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Dirty Water, Inconsistent Billing Plague Neighborhood Near Salina


‘You never know if it’s going to smell like sewage,’ a resident says of her tap water

By Allison Kite, Kansas Reflector


 SALINE COUNTY, Kan. — Misty Livingston-Holmes has lived most of her life in her subdivision northwest of Salina.

She loved growing up there, and after leaving home for a few years, she moved back to take care of her grandmother in her old age. Much of her family has lived in the modest neighborhood of mobile homes.

But if she had known when she returned that the water would become undrinkable — and at times not run at all — she’s not sure she would have done it.

“You never know if it’s going to smell like sewage, if it’s going to smell like chlorine, if it’s going to come out clear or if it’s going to come out brown or black,” Livingston-Holmes said.

For years now, Livingston-Holmes and her neighbors have been struggling with boil advisories, cloudy or even dark brown water, and inconsistent billing — plus, periods where they don’t have water at all. Earlier this year, when a polar freeze shut down a well pump, some residents of Sundowner West Meadows Mobile Home Park reported not having water for more than a week.

Felicia Sylvia, who moved to Sundowner West with her husband and children 10 years ago, said she doesn’t drink the water or use it to cook. She only uses it for washing clothes and bathing.

“I don’t even feel OK boiling eggs in that water or rinsing my fruit or anything,” Sylvia said.

And when residents try to take their issues up with their water provider, Livingston-Holmes and Sylvia said, they get nowhere.

Over the past few months, the situation has become so dire that residents began reaching out to anyone they could find, catching the attention of state Rep. Susan Concannon, a Republican from Beloit who represents the area. Concannon said she couldn’t imagine it getting any worse.

“It’s a public utility and there were several years here of no oversight whatsoever, and he was just doing whatever he wanted and bullying these families,” Concannon said of Scott Kolling, who acquired the water system at Sundowner in 2021.

Now, Kolling is facing accusations from state regulators that he has run the service without registering with the state, shut off customers’ water in violation of regulations, and failed to consistently monitor the water for contaminants, according to records from the Kansas Corporation Commission and the Kansas Department of Health and Environment.

Kolling referred questions to his attorney, Ed Watson, who did not respond to emails seeking an interview.

In a brief phone conversation, Kolling said the water is safe. He said he was waiting on several test results and will say more in the future.

“Some of the rumors and stuff that’s been going around are not completely the facts,” Kolling said. “When we make a statement, I want to make sure the facts are being told.”

KDHE, the state agency that regulates water quality, said in a statement that Kolling had hired a contractor to help with treatment of the water and there were no reported water quality issues.

“The agency will continue to monitor this issue as it works closely with the local government, the property owners/operators, and the residents of Sundowner Mobile Home Park,” KDHE’s communications director, Jill Bronaugh, said in an email.


‘Don’t drink it’

Sundowner, which lies northwest of Salina, is secluded, tucked in between farms along gently sloping country roads. It offers residents a chance to buy a modest residence — a mobile home set on a permanent foundation.

Advertisements in the Salina Journal in the late 1970s beckoned residents with the promise of owning the lot under their mobile homes to “turn rental payments into an investment.”

But of the lots developers drew up in their plans for a large rural neighborhood, only a few dozen were ever built. At one end of the subdivision are rows of mobile homes, but at the other, bare lots surround sporadically placed houses. Looking downhill to the southwest from Livingston-Holmes’ front porch, one can see two mostly empty streets where the homes developers anticipated never materialized.

When Sylvia’s family moved to Sundowner 10 years ago, “everything was great,” she said.

The water was clean and her family paid their bill along with the rent for the lot where their mobile home sits. Sylvia said the quality started to decline just before Kolling took over.

When Sylvia fills her bathtub, the water looks like it contains urine. It leaves a stain where the kitchen faucet drips into the sink. She mixes instant coffee with bottled water rather than using the tap to brew coffee.

She has recommended several loved ones move out to Sundowner, but she always includes a warning about the water.

“You tell your neighbors, ‘Don’t drink it,’ ” Sylvia said.

Even without drinking it, the water takes its toll — drying out her hair and skin.

And in January, Sylvia’s family of six was without water completely for days.

Starting in mid-January when temperatures in Salina plunged below zero, Sundowner residents’ water stopped working. The cold weather caused the pumps that draw groundwater to the surface to lose power, according to a report filed with the Kansas Corporation Commission.

Staff of the KCC said in the report that the issue wasn’t repaired for three to five days and noted residents complained of inadequate service for weeks.

Sylvia said her family were among the last residents to see water service restored.

“I’m an understanding person,” Sylvia said. “I know that we’re all human and things happen, but if you’re going to have something, you have to take care of it.”

