For more than a year, murky brown water has been flowing from faucets in Swampscott’s Phillip’s Point neighborhood, staining bathtubs and toilets and forcing homeowners to spend hundreds of dollars on bottled water.
Swampscott officials said the discolored tap water – which affects more than a dozen single-family homes on Blodgett Avenue and Muriel and Lodge roads – is caused by rust accumulating in the more than century-old water mains that snake through the tree-lined suburban neighborhood of dead-end streets.
While town officials said the dirty water doesn’t pose a health hazard, residents are skeptical and say they are getting increasingly frustrated that the town has taken so long to fix the problem, and over the reluctance by officials to compensate them for losses.
Many, like Muriel Road resident Thomas Cooper, no longer drink the water.
“Nobody wants to drink, shower, or wash their clothes in rusty water,” said Cooper, a media ethics professor at Emerson College. “I’ve been showering at the health club and buying bottled water. There’s a lot of frustration.”
‘This has become a huge issue. The big problem is that water and sewer pipes are out of sight and out of mind because they are underground, but they are crumbling under our feet.’
Cooper said his tap water has been fouled with rust for nearly 15 months. He and other residents have packed several meetings of the Board of Selectmen to complain about the problem, some toting bottles of the yellowish-brown tap water with them.
“It took us a while to get together and realize that we all have the same problem, and begin asking the town what they are going to do about it,” Cooper said. “We’ve given the town a chance to come up with a solution.”
Gino Cresta, director of the town’s Public Works Department, said officials are working on a fix, but he cautions it will take several months because it’s too late to start digging up pipes with winter approaching. He said the earliest that the work could get underway is late May or early June.
Cresta said replacing the pipes to the neighborhood will cost about $300,000. To pay for it, town officials plan to tap into a $1.1 million bond previously approved by town voters to replace aging water mains along Paradise Road, he said.
According to Cresta, the town has sent samples of the rusty water to the Massachusetts Water Resource Authority — which provides millions of gallons of drinking water to the town under a multiyear agreement — and no contamination has been detected.
“It’s just discolored water; there’s no bacteria,” he said. “It’s the rust that builds up on the pipes and when a surge of water comes through, it gets dislodged.”
To reduce the discoloration, Cresta said, DPW workers have been flushing fire hydrants in the area once a week to keep rust from accumulating in the pipes. He said the flushing seems to be working, but some residents remain skeptical.
“They’ve found a way to make it look better, but after a while the rust particles come back,” Cooper said. “The flushing is just a temporary fix.”
Selectman Glenn Kessler said he thinks affected residents should be compensated somehow for the cost of buying bottled water or at least given a discount on their town water bills. He said the town is trying to come up with a solution but admits it’s complicated.
“These people have a serious and understandable beef,” said Kessler, who said he fought with the town for years over a drainage issue before he was elected to the board in 2012. “But the conundrum that the town now finds itself in is there may not be a mechanism, under our charter, to give these people some sort of rebate,” he said.
Cresta said town officials also are worried about setting a costly precedent by providing bottled water to affected residents, which he said could cost thousands of dollars the town hasn’t budgeted and prompt similar requests in coming years from other neighborhoods that have rusty water.
“Not that I don’t take their problem seriously, but I’m apprehensive about that,” he said. “Everybody has a certain amount of discolored water, especially if there is a main break. If we start giving them water, we’ll have to do it for others.”
Recently, affected residents got help from two Swampscott veterans groups — the Disabled American Veterans Chapter 64 and Veterans of Foreign Wars Chapter 1240 — which distributed cases of bottled water throughout the neighborhood.
Swampscott isn’t the only town dealing with costly plumbing problems.
Last year, a state legislative task force found that Massachusetts towns and cities face a projected $21.4 billion price tag for water and sewer upgrades in the next 20 years, calling it “one of the biggest fiscal challenges” for local governments.
“This has become a huge issue,” said Geoff Beckwith, executive director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association, a group of city and town leaders that advocate on common issues. “The big problem is that water and sewer pipes are out of sight and out of mind because they are underground, but they are crumbling under our feet.”
Beckwith said state lawmakers are pushing legislation that would authorize a $2 billion, 10-year bond bill to fund drinking water, waste-water, and storm-water upgrades.
Similar to state transportation funding, the proposed bond would provide $200 million annually to local governments for water, sewer, and storm-water projects. Some of the money would be used to supplement the state’s existing low-interest loan program, which is overseen by the Mass. Water Pollution Abatement Trust.
Beckwith said the federal government, which has traditionally provided financial assistance to cities and towns to pay for water and sewer upgrades, has in recent years been backing away from funding for local infrastructure projects.
Meanwhile, towns like Swampscott will have to continue racking up long-term debt to cover the costs of upgrades, as they did with the Paradise Road project.
“There’s no way a small town like Swampscott can afford to put millions of dollars into a water project,” Kessler said. “We don’t have the wherewithal.”
Christian M. Wade can be reached at cmwade1969