Garden Road resident Nancy Larkham was not surprised when her Scituate neighbor came over in late June asking if her tap water was tan. As she had every summer before, she assumed the problem would clear up in a few days.
But this time, the water turned from tan to a sewage-looking brown.
“And it went on for three to four weeks,” said Larkham.
The deluge of discolored water, caused by sediment released from century-old pipes, has since spurred town officials to action. Yet questions remain about the timeline of any fixes, how to pay for them, and what to do in the meantime.
Some residents have complained about all the extra cleaning required, because the crud adheres to the porcelain in sinks, tubs, and toilets. Others truck laundry out of town so it will not turn a dirty shade of beige. Still more are concerned about the effects of long-term exposure after finding the residue on their skin following showers.
In Larkham’s house, bottled water has replaced drinking water from the tap, and the water is checked before anyone runs a load of dishes.
“I’ve been brushing my teeth in brown water for four weeks,” Larkham said last week.
She eventually called the town to make sure nothing was seriously wrong, and she is not the only one who is concerned, or complaining.
“There were 300 calls we were getting a day at the height,” said Nora Finegan, a customer service representative for the town’s Water Division.
Scituate’s summer of brown water is the result of several factors. A fire in early July required forceful drawing of water from the old pipes.
Later in the month, water-pressure problems prompted officials to open several gates within the water system, changing the direction and velocity of the flow and stirring up debris.
On top of that, an additional 12,000 residents during the summer months has increased the flow of water through the pipes, and an electrical outage at the water treatment plant on July 15 jostled the sediment inside 24 miles of the aged water system.
The result was bits of iron and magnesium breaking off in the tap water, staining clothes, turning drinking water to the color of iced tea, and leaving rusty specks on everything for weeks at a time.
Residents turned out in force at a July 23 selectmen’s meeting to complain about the problem, and plans to replace 1 mile of pipe per year abruptly shifted to a $22 million overhaul of all 24 miles of water mains within three years.
“Let’s just get it done,” said Selectman John Danehey. “It’s a major aggravation and it’s clearly frustrating the residents of town. At this point, the solution has got to be an aggressive one.”
Though the town has not chosen a plan, the three-year timetable was endorsed by Al Bangert, director of the Department of Public Works.
“It’s important enough to our residents now that we need to tackle this in a bigger, faster way,” said Bangert. “[Selectmen] were committed to dealing with the problem, but we all agree — the Water Resource Committee, the water department, and the Board of Selectmen agree — that this needs to be tackled more quickly.”
To launch the plan, selectmen at that meeting raised water rates by 10 percent. The average annual bill is expected to rise from $425 to $468, and the money will be used to hire an engineer to work out the logistics for an aggressive response.
But that leaves the question of how to pay for the pipe replacement.
Officials could ask taxpayers for a debt-exclusion override, which would result in a temporary tax increase. Another option would be to take out a loan through the Water Division, and repay the debt through higher rates.
The former would spread the burden to all homeowners. The latter would fall harder on large families or other customers who use a lot of water.
According to Danehey, a decision on funding most likely will not be made until January.
Also up for debate is whether all 24 miles of aging line need to be replaced within three years.
Though Danehey, who works and lives in town, is pushing for a quicker solution, Selectman Tony Vegnani said he is not so sure.
“If you did $7 million worth of repair and solved 80 percent of the problem, does that make sense? . . . And the rest of the stuff put on a longer maintenance plan. That’s the stuff we need to understand,” Vegnani said.
Either way, a fix is still years away, and residents in the meantime have to deal with discolored water. As irritating as the issue may be, the water is still safe and drinkable, said water superintendent Jim DeBarros.
“There are barrages of samples [taken] . . . and a huge amount of testing. We have to go by what the [state Department of Environmental Protection] recommends,” he said.
That statement was backed up by Bangert. When asked by a reporter last week if he actually drinks the water, Bangert readily took a swig of tan-colored water to make his point that it is purely an aesthetic problem.
Yet 94-year-old Lucy Morris said she is skeptical of officials’ reassurances.
“One time it was so bad that it was almost like mud coming out of the faucets. It’s so silly to get someone telling you it’s safe to drink. It’s laughable,” said the Meeting House Lane resident.
Jennifer Geoghegan of Common Street also said she doubts whether the testing can be entirely trusted.
“Obviously, they test it and do the quality checks, but are we testing for the right things?” she said. “What does repeated long-term exposure to things like this [do]?”
She also said that in the past, numerous remedies — including a change of her home’s pipes, alterations to the gates within the water system near her house, and even a change of the entire neighborhood’s water lines — have had only limited success.
Having hordes of residents as passionate about the problem is validating, Geoghegan said, but she is withholding judgment about the town’s response.
“I’m so grateful they are finally doing something,” she said. “If it will be the right fix, no one will know until they are done.”