A bottle of water filled from Misty Livingston-Holmes’ kitchen sink appears cloudy compared to the glass of water filled from her dispenser of bottled water. (Allison Kite/Kansas Reflector)

Conflicting instructions

In her kitchen, Livingston-Holmes filled a plastic water bottle from the kitchen faucet and set it on the counter next to a glass of water filled from her dispenser of bottled water. The tap water was almost opaque. Next to the clear bottled water, it was obviously cloudy.

Sometimes, Livingston-Holmes said, the water is brown. And it alternates between smelling like sewer water and pool water overloaded with chlorine.

Outside, she fills another bottle from the faucet where the hose connects. She points to the black flecks floating in the water, which she says are manganese. A prolonged struggle with elevated levels of manganese has spurred KDHE to advise residents not to make infant formula with their tap water.

After sampling Livingston-Holmes’ water in January, KDHE gave her literature about the potential risks of manganese, including a warning not to boil the water, cook with it or use it to make ice.

Months later, in April, Sundowner’s water system lost power again, and KDHE issued a boil water advisory despite its previous advice to Livingston-Holmes. Boil water advisories are typical when a water utility loses pressure because bacteria can be introduced into the system. 

But within hours, KDHE received updated manganese results at levels high enough that the agency told residents to stop drinking their water at all because boiling it to eliminate bacteria would only concentrate the manganese. The water, KDHE said in a “do not drink” notice, had even higher concentrations of manganese than it did three months before.

Even when the “do not drink” advisory was lifted, KDHE left in place a health advisory about the manganese levels. According to the news release, parts of the distribution system have levels of manganese that could pose a health risk to infants. That remains in place, and the agency is awaiting further manganese testing results.

While manganese is not regulated, the Environmental Protection Agency is in the process of determining whether to set limits for the mineral, according to KDHE.

Manganese is an essential nutrient in small quantities. It’s found naturally in rocks, soil, water and food. But in large quantities, manganese exposure can cause learning or behavioral problems in children and may impact adults’ nervous systems. In large quantities, it can cause “manganism,” a disorder similar to Parkinson’s disease.

Misty Livingston-Holmes flips through water bills and sampling results as she talks about the water quality issues and inconsistent billing in her neighborhood near Salina. (Allison Kite/Kansas Reflector)


Billing disputes

At the same time they were struggling with the quality of their water — and despite not using it for anything except bathing and washing clothes — residents at Sundowner have also reported inconsistent bills and high prices.

And Kolling, Livingston-Holmes and Sylvia said, is quick to lock up residents’ meters for nonpayment.

“There’s times that he won’t send you a bill for three months and then it will be a ridiculously high bill,” Livingston-Holmes said. “How do you expect people to pay their bill when you wait three months and then you want the payment tomorrow?”

Livingston-Holmes’ bills arrive inconsistently. A bar chart displaying her monthly usage at the bottom of her bill shows no usage some months compared with huge spikes in other months.

Sylvia and Livingston-Holmes both pay Kolling via Venmo and don’t receive a receipt for their payments, they said.

Sundowner’s water system is not registered as a public utility with the Kansas Corporation Commission. As a result, it’s difficult to know how much Kolling charges per gallon. And the state agency hasn’t been overseeing those rates as it’s supposed to.

“I don’t know how this flew under the radar and continued to fly under the radar even when I was calling … trying to get somebody to tell me that there was some oversight,” Concannon, the state representative, said.

Normally, public utilities — including water providers and electric and gas utilities — are registered with the Kansas Corporation Commission and have to receive state approval over their prices and abide by other regulations.

But Sundowner’s water system isn’t registered with the KCC.

After residents’ and Concannon’s inquiries, the KCC ordered Kolling to either register as a public utility or file documentation explaining why he thinks he shouldn’t have to.

Kolling has requested more time to file a response with the KCC. In the meantime, the order from regulators also requires that Kolling restore service to customers whose water had been shut off and notify customers in writing that their rates are subject to change and refund.

If the Kansas Corporation Commission finds that Kolling must register Sundowner’s water service as a public utility, the rates Kolling charges for water would become governed by the commission and residents could go to the state agency to report potential regulatory violations.

According to KCC documents, the agency has received 12 complaints from Sundowner residents ranging from inconsistent or inaccurate billing to double billing to unjustly shutting off their water service and poor water quality.

The KCC’s order requiring Kolling to explain why Sundowner shouldn’t be required to apply for regulatory oversight also instructed him to provide audited financial statements, water sales, income statements and other information to allow the KCC to review Sundowner’s water rates.

Sylvia said she doesn’t have any faith that problems with the water at Sundowner — both the quality and the billing — will end.

“If you told me today that I could drink my water,” she said, “I don’t think I would drink it.”