FERNDALE - The city's well water tastes bad and is so full of minerals that it is damaging appliances and staining tubs and dishes, according to hundreds of complaints Ferndale officials have received since the beginning of the year.
Officials acknowledged residents' concerns and said they are studying the problem.
Ferndale converted its water system at the end of 2011, drawing water from its own wells instead of water from the Nooksack River. The change will save the city money, officials said.
But some water users are so unsatisfied they want to go back to the river water supplied by Whatcom County Public Utility District, even knowing there's an additional cost.
The executive director of Ferndale Chamber of Commerce said that to the mayor and city administrator in a June 14 email. At the end of a chamber board meeting, a "small consensus" was reached that the well water, given its hardness and poor taste, was not worth the money saved, Executive Director Guy Occhiogrosso said in the email.
"It would have been preferred to have the increased fee of PUD water - that's probably easier to say now," he said in the email.
The Bellingham Herald obtained dozens of emails from the city in response to a request for comments from water customers about the new system. Only one email was positive.
Many more complaints were heard in person and on the phone. Emails from city officials said the Public Works Department took 20 complaints the first week of January, alone. In May, complaints were coming at a rate of one or two a day, according to an internal city email.
"We have been very unhappy with the quality of our water since it was changed to 'groundwater,'" resident Patti Rose wrote in a June 30 email to Mayor Gary Jensen. "I have to use harsh chemicals to clean the toilet bowls, faucets and sinks. We now use bottled water for coffee both to save the coffee pot and for the taste. We drink only filtered water. The city of Ferndale may be saving money, but we will have to purchase equipment to soften our water before it ruins our plumbing."
Critics of the water system said city officials have shown concern, even visiting people's homes and testing their water, but they didn't offer solutions.
"I think they've been able to put out most of the fires by going to people's houses, but it doesn't solve anything," said Dennis Hawkinson, a former City Council member and mayor from the 1970s and '80s. He lives outside the city limits but uses city water.
"They've made a mistake, and I think it's up to them to fix it," he said.
Wes Herman, the owner of The Woods Coffee Shop, said he invested more than $10,000 on a filtration system for his Main Street store, so the water would meet his taste standards and his equipment could be protected from damage.
"The city was responsive but not willing to take responsibility for any corrective measures," Herman said in an email to The Herald.
Herman had called the mayor in April about his concerns about the water, according to a city email.
Mike Murphy, director of facilities for Ferndale School District, said city officials listened to his concerns about mineral sediment clogging filters and building up in boilers in schools, but said they didn't offer to pay for anything to correct the problems.
The district paid for new filter systems for some of its boilers, but can't afford to protect all of its boilers, hot water tanks and water lines, Murphy said in an email to The Herald.
Jensen acknowledged the city hasn't helped the schools.
"We haven't met their concerns yet, but we're not done addressing their concerns," the mayor said.
Public Works will continue to test the water, to see how hardness changes with the seasons. The city wants to be thorough in its investigation so it can make an informed choice when it does invest in improvements, Jensen said.
"We're still giving people safe and clean water, but obviously people want a little more than that," he said.
The city can make improvements with the money saved by getting off of PUD water, Jensen said, but those improvements can be costly.
RH2 Engineering, the firm that oversaw construction during conversion of the water treatment plant, gave the city rough cost estimates on wholesale fixes. It would cost about $1 million to install equipment to soften the city's water, and another $1 million for a filtering system to improve taste, Dan Burwell of RH2 wrote in emails sent to the city in June.
The mayor doesn't expect the city will spend that much.
"Our objective is to not raise the price of water to citizens," Jensen said.
The city website has an information page about the new water system, including the advice "Leave a squeegee in the shower to clean the walls and shower door after each use."
Ferndale will expand its PR effort to include the original budgetary reasons for the change, said Janice Marlega, Public Works director.
The annual cost to Ferndale for PUD water rose from $190,398 in 2007 to $283,653 in 2011, according to city records. Ferndale anticipated more cost increases over the next few years, so the council decided it was time to convert to well water.
"We have more control of rate increases," Marlega said. "(Residents) should definitely see smaller rate increases" that might only include adjustments for inflation.
The city is taking other steps to improve the water and satisfy its customers. Public Works staff will change the mixture from the city's two wells to see if that will reduce hardness. The city also has been flushing water mains more aggressively, which reduces minerals in the pipes.
City officials said patience is required during the transition.
"This is a big change, and this takes time," Marlega said. "People, they're used to the water before."
Reach RALPH SCHWARTZ at email@example.com or call 715-2266.