Brown water? How bad it is depends on the city

Staff writer

Brown water plagues Marion and Peabody residents, but Hillsboro doesn’t get the same number of complaints.

How quickly the three cities are replacing their nearly 100-year-old cast-iron waterlines with PVC pipe is one reason.

But so, too, may be a difference in how the cities deal with pipes suspected of being encrusted with mineral deposits.

Marion and Peabody both flush their lines at fire hydrants. Hillsboro doesn’t.

And Hillsboro water supervisor Morgan Marler says this may be one of the reasons Hillsboro gets fewer complaints.

Cast-iron pipes often contain several inches of brown rust mineral deposits, Marler says.

Even though treated water now is balanced to avoid such buildups, modern treatment can’t get rid of buildup that happened years ago.

Particles from the buildup cause discoloring at residents’ taps.

Hillsboro ties to exercise its water system regularly, Marler says, keeping fresh water circulating through pipes rather than allowing it to sit and brown.

What it does not do is follow the practice of Marion and Peabody in using fire hydrants to flush lines. This method, Marler contends, does more harm than good.

“We don’t do that in Hillsboro because when you dramatically change the flow velocity by opening a hydrant, you scour the inside of the line, and the sediment gets stirred up and more complaints follow,” Marler said.

Marion’s water supervisor, Marty Fredrickson, sees things differently.

“After flushing ever hydrant on the south hill with large volumes of water or maximum flows,” water supervisor Marty Fredrickson said, “we seemed to have scrubbed the inside of the lines enough to reduce concerns or complaints to a minimum.”

Some hydrants in Marion will flush a total of 23,400 gallons a week to keep water from browning.

When Marion gets a water complaint, the water department typically starts a manual flush that uses between 5,000 to 10,000 gallons. Peabody does a similar process.

Marion City Administrator Roger Holter said the process works best on dead end-lines, where it removes stale water.

Mayor Todd Heitschmidt lives on such a line and often has water complaints. To eliminate the problem, city crews have been working to create loops with lines.

The underlying problem literally is underlying — easy-to-ignore iron pipes that have been used 25 years beyond their life expectancy, Marler said.

“They’re underground and nobody sees them,” she said.

Hillsboro’s water department has spent 10 to 15 years replacing small sections of iron water lines, completing some of the work without outside contractors.

Marion also has been replacing many old iron pipes but not for as long as Hillsboro has.

Peabody hasn’t really started yet and to date has replaced only broken lines. Its city council is working on a plan to replace several blocks of iron lines but has hit a financial roadblock that might necessitate rising water rates or taxes.

Both Hillsboro and Mario are working with contractors to replace old lines whenever streets are reconstructed.

“It takes coordination,” Holter said, “but we’ve been able to replace several old lines while the street is torn up, which makes replacing lines less costly.”

Marion crews recently worked to replace several feet of line along Freeborn St. before it was re-poured for example.

“By doing this while the streets are torn up we’re saving a lot of money,” Holter said. “Plus it saves us from tearing up the new streets to repair broken lines.”

However, coordination between funding poses another challenge to fixing lines found when streets are removed.

“The problem is balancing the funds between the street department and the utility funds to make those projects happen,” Hillsboro City Administrator Larry Paine said. “Because they’re two different departments, the funds can’t be mixed.”

Marler Fredrickson keep lists of pipes around town, their ages and past repairs to keep track of areas most in need of replacement.

To replace several feet of lines, Marler seeks grants to cover some costs and stretch the budget.

While replacing small sections helps, the water department is doing patch jobs when large portions of iron lines need replaced, Paine said.

Funding to complete large-scale work on Hillsboro lines isn’t in the books for 2014-2015. However, Hillsboro is working on a budget that would increase reserves in all utility funds to increase the city’s ability to handle disasters and handle major projects if needed.

Hillsboro has a plan to replace major sections of water line within 5 to 10 years, Paine said.

“We’re all just skating by on slim budgets because nobody wants to increase rates or taxes,” Marler said. “We just try and do as much as we can with the money we’re allocated.”

Marion is also working on a plan to start replacing old cast iron lines on the south hill, beginning in 2016. The city will apply for a grant to help offset the costs.

 

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