Columbia’s brown drinking water problem won’t be going away anytime soon.
Murky water continues to be a point of contention for some Columbia water customers and, after City Council’s failure to raise rates this year to help fix the problem, the brown water is vexing many on council as well.
There’s nothing wrong with the city’s water as it comes out of the water plants. But as the water travels through old, metal pipes, minerals in the water react to the metal, resulting in buildups akin to cholesterol in human arteries – and stained water.
Discolored and sometimes smelly water crops up intermittently across various neighborhoods, especially the older, large, in-town ones where water lines are made of cast iron or galvanized metal, utility department employees say.
Breaks in aging lines and flooding contribute to the problem.
Council is split about what to do.
We knew we had brown water all these years. Fix it!”
Councilman Sam Davis
“We knew we had brown water all these years. Fix it!” an irritated District 1 Councilman Sam Davis said last month during a council debate that ultimately killed a water and sewer rate increase. He and councilmen Ed McDowell and Moe Baddourah argued that rising rates don’t seem to help solve the problem.
The problem is a bit of a Catch-22: Council members don’t want residents to pay more for drinking water that’s brown, but it will take money – higher rates – to replace the aging lines and make the water more clear.
Flushing lines, the first line of response, often clears the stain, utilities director Joey Jaco said. But the long-term fix for brown water – which Jaco said is not a health hazard – is an astronomically expensive undertaking that the city has not even fully evaluated.
Columbia relies instead on daily reports from utility workers and complaints from residents to keep tabs, Jaco said.
That’s not much of an answer for many residents.
I’m not comfortable putting this in my mouth, whatever it is.”
Keenan Terrace/Hyatt Park resident Mona Dzindzeleta
“I would not drink the tap water,” said Keenan Terrace/Hyatt Park resident Mona Dzindzeleta, who has installed filters in the kitchen and shower head in her 79-year-old home to help with the color, particles and odor for which she can’t seem to get a clear explanation. “I’m not comfortable putting this in my mouth, whatever it is.”
One of her neighbors, Abby Tyson, has similar concerns. “We buy bottled water and we buy ice. We don’t make ice cubes because when we do, you can see a brown ring.”
Councilwoman Tameika Isaac Devine, who lives in nearby Earlewood with her husband and two daughters, calls the discoloration “unsettling” for her family.
“I’ll tell the girls, ‘Go run the bath,’ and they come back and say, ‘Mommy, the water’s brown.’ I don’t let them sit in brown water,” Devine said of the 5- and 10-year-olds. “We’ve had this issue for years,” she said of her neighborhood in the central part of town.
“We’ve been patient and we’ve not pitched a fit.”
Line repairs softened some outcries
Discolored water complaints have eased in some neighborhoods.
Marvin Heller, president of the Lyon Street community off Millwood Avenue, said grumbling dropped substantially since the city replaced some lines a couple of years ago. But he hears complaints from other neighborhoods.
Earlewood resident Emily Burn is among those growing impatient.
“I shared these with the mayor in August, but nothing was done,” Burn wrote in January of photographs of her home posted on a neighborhood Facebook page.
“Their ‘fix’ was to put a runoff hose in my front yard that sprayed water into the street,” she said last week in Facebook messages to The State newspaper about the city’s response. “That hose was there for more than a year.
“The city refused to reduce my bill despite the condition of the water,” she wrote.
City Hall does what it can with the money available.
In the fiscal year that began July 1, City Council budgeted $15.6 million to help with water quality improvements in a $143.2 million water and sewer system that serves more than 140,000 metropolitan-area customers.
Those fixes are aimed largely at the Earlewood, Cottontown, Rosewood, Covenant Road/Harrison Road areas and engineering design for the Booker Washington Heights neighborhood.
Earlewood has gotten almost $1.5 million in water line repairs since 2014, according to figures from city water engineer, Jason Shaw. That money has replaced about 6,600 feet of lines with newer iron and concrete lines that are more durable and less prone to discolor water, Shaw said.
Those repairs have helped in about one-third of the neighborhood, largely in its eastern portion, said Earlewood neighborhood president Wesley Crosby. “It’s lessened the complaints,” said Crosby, whose job in the town of Lexington deals in part with water line replacements.
You’d run ... a tubful of water, and it would just be nasty.”
Earlewood neighborhood president Wesley Crosby
“We have had water quality issues for years,” he said of Earlewood. “You’d run ... a tubful of water, and it would just be nasty.”
About $5.85 million of the $15 million for water quality improvements is for projects outside city limits. Those areas are off Shop Road, south of the city, the Lake Katherine area that spills inside of the Forest Acres city limits and the Lincolnshire area north of the city, according to a projects list.
That list is separate from $13.5 million budgeted for expanding the water system into new areas, which bring more revenue into city coffers.
Jaco said council also put an extra $2.8 million into water system improvements after it stopped transferring money out of the water and sewer budgets to fund city services not directly related to utility services.
Too little, too slow
Crosby, of the Earlewood neighborhood, sees those investments as a bit late.
“As far as doing something to fix it, replace the water lines, I think they’ve been very slow to respond,” he said, referring to the years during which council transferred money out of the water and sewer systems for other uses.
“I’d say they’ve been more reactive than proactive.”
Councilwoman Devine said the lack of a rate increase this year delays the city’s ability to fix problems with discoloration, leaks and other issues that affect an aging infrastructure. Columbia, like other cities, struggles with that problem, she said.
In her own Earlewood neighborhood, a shortage of cash has delayed work. Most recently, council’s cut of $20 million from the city manager’s proposed budget for construction and repairs pushed back completion of work in Earlewood to 2019, Devine said.
... It is a grave mistake.”
Mayor Steve Benjamin, of City Council’s failure to raise rates to help address water system problems
In May, during a heated debate about a rate increase, Mayor Steve Benjamin warned council members that more money is a necessary investment. He chided council members who talk about building the city then vote against how to pay for it.
“I will say it is a grave mistake,” Benjamin said once it was clear that a majority would block the proposed 4.2 percent rate increase. “In the years to come, (you) will have incredibly convenient memories.”
Reach LeBlanc at (803) 771-8664.