30,000 Coloradans had brown drinking water this January, CDPHE says "event was unusually large"
Brown water is the last thing anyone would want to see coming out of their kitchen sink tap, but that was case for 30,000 people this month in Arapahoe County. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment says nearly half the population of the East Cherry Creek Valley water district was affected.
Officials with ECCV tell CBS News Colorado the discoloration incident was a result of a maintenance issue at the beginning of the year.
CDPHE says while the water is safe to drink, an incident of this magnitude is rare.
"I would say this event was unusually large in terms of the number of folks that are impacted, and I am not certain of whether or not East Cherry Creek Valley, originally when the event occurred, knew that it would impact that many folks," said Tyson Ingels, lead drinking water engineer for CDPHE. "Water flowing through pipes at different velocities and stirring up sediments is very common, but the amount of sediment that got stirred up in this particular event and the number of people who noticed the discoloration was abnormally large."
Many ECCV customers who dealt with the brown water this month are still looking for answers.
Kendra Branch-Brett has been an ECCV customer for 12 years. She says she's never seen the water turn brown before, but that changed back in October.
"To put it plainly, very brown water. when I turned on the faucet one morning, it was just very plain brown water that had a little bit of a metallic smell to it, but quite pronounced," Branch-Brett recalled. "It was at least six days before I saw any improvement and probably about eight days before I could actually feel comfortable doing laundry or something of that nature."
Then, she says it came back around New Year's Day.
"It was quite dark, it was even darker the second time around," Branch-Brett said. "I was getting my son ready for a bath, and it was pouring in, and I was like, 'oh okay, no, we can't use this.'"
Customer Eric King says ECCV was responsive to the problem at his house. He says crews came out at three in the morning when he called about his brown water in early January.
"Filling up the water in the bathtub, I noticed that it had a green to brown, heavy tinge to it," King said.
He says ECCV also tested his water quality. Records show his home was one of 14 tested for iron and manganese levels.
Eleven of the 14 samples tested had manganese levels above the EPA's secondary regulations for aesthetic issues like taste, color, and odor. However, the levels were not high enough to cause any health concerns and they did not exceed any health advisory limits.
"We did see some elevated iron and manganese, but still really not high enough to be a health concern," said Scott Niebur, ECCV operations manager. "All the bacteriological sampling came back negative, so no bacteria in the water."
Niebur says the January incident happened when crews were replacing a leaky valve on a water tank.
When workers switched flowing water to a thinner pipe, it caused a reversal of flow.
"We did have another situation a couple of months ago, we lost power at a pump station... creating this same issue, not as bad, but similar," Niebur said.
By mid-January, the district said it had already received 225 complaints from customers.
"We actually put all of our staff out directionally flushing that zone from one end to the other to try and mitigate the color," Niebur said. "We've never had this volume of calls. We've had times when we've had slight increases in calls, because of water quality, but nothing like this."
Many customers feel the district should have done a better job of communicating about the problem, saying they didn't receive any phone calls, emails, or anything in the mail.
The district says it did put out notices on its website during the first week of January and on the Nextdoor app this month, but because crews were so busy working to fix the problem, they didn't have time to pass out letters to customers "in a timely fashion during this event."
"Please improve the communications," Branch-Brett said. "It makes a world of difference to your customers... that would have helped tremendously. Then, the second thing is please speed up your response... you're putting a lot of undue stress and pressure on your members."
Customers like Eric King wonder if the district should be testing for more contaminants. He says he's still skeptical of the water and has been drinking bottled water for weeks.
"I know that they get water from an aquifer and if they're bringing the water up from the aquifer... what else is in the water that could be potentially a contaminant? Things like copper, lead, radium, and arsenic?" King said.
Both the district and the state health department say the fact pattern of this incident doesn't indicate a need for more testing.
"We don't expect anything like that in a situation like this, because this is just really obviously iron and manganese in the system, and there wouldn't be a reason to test for other contaminants," Niebur said. "I understand why the customers were concerned, and we're sorry that happened and that we've learned from it."
When asked what steps the district is taking to ensure an event like this doesn't happen again, Niebur said, "we've learned a lot about the system, how to operate and prevent this from this occurring, and that in the future, we'll look at different places to isolate so we don't reverse that flow in the distribution system."
Ingels, with CDPHE, says the good news about the whole incident is that ECCV was being proactive to keep its systems up and running smoothly when the maintenance issue occurred.
He says the maintenance that caused the discoloration event is critical to prevent something even worse from happening down the road.
"It's really important for water systems to do preventative maintenance on their infrastructure, so they don't have catastrophic failure, which is what we really want to avoid in unexpected circumstances," Ingels said. "The infrastructure below our feet does require preventive maintenance, repair, replacement, and it is not easy to work on when it's a four-foot-diameter pipe."
And while the water for most customers is clearer now following system flushes, some like Branch-Brett aren't taking any chances for the future.
After 12 days of brown water this month and 20 days total since October, she bought a $6,000 water filter for her entire house.
"It was an expense I didn't want to incur, but I felt that it was an absolutely necessary one at this point," Branch-Brett said.
Many customers are also wondering if they'll be getting any discounts as a result of what happened, saying they already pay too much money every month to have to deal with brown water.
CBS News Colorado pressed the district about the issue, but staff with the district will not say 'yes' or 'no' as to whether they will provide discounts to customers affected.
Instead, they encouraged customers to contact the district for help at 303-693-3800, firstname.lastname@example.org, or via live chat at ECCV.org.
ECCV also says anyone still dealing with brown water can call and request for crews to come out and spot-flush their home directly.
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