News - McHenry County

Discolored water worries some Johnsburg residents, who say it’s not drinkable despite being safe

Company received two rate increases in recent years

Scott Martens and Sandra Murphy hold a glass of water that comes out of the water utility that serves Johnsburg on Wednesday, June 29, 2022. Residents in Johnsburg are on a private water system and say the clarity and smell of the water can be awful at times.

For the eight years Debbie Kruse has lived in her home near Johnsburg, she’s had problems with her water.

Water coming from her tap is often discolored with sediment floating in it, she said. “It is literally gold, foggy yellow gold.”

Much of Johnsburg and the unincorporated subdivisions surrounding it is served by the private Prairie Path Water Company. The village itself has a water and sewage treatment system, but only a small portion of the community, about 200 households and newer developments, is attached to it.

The company has heard residents’ complaints and is working on a review of the entire system to see how the water quality issues can be fixed, Prairie Path President Steve Lubertozzi said. He’s also promised more regular meetings with village officials to share plans and hear resident concerns.

The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency tests the systems water regularly. Both residents and Prairie Path said the results, including private tests, are always within parameters for safe drinking water, regardless of any discoloration or sediments. Still, residents said, they do not want to drink or cook with it.

Fixing the issues may involve digging up streets to fix dead-ends in the water system, which may total 50 to 100, Lubertozzi said. An engineering firm hired by the company will perform a water audit, looking into the age of the system and its design.

“If we were to design that today, you would loop the system” to keep water flowing, Lubertozzi said.

Scott Martens holds a water filter that is used to try and improve the the water quality of the water that comes from water utility that serves Johnsburg on Wednesday, June 29, 2022. Residents in Johnsburg are on a private water system and say the clarity and smell of the water can be awful at times.

The promises from Prairie Path come after residents created a Facebook group to discuss the issues. That page lead residents to ask Prairie Path for meetings this spring to air concerns.

One of those customers, Adam Shaver, was so frustrated he began collecting data from his neighbors to have better documentation of the problems they were encountering and doing his own research into the system’s history.

“The water goes out golden brown,” Shaver said of his own supply. “You don’t want to drink that or bathe in that.

He’s also been keeping track of their water bills, which he said has been rising despite the unresolved problems. According to data collected by Shaver and averaging monthly per-gallon use from 15 residents, water bills have risen from $54 a month in 2017 to $110 a month in 2022.

The Illinois Commerce Commission, a state agency that oversees private water companies and must approve any rate increases, last approved an increase in 2021. Another was approved in 2018 when the system was named Whispering Hills.

The residents’ efforts ultimately led to a meeting with Prairie Path Water representatives in April, which became “a sort of town hall meeting” with residents airing complaints, Lubertozzi said.

Scott Martens holds a water filter that is used to try and improve the the water quality of the water that comes from water utility that serves Johnsburg on Wednesday, June 29, 2022. Residents in Johnsburg are on a private water system and say the clarity and smell of the water can be awful at times.

The company had not previously been hearing about issues in large numbers, Lubertozzi said, encouraging residents at the April meeting to report their concerns via the Prairie Path website.

“They don’t call in. Call the number on the bill, call the customer service hotline. It is tough for us to know unless they call us,” he said.

A second, smaller meeting was held June 16 to continue the dialogue. It included a handful of residents, Johnsburg village officials, County Board member Pam Althoff and water company representatives.

The meeting ended with positive results, Althoff said.

Prairie Path came back with responses and indicated a timeframe on how and when issues would be addressed, she said.

Shaver agreed progress was made.

“Prairie Path seems committed to reviewing resident complaints about quality,” he said in an email to the Northwest Herald following the June meeting.

Scott Martens and Sandra Murphy hold a glass of water that comes out of the water utility that serves Johnsburg on Wednesday, June 29, 2022. Residents in Johnsburg are on a private water system and say the clarity and smell of the water can be awful at times.

Once the water audit is completed, likely by late 2022, the company will have a better idea of what needs to happen to prevent further issues, Lubertozzi said. Any plan of action would be based on the results of that report.

Any work would probably not happen until mid- to late 2023, he said.

“We don’t want to tear up an entire community at once” to retrofit the system, Lubertozzi said, adding that improvements could be done at the same time as other street repaving or repair projects.

The repairs may also mean another rate increase, Lubertozzi said.

“If this water audit says it will cost another $17 million, there will be a conversation with the community and the [Illinois Commerce Commission]. We will go to the community first and we would be transparent about the audit,” he said.

In the meantime, to help keep the water from sitting in the pipes, the company increased the number of times each year the hydrants are flushed, Lubertozzi said.

Both Shaver and Kruse said their water issues don’t seem to be tied to the regular hydrant flushing, if only because of consistency of the problems both before and after the increased schedule.