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The Town of Fountain Hills and the Fountain Hills Sanitary District are looking to resolve what they are viewing as a “sodium (chloride) pollution” problem that impacts irrigation water in the community.

The Sanitary District provides irrigation water from its treated wastewater for town parks as well as several of the golf courses in the community. What they are finding is that the sodium ladened effluent is not conducive to lush, healthy turf growth desired for those uses. Grass will turn yellow, and, in some cases, it is inviting to invasive species of weeds.

While there is a good deal of natural sodium in the soil and water in the Phoenix area, there is good reason it is called the “Salt River,” the district and town see this as an issue much closer to home, literally.

People want to avoid using “hard” water that comes from the sodium in the surrounding water table in their household water supply. One of the important ways they address that concern is installing a water softener, which uses sodium chloride as the primary agent to soften water.

As described in educational material prepared by the District, when salt (sodium chloride) is added to a water softener it disappears over time. The salt “softens” the water used in the home for drinking and washing and then it is discharged into the sewer system. Once in the sewer system, the water is collected, treated and sent to the local parks and golf courses to water the grass and landscaping.

The recycled water also refills Fountain Lake, and in the end, every 40-pound bag of salt that is used in water softeners in Fountain Hills ends up applied to the grass as irrigation water.

Scientifically speaking, the University of Massachusetts Agricultural Extension describes the impact of salt on plants like this, “The dissolved sodium and chloride ions, in high concentrations, can displace other mineral nutrients in the soil. Plants then absorb the chlorine and sodium instead of needed plant nutrients such as potassium and phosphorus, leading to deficiencies. The chloride ions can be transported to the leaves where they interfere with photosynthesis and chlorophyll production. Chloride accumulation can reach toxic levels, causing leaf burn and die-back.”

At a joint meeting of the Town Council and Sanitary District Board of Directors on Aug. 12, Director Jerry Butler, a retired engineer, presented some numbers to provide perspective. He was careful to state the numbers were approximate and vary depending on changes to conditions and circumstances. Butler said water starting at the household tap may show sodium at a level of approximately 100 ppm (parts per million). By the time it has been treated as wastewater the number is likely around 250 ppm. By the time it sits in Fountain Lake, where much of the irrigation water is pumped from, the number may be as high as 600 ppm.

“This is not a Town of Fountain Hills problem, this is not a Sanitary District problem,” Butler went on to say. “This is a community problem.”

The Town and the District have put together a joint panel that is considering the sodium issue. It consists of Butler and Sanitary Director Tammy Bell and Council Members Mike Scharnow and Sharron Grzybowski as well as Town Manager Grady Miller and Sanitary District Manager Dana Trompke.

The initial steps being presented by the panel are a very basic public information campaign urging citizens to consider alternatives to sodium chloride for water softening. Simply replacing the salt with potassium chloride is easy and basic, albeit somewhat more expensive than sodium chloride. There is also the option of replacing water softeners with alternative household water treatment systems. Many homebuilders are already doing this in new construction.

Butler noted that absolutely no one is interested in instituting a ban on water softeners, or even the use of sodium chloride.

Scharnow said the committee may be interested in researching a rebate program for those who make a switch to offset cost differences.

Grzybowski said she has experienced the dumbfounded reaction from people when they are presented with the scope of the problem, she supports efforts to communicate the concerns.

Mayor Ginny Dickey said this is not just a community concern, it is also a county, state and national issue.

“This is a huge problem for a lot of people,” Dickey said. “It is voices that carry the day, we need to talk to other government levels.”

Scharnow suggested working with the Maricopa Association of Governments (MAG) to see what could be addressed at a regional level.