BROOKFIELD — When Barbara Murphy first moved into her home in 1958, relatives from Danbury would come to her house to get their water because it tasted so good.
But now she and several of her longtime neighbors by Huckleberry Hill Elementary School can’t even drink their well water because it’s so salty.
The higher levels of sodium chloride have also caused her to replace her entire plumbing system with plastic because the pipes were constantly getting pinholes from corrosion. She also just put in her third water heater in the past five years.
“It was all rusted inside,” Murphy said. “It just ate the hot water heater.”
Public and private wells across the state have been experiencing higher levels of sodium chloride, prompting Sherman to start a study last month into why the cause of the salt.
But unlike towns, private homeowners are generally left to handle the treatment costs and identification on their own, which can cost thousands of dollars.
Cheryl and Arthur DePoi just drilled another well in the back of their property for $10,000 after the $3,000 water treatment system they installed didn’t fix the problem. The well in the back is 305 feet deep, far greater than the 35 foot well along the road at the front of the property. But even with these changes, the DePois still see salt in the water.
The neighbors have invested tens of thousands of dollars into water treatment systems, new pipes and water heaters to try and fix the problems on their own. But after seeing little change, they’re hoping the town can help by addressing their road salt procedures — the leading theory from residents and state officials on the source.
Too much sodium can cause kidney problems, high blood pressure, heart attacks and strokes.
The DePois said they’re not worried about the health impacts and still use the water for most activities, but will use the bottled water they purchase every other week to drink, for their animals and to water their plants.
Laura Staffieri who also lives across from Huckleberry Hill, noticed the row evergreens she planted in 1997 began having problems around the same time the well water began tasting salty.
“All of a sudden, they were dead,” she said. “Every single one is deader than a doornail.”
None of the neighbors are looking to sell their homes now, but worried this would affect their property values when the time came.
The depth and location of the well, the types of fractures in the bedrock that feed the well and the proximity to a road are all factors.
Brookfield First Selectman Steve Dunn said it’s unclear how salt got into the residents’ wells and if the town is at fault. He said wells all over the state are experiencing this and it’s a problem the state needs to look into.
“There has to be a complete investigation to determine where the salt is coming from and that’s not easy to do,” Dunn said.
The residents by Huckleberry Hill suspect the salt placed on the school’s parking lot and on the adjacent town roads is being washed downhill onto their properties.
“We were up there walking the dogs and the salt was just filling the (parking lot) cracks,” Cheryl DePoi said, about their trips to the school over the winter.
Most of the houses by the school are older and have shallow wells near the road, which also makes them more vulnerable because the salt doesn’t have as much of a chance to filter out of the water table before entering the well.
Unlike public drinking water sources, private wells are generally unregulated. A state agency will only step in if there is a problem, but it’s up to the residents to detect an issue in the first place.
The state Department of Public Health oversees natural problems in wells, while the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection investigates man-made problems, such as oil spills or road salt.
DEEP looks at the location of the well, its proximity to the road, drainage around it and if snow is stored nearby. If there’s a problem, they’ll work with the town or state Department of Transportation to make a change to prevent road salt from entering the well, said Drew Kukucka, an environmental analyst with DEEP.
The department’s potable water program started getting calls from private well owners across the state about salt in 2015. The department’s knows of about 120 wells with the problem, a fraction of the state’s more than 300,000 private wells, Kukucka said. This is about the same time the Brookfield cluster of residents began noticing a problem.
It’s too soon to say though what happened in 2015 that is causing the increase in calls, said DEEP spokesman Chris Collibee.
“It’s still a relatively small problem, but it’s increasing,” Collibee said.
Chloride, or salt, is the predominant road treatment method in cold weather states, including Connecticut.
The state DOT removed sand from the road mixture about 10 years ago, keeping the same amount of salt. This also reduced the application rate to 200 pounds per lane mile. A chloride mixture is added to the salt when temperatures get below 20 degrees so the salt can work in single digits. All of the vehicles are calibrated to ensure only this amount is put on the road, said DOT spokesman Kevin Nursick.
“If you talk about reducing the amount of salt, you’re talking about a consequential reduction in public safety,” he said.
He added there is now no viable alternative to salt, based on safety and cost.
Nursick said while towns can follow state protocol, each town is responsible for its own practices, including the type and quantity of the mixture put on the road.
“You’re always trying to achieve a balancing act for keeping the roads safe for our residents to drive while understanding some of the chemicals can be harmful to the environment,” Dunn said.
Nursick said the private sector, which handles the business parking lots along the roads, generally puts the most amount of salt down because business owners are worried about frivolous lawsuits if someone falls.
Towns contribute the next highest amount, followed by the states, largely due to the miles of roads each is responsible for, he said.
Private homeowners are generally left to address these problems on their own, purchasing reverse osmosis water systems or drilling new wells. The other alternative is to connect to city water, but that tends to cost about $200 a foot.
For residents around the school, the closest hookup is too far away to make the connection affordable, Arthur DePoi said.
Dunn said there isn’t anything the town can do to help them at this time without empirical evidence the salt is coming from the town and not another source, such as salt residents put on their driveway.
He said he wants to help the residents, but state law forbids him from spending town money on private homes or businesses unless a court or another governing authority orders the town to address the problem.
The neighbors said they’re trying not to be confrontational but hope the town can adjust the amount of salt put down, especially in the school parking lot. They also recognize the salt is needed to keep roads safe.
“It’s not going to get better unless someone does something,” Murphy said.