Loudoun Water to vote on funding study on extending service with pipeline

After years of complaints about water quality in a community near Leesburg, the Loudoun Water board of directors will vote Thursday on whether to fund a study examining the possibility of extending a central water pipeline from Leesburg to Raspberry Falls, a subdivision north of town and west of Route 15.

After numerous appeals by Raspberry Falls residents asking that the county consider all possible options to address their water problems, the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors voted Jan. 4 to request that Loudoun Water fund the study.

The situation in Raspberry Falls intensified in November, when one of the two communal wells that provides water to 134 homes in the community was permanently disconnected after the Virginia Department of Health issued a violation notice saying that the groundwater was found to be under the direct influence of surface water.

The remaining well is capable of sustaining indoor water demands during the winter, according to Loudoun Water, and a new well is expected to be operational in time for rising demands in the spring.

Raspberry Falls is in Loudoun County's "limestone geology" area, meaning that the communal wells are surrounded by rocky terrain that does not filter surface water as effectively as sand or soil. Contaminants, including bacteria, pesticides and fertilizers - such as those present on a nearby buffalo farm and golf course - can more easily make their way into the untreated water supply through channels in the limestone.

Along with instructions that the contaminated well be shut down, the state Health Department requested in November that alternative sources be developed, including the possibility of connecting Raspberry Falls to Leesburg's water system.

But the idea of even considering a connection to Leesburg's waterworks was met with some opposition. Supervisors Stevens Miller (D-Dulles) and James Burton (I-Blue Ridge) voted against the study, and Burton pointed out that the water tested by the state Health Department was untreated, whereas all treated samples showed no bacteria.

"The treatment options that are available are more than adequate. We have heard from Loudoun Water that the drinking water is safe," Burton said. "The idea of running central pipes out there sets a bad precedent."

Because Raspberry Falls is part of a rural zoning area, the extension of a central pipeline from Leesburg would require that the supervisors first vote to rezone the community in the county's general plan.

Greg Branic, a member of the Raspberry Falls homeowners association, said that resistance to extending the pipeline is more about the politics of development in a rapidly growing county than addressing a legitimate health problem.

"This is a public safety hazard," Branic said. "It's frustrating for the residents, because it's been really poorly managed and mishandled."

Despite anecdotal accounts of illnesses attributable to water quality problems, David Goodfriend of the state Health Department reported that he had seen no conclusive cases involving residents sickened by contaminated water, although some cases of gastroenteritis had been observed.

But residents of Raspberry Fall say ailments observed in the community are most likely caused by the contaminated water.

"Even my own kids have had skin rashes, horrible rashes all the time," Branic said. "People in the community have had a lot of gastrointestinal problems."

One child in the neighborhood had a more serious medical issue that required surgery, he said.

"Again, nobody can say, 'Hey, that happened because of the water,' " he said. "But, like I asked two of the supervisors, 'Can you look me in the eye and tell me it's not the water?' "

Several doctors who live in Raspberry Falls have also voiced concerns that the levels of chlorine needed to treat the water are bad for the residents' health, Branic said.

"All we want is clean water, from the safest source that costs the least amount of money," he said.

Dale Hammes, general manager of Loudoun Water, said at the meeting that he would recommend to the Loudoun Water board that the study be funded.

"It is something our customers have asked for. . . . Furthermore, I think if the question is left unanswered, I think it will plague the path forward. I think it will be something that will continue to delay our progress, which we are keen on pursuing as time is of the essence," he said.

Caitlin Gibson is a local news and features writer for The Washington Post.
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