Where does your drinking water come from, Hemlock Farms?

| August 25, 2022

Water tower in Hemlock Farms
One of two water towers in Hemlock Farms, this one is visible from I-84. It holds about 1 million gallons of water. PHOTO BY MEG MCGUIRE

Full disclosure, I live in Hemlock Farms, so I have a vested interest in finding out about my water! Delaware Currents has done a number of stories about the various projects that take water from the watershed, but I’ve never done one on my “home turf.” Mainly because it’s relatively small and its impact on the watershed is minimal — but I realized that its impact is multiplied by hundreds of other communities.

For those of you reading this who don’t live in Hemlock Farms, it might be an idea for you to find out more about your water-delivery system — even if you have a well, it might be worth getting your water tested so you can see what you’re drinking.

The water tower you see as you drive west on I-84 from Milford, Pa. is your first landmark for Hemlock Farms.

But that tower, which holds up to one million gallons, is only half of the Hemlock Farms water story.

There’s another tower tucked away that also holds up to another million.  

Squat tower on the ground in Hemlock Farms
This water tower also holds up to 1 million gallons of water and sits on the ground in Hemlock Farms. PHOTO BY MEG MCGUIRE

And though they are far apart, these towers are connected as is the whole water system that serves about 3,500 customers in Hemlock Farms, across nearly 90 miles of roads and 4,500 acres. 

The water we use comes from five wells, created at different times, at different depths and producing different amounts of water. All our water is groundwater.

Hemlock Farms’ first well was developed in 1963 (well 1). The second, well 80, in 1969.

Most of the wells are fairly inconspicuous — indistinguishable from many other of the typical Hemlock Farms buildings, decked out in the “house colors” of brown, green and red — and due to the security concerns that have become universal, we’re not going to show any photos of the well sites.

But those wells and those towers are working 24/7 to serve our drinking water needs. The whole system is interconnected and works with the water under constant pressure, explained Ray Broschart — the Water Company supervisor. 

The water-supply system is a “company,” since it has expenses like salaries and independent contractors to pay for as well as its billings to collect. The water company has three other employees: Pablo Napolitano, Albert Moraza, John Cordero.

All the wells are sunk deep into the Catskill Formation.

The northern part of Hemlock Farms — and wells 1, 4 and 10 — is located in the Upper Shohola Creek watershed and drains to the Upper Delaware.

The southern part of Hemlock Farms — and wells 49 and 80 — is located in the Upper Bush Kill watershed and drains to the Middle Delaware.  

Both the Upper Delaware and the Middle Delaware are classified as Special Protection Waters, which means that there will be no measurable change in existing water quality of those waters except toward natural conditions. It’s a designation created by the Delaware River Basin Commission to preserve the high-quality water above Trenton, N.J. 

The Delaware River Basin Commission is the permitting agency for any entity that “takes” more than 100,000 gallons daily out of this part of the watershed, which includes both groundwater and surface water. That includes Hemlock Farms.

Hemlock Farms “docket” — the way the permitting application is referred to by the DRBC — is here.

The DRBC was created in 1961 by a compact signed by the governors of the four watershed states (Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey and Delaware) and the U.S president. The commission is the governors, with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers representing the federal government. More here.

Those of you who live here may remember recently the water company was hunting high and low for leaks. And that was because our allotment from the DRBC is for 31 million gallons per month — and we were getting too close to that.

The result of that investigation was to identify 31 different small leaks. They fixed those leaks and now we’re down to consuming about 300,000 gallons a day. Broschart said our water loss now is about 15-20% of production.

Well 4 is the newest and produces as much as the other four wells combined — 475-500 gallons per minute. (The well numbers were assigned when all of Hemlock Farms went through a perc test to see which of the 100 sites tested held the most promise for water.)

Access to water
One of many access points for Hemlock Farms water system, this one painted blue for emphasis. PHOTO BY MEG MCGUIRE

The water from all the wells enters the underground pipes for distribution once its treated with chlorine and phosphate and receives sufficient contact time to be effective.

The chlorine is required by the Pennsylvania DEP and the EPA: (more here)

EPA has established regulations with treatment requirements for public water systems that prevent waterborne pathogens such as viruses from contaminating drinking water. These treatment requirements include filtration and disinfectants such as chlorine that remove or kill pathogens before they reach the tap. 

Chlorine injection
Chlorine is added to all Hemlock Farms water as required by the Pennsylvania DEP and the EPA. PHOTO BY MEG MCGUIRE

The phosphate is a corrosion inhibitor. Broschart explains that the pipes have never shown signs of corrosion and the water company wants to keep it that way.

The wells keep pumping water into the system as long as the two towers aren’t full — though there’s always some space left at the top, which is what creates head pressure.

Once that fill-line is reached, the wells shut down.

