Residents with infants in Worden and Ballantine are using bottled water and waiting for answers as the area's water district and the state Department of Environmental Quality try to figure out why the groundwater there has so many nitrates.
Nitrates in the numbers found in the Worden Ballantine Yellowstone County Water District groundwater aren't harmful to adults but are deadly to infants under 6 months old. As such, anyone with infants living in Worden and Ballantine has been told not to drink the tap water and are being given bottled water.
The latest rounds of water testing, performed earlier this week, showed groundwater nitrates dropping below the threshold of unacceptable levels, which is good news for the community.
"But we can't remove any warnings at this time," said Gary Fredericks with the WBYC Water District.
Until the DEQ and WBYC can figure out why the nitrates are so high and why they're in the groundwater those warnings will stay in place, he said.
"It's really critical we not be in a rush to button this up," Fredericks said. "If we can get nitrates in our water, we can get other things in our water."
Worden and Ballantine use a clear water well system, which pulls groundwater from deep below the surface, treats it with chlorine and pumps it to residents' homes.
The chlorine kills any bacteria in the raw water. But nitrate is a chemical and to be removed from the water it needs a more intensive treatment. The two towns have long considered their water to be remarkably clean, which is one of the reasons they have the simple water treatment system.
"It was good water," said Mary Cummins, a nearly 60-year resident of Worden. "But it's sure not as good as it used to be."
Nitrates have shown up in the area's water sporadically for years, but never in alarmingly high amounts. It wasn't until 2012 that levels began to be problematic. Testing that year found 5 milligrams of nitrate per liter of groundwater.
That state's threshold is 10 milligrams and so when a community hits that halfway mark, the DEQ requires water testing every quarter.
The quarterly testing in Worden showed a continual, steady increase in nitrates. By May, levels had reached 12.4 milligrams per liter, the first time it had raised above the 10 milligram threshold.
WBYC issued a warning and earlier this month started providing the bottled water, which was donated by the city of Red Lodge. Earlier this year, residential water lines in Red Lodge froze up and the city provided bottled water to its residents.
Nitrates have stayed above 10 milligrams, the threshold for dangerous levels, until this week when they finally dropped.
The problem, as the DEQ sees it, is that nitrates aren't suppose to be in groundwater.
"Generally it's not present in high concentrations," said Scott Patterson, a public water expert with the DEQ.
He and other state representatives were at a community meeting at Huntley Project High School Monday night to talk about the water. About 40 people were there.
If nitrates are showing up in groundwater, it might mean contaminated surface water is somehow finding its way into the groundwater, Patterson said.
Worden and Ballantine draw their water from two sources: a vertical well north of town and what's know as an infiltration collector drain south of town. It's the drain that's presenting all the nitrate.
DEQ is testing the drain now to try and find the source of the nitrates, a process that will take another month. Once they can isolate the source, DEQ and WBYC can solve the problem, Patterson said.
"We're looking at a long-term solution now," Fredericks said.
Fredericks warned the community members at the meeting that any fix to the water system will likely raise their costs.
"It'll increase your water bills dramatically," he said.