City OKs water plan despite residents’ protests

Sides disagree about program that protects aquifer that serves 400,000 people.

After months of meetings and heated debates, the city of Dayton’s source water protection plan will be updated with some controversial changes, including the shrinking of the protected area and the creation of new variance standards.

Despite some pointed and emotional pleas from opponents of the proposal, Dayton commissioners on Wednesday night unanimously voted to modify the city’s zoning code and map. The votes authorize altering the program that protects the underground aquifer that provides about 400,000 people with drinking water.

City commissioners said they believe the changes are firmly rooted in better science and modeling than what was available almost three decades ago, when the original plan was adopted.

“I simply just do not agree that this is a weakening,” said Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley. “This is a strengthening – we are adding people to the well field.”

But opponents said the commission’s decision is short-sighted and increases the risk of contamination facing the ground water system. They accused city leadership of weakening regulations that since the late 1980s have proven effective at protecting one of the most abundant, re-charging fresh water systems in North America.

A large crowd packed into Dayton commission chambers in anticipation of the vote.

The meeting lasted for more than three and a half hours. There were public hearings on the proposed revisions to the zoning map boundaries and the zoning code. Dozens of people signed up to speak at the hearings.

The majority of speakers opposed the plan, urged commissioners to vote it down and wanted to keep the current regulations intact.

City commissioners said they can understand why community members are concerned about the plan and its impact on the area’s drinking water. But they said they believe the plan is a good one and is based on the best science.

Commissioner Joey Williams said the revised plan increases fines and the number of prohibited chemicals in the protected area to 26 from 8.

Commissioner Matt Joseph said components of the revised plan could use further improvement, but he strongly supports adding monitoring wells and creating criteria for the variance process.

Joseph said new scientific studies allow the city to create far more accurate boundaries than what were drawn in the past.

“These things are going to strengthen – strengthen – our water protection,” he said.

Joseph introduced legislation that commissioners also approved that states the city will implement strategies and practices to help reduce risk of contamination of the aquifer and will produce an annual report on risk-reduction activities.

Whaley said the plan will add some properties to the well-field protected area. She said the city and commission must re-evaluate programs and other activities because things change and science and technology improve.

Opponents said residents across Montgomery County rely on the aquifer for drinking water, and the changes will shrink the protected area in Dayton by about 12 percent, removing about 544 acres of land. They said businesses with a few million pounds of chemicals will no longer be in the regulated area.

Opponents said modeling is imperfect, and shrinking the protected area could threaten the water supply for future generations.

Businesses in the protected area are restricted in how many and what types of chemicals they can have on site.

The plan also will create a variance process that allows businesses to add chemicals based on demonstrated needs.

Opponents said the variance process would create a weak standard that could allow companies to add unlimited quantities of hazardous chemicals, just as long as the addition does not provide a “substantial risk” to the groundwater.

Supporters said the changes will provide clear guidelines for how businesses can safely add chemicals by obtaining variances, which had not been granted in the past.

The city has gathered so much more data and information about the geological characteristics and paths of travel of the underground water system since the protection plan was created in 1986 and 1987, city officials said.

The city’s water pumping strategies and operations have changed, and there has been a significant decline in water demand because some large industrial water-uses have closed or moved elsewhere, said Tammi Clements, the director of the city’s water department.

Clements said the sensitive protected area will shrink because the modeling, monitoring and geological information supports the change.

But she said the city is expanding the area that city staff monitors for contamination. She said staff will identify and work with businesses with chemical inventories to reduce contamination risks and avoid undesirable land uses.

“This will (provide) a higher level of protection than we have today,” she said.

The city has 300 early-warning monitoring wells and 200 production wells. The proposal would add 150 monitoring wells.