted water while also paying extra costs for the bottled variety. Timing was terrible for the restaurant, too, because the health department order occurred right before Mother’s Day, one of the busiest weekends of the year for the restaurant, and has run into summer.
She said she won’t close her doors because the business employs more than 30 people depending on their jobs.
“Who’s going to take care of us?” she said. “Who’s going to compensate businesses for losses?”
Pizza Factory owner Dennis Cole has sustained his share of losses, too. He said he understands the need to address the nitrate levels, but was especially frustrated about having to pay the regular water bill on top of costs for bottled water. He contended the city has known about nitrate issues in the wells for years and didn’t act fast enough to address it.
“They caused the problem by not doing anything,” Cole said, adding that Damm Water has done a good job responding to delivery calls.
“Then business licenses were up 30 percent this year,” Cole added.
For the most part, businesses and residents seem to have taken the tainted water in stride while making adjustments. Pizza Factory customers can’t use the soda fountain machine, so Cole has to consider buying a special filtration system. In the meantime, the business fills up two-liter bottles for customers to replace the fountain option.
“They don’t really see a big difference,” he said, adding that he hasn’t passed on costs to customers.
One business actually benefiting from the tainted tap water is Windmill Market, in the same shopping center as Pizza Factory. The store already uses a reverse osmosis system for its everyday needs such as in the deli, said manager Adriana Hernandez.
As for its bottled water, the store usually gets one pallet of gallon bottles a week. Since the nitrate announcement, the store has needed two to three pallets weekly. Sales of 24-packs are up as well, Hernandez said.
In the same Windmill shopping center, San Juan residents Aida and Jim Pisano were getting on their bicycles outside the post office.
“I’m really upset,” she said, recalling talk in town about the drought’s possible role in high nitrate levels. “How long does it take to look into?”
Jim Pisano said they heard the announcement on the news before getting any alerts from the city. He also wondered why users were paying a premium for mostly useless water.
“What are we paying for?” Pisano said.
Kimble Hurd and Alisa Fineman often ride their bikes in San Juan as well – adding to their thirst for water – and they pedal from all the way over in Aromas. The two were seated outside Vertigo Coffee on Thursday.
“In fact, I thought about this,” Hurd said, holding up his cup.
“Even if you don’t live here,” Fineman said, “these things affect everybody.”
Nitrate’s health effects
Infants below six months who drink water containing nitrate in excess of the maximum contaminant level (MCL) could become seriously ill and, if untreated, may die. Symptoms include shortness of breath and blue baby syndrome.
Source: Environmental Protection Agency

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