Until about 10 years ago, the four smaller wells were enough to fill the community’s need for water.

But demand increased, and the newest, deepest well was created — #4.

Unlike the other wells, the water from well 4 gets a bit more treatment since it contains iron and manganese. Both are common elements in the earth’s crust. As water percolates through soil and rock, it can dissolve these minerals and carry them into groundwater. Iron and manganese can give water an unpleasant taste, odor and color. Both can cause stains on laundry, porcelain, dishes, utensils, glassware, sinks, fixtures and concrete.

But manganese in drinking water is regulated by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection as a human health toxic. Its newest upper limit is 0.3 mg/L — stricter than the prior 1.0 mg/L potable water supply standard. 

Our water falls below that standard — at about 0.010 mg/L. Broschart said, “We do not filter out the iron & manganese because we “have” to in order to keep ourselves in regulation. We do it solely for aesthetic purposes and taking pride that we do everything we can to deliver very high quality water – even though we don’t “have” to. “

Ray Broschart, the Hemlock Farms Water Company supervisor, is proud of “his” water. (The white tanks in the background are where the backwash takes place.) PHOTO BY MEG MCGUIRE

Hemlock Farms gets its water tested for iron and manganese by a third party: Princeton Analytical Labs.

There’s a bit of a story about manganese in Hemlock Farms water. I’ll let Colleen Connolly from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection tell it. Here’s her email:

Regarding the manganese issues with residents:  Previously, complaints would begin in May through October, regarding the specks of insoluble, black manganese in the bottom of large white jacuzzis/tubs which resembled dirt. The certified water operator at Hemlock Farms was also flushing mains and service lines twice a year trying to scour the pipes, especially in the area from where the complaints were most frequent. 

Finally, after a year of flushing, the decision was made to remove the manganese by using green sand units. The mains were flushed on a quarterly basis after being put into service because of the years of accumulation on the inside of the pipes and also areas of the distribution system have been being replaced on a yearly basis.

Here’s more from the Environmental Protection Agency about manganese.

So the water treatment system for well 4 was created.

Water treatment plant for well 4
The water treatment plant for well 4 targets iron and manganese. (Note the drop of water on the weather vane.) PHOTO BY MEG MCGUIRE

To get rid of manganese, a touch of chlorine is added as a pretreatment to the water from this well to let the mineral oxidize. That helps it to clump and makes it easier to filter out of the water, which is what happens in four huge blue vessels in the water treatment plant near well 4.

All the water goes through all four vessels, which are filled with what Broschart called mixed media — Connolly referred to it as “green sand” — that captures those “clumps.” Then the water is treated with chlorine and phosphate like the rest of the water from the other wells and distributed into the system.

Water treatment tanks
These vessels “strain” the water from well 4, removing iron and manganese. (You can see some condensation on the tanks — the water from the well is cold, and the day was warm.) PHOTO BY MEG MCGUIRE

Those vessels need cleaning, so the system gets backwashed into four more huge white tanks, and the sediment is allowed to settle — that sediment is the iron and manganese.

The backwash happens whenever the system needs it, sometimes once a week, sometimes more often and it takes 24 hours for the sediment to settle. When it does, the water at the top of those white tanks is clean enough and clear enough to be returned to the system.

When this water treatment plant was built, four underground tanks were built to hold the extracted iron and manganese. When those tanks are full, Koberlein Environmental Services empties them.

There are hundreds of drinking water systems in the Delaware River watershed — some large, some small and, of course some wells are for a single home. Some are regulated by the DRBC but all public water systems are regulated by individual states and the Environmental Protection Agency.

We’re all part of one enormous system. Here’s a map with all the locations of water withdrawals and water discharges as recognized by the Delaware River Basin Commission.

In Hemlock Farms, we don’t face the challenges other places do of lead in our pipes, or arsenic in our water. With any luck, our rural environment might let us escape the newer problems of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, (PFOA and PFOS) which the Environmental Protection Agency is still developing standards for.

Here’s more about them from the EPA.

Our understanding about what’s in our water or ground or air that might be harmful will always be growing and it makes sense to keep up to date and have a look at the Hemlock Farms Water Quality Report, which is updated regularly.

Meg McGuire is a resident of Hemlock Farms and the founder and publisher of Delaware Currents — www.delawarecurrents.org — an online news magazine about the Delaware River and its watershed.

 

Meg McGuire

Meg McGuire

Meg McGuire has been a journalist for 30 years in New York and Connecticut. She started in weekly newspapers and moved to full-time work in dailies 25 years ago. She knows about the tectonic changes in journalism firsthand, having been part of what was euphemistically called a "reduction in force" six years ago. Now she's working to find new ways to "do" the news as an independent online publisher of news about the Delaware River, its watershed and its people.

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