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Wausau residents frustrated over city water issue

in Investigations/Wisconsin news

By Shereen Siewert

WAUSAU — City residents say they are frustrated over discolored water blamed on a change in clarifiers at the Wausau treatment plant, even as city officials insist the discoloration does not pose a health risk to residents.

According to a city of Wausau Facebook post, the green tinge to the drinking water began June 14. But dozens of readers have contacted Wausau Pilot and Review claiming that their water has been discolored for weeks or even months.

“Unfortunately the changeover requires a short adjustment period to meet our typical Iron and Manganese removal efficiencies,” the post reads. “During the next few days customers may notice a yellow/green or brown tinge in the water. The color is due to less than desirable levels of iron and manganese not being removed as efficiently in the treatment process. Although the color is aesthetically unpleasing, there is no health effects associated with Iron or Manganese in the drinking water.”

Residents say they are frustrated that they were not alerted to the problem earlier. Heather Hanson of Wausau said she filled her backyard swimming pool this week, only to find yellow water that is resistant to pool chemicals.

“This is a waste of 3,000 gallons,” Hanson said, adding that she has a call in to Wausau Water Works about her concern and is hoping for a fix.

Photos: Heather Hanson of Wausau shared these photos of her swimming pool after being filled June 19, 2018 with Wausau city water.

Other residents say they have been experiencing brown drinking water for much longer and have resorted to buying bottled water for their families.

I sincerely thought that’s what the Wausau water looked liked,” Wausau resident Valerie Carillo wrote. “It’s been that way since I bought my house in Wausau, last December. I buy bottled drinking water and add Borax to my detergent when I do laundry. My water isn’t brown, but always has a yellowish hue to it.

Public Works Director Eric Lindman acknowledged that the city is dealing with an ongoing issue regarding the water’s color.

“Wausau has had a slight color in the water for a long time and this is associated with iron and manganese and the treatment process,” Lindman said. “We use a patented polymer as part of the treatment process and because of the remaining…iron in the water we have a slight yellow tinge. Typically seen in a white toilet bowl or white bathtub.”

The current water facility plan is addressing the issue, he said, but residents can install an in-home charcoal filter to remove any color.

Lindman said iron and manganese are aesthetic issues but do not pose health concerns. In Wausau, Lindman said, raw water prior to treatment for both Iron and Manganese can be as high as 2.9 mg/L or parts per million, though each well and each combination of wells is different.

“Typical finished water for iron is .02 mg/l, during this upset we had our highest iron levels up to .09 mg/l,” Lindman said. “Our levels are much lower now and back to normal levels of the .02mg/l. The .02 mg/l equates to typical removal efficiency up to 99.32% but the .09 we experienced was about 96.9%. EPA secondary standard (no health effects, not enforceable, aesthetic issues) for iron is 0.3 mg/l.”

Typically, the finished water for manganese is 0.5 mg/l, though during the past few days the city saw numbers as high as 0.4 mg/l, Lindman said.

“Removal is typically around 98.3% but the 0.4 mg/l we experienced would be 86.1%,” Lindman explained. “The EPA secondary standard for manganese is .05 mg/l.”

Manganese in drinking water has recently come under scrutiny due to its potential toxicity as well as its damage to distribution systems. While low concentrations are not only safe but also beneficial to human health, elevated manganese concentrations can cause taste and color issues, health risks and problems for distribution systems.

Long term exposure to manganese can cause toxicity to the nervous system and Parkinson’s like symptoms – particularly in children, the elderly, and pregnant mothers, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Young children cannot break down manganese in their bodies as effectively as adults, which can cause issues in early brain development and is a particular concern for bottle-fed infants. In recent studies, children exposed to high levels of manganese experienced learning difficulties such as ADD, hyperactivity, Pervasive Development Disorder, and memory issues.

Manganese levels below 300 μg/L are generally not a health concern, according to the state Department of Health Services. As previously mentioned, infants should not drink water that is above the health advisory level of 300 μg/L. Also, people who drink more than 8 cups of water a day and have a liver disease should also avoid drinking water that is above the health advisory level. According to the DHS, residents with water that tests higher than the health advisory level should find a different source of safe water to drink.

Although present in drinking water, iron is seldom found at concentrations greater than 10 milligrams per liter (mg/L) or 10 parts per million. However, as little as 0.3 mg/l can cause water to turn a reddish brown color, according to DHS.

“It will take a few days for the more efficiently treated water to reach the entire distribution system,” Lindman said. “We will continue to flush problem areas which will help move the water out into the system.”

Safeguarding your drinking water: What you can do

Wisconsin residents can take a number of steps to make sure their drinking water is safe. Here are a few suggestions:

  • If you live in one of the 940,000 households in Wisconsin that rely on a private well, have your water tested or test it yourself. The state Department of Natural Resources recommends getting your well tested once a year for coliform bacteria and any time you notice a change in how your water looks, smells or tastes. Check with your county health department on what contaminants may be found in your area and for which you might also want to test.
  • You can get more information on testing from the Wisconsin State Laboratory of Hygiene, including details on how to obtain testing kits and the costs of various tests. The test for coliform bacteria, for example, costs $29, as do the tests for lead and nitrate.
  • For those using municipal water, get the consumer confidence report from your local water utility. Or you can access the reports on the DNR’s database of public water systems. Also, find out if your utility disinfects for viruses or uses corrosion control to help keep lead out of pipes.
  • If your home was built before 1984, consider having it assessed for lead in the water. While pre-1950 homes often have lead service pipes, some homes built before 1984 may have lead solder on the pipes or fixtures that contain lead. Consult the DNR website for safer ways to use water that may contain lead.
  • Consider a filter for your water. But make sure that the filter you choose is effective for removing the specific contaminants that are in your water. The University of Wisconsin-Extension website has advice on which to choose.

— Ron Seely, The Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism

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