City Still Searching for Solutions to Discolored, Odorous Water

Photos shared with The Review document yellow and brown sinkwater, stained clothes and skin rashes residents say they did not encounter until January. Courtesy photo

A growing number of residents are becoming increasingly frustrated with the City of South Pasadena as water they’ve described as “yellow,” “brown,” and “sewage-smelling” has continued to run from the pipes of their homes and apartments since early February and the City has not been able to eliminate the problem.

There have been at least 37 water-quality complaints filed with the City in the past eight weeks. Photos shared with The Review over email document murky dishwater, stained clothes and skin rashes residents say they had not experienced previously.

“I’m quite tired of knowing that this awaits my family each day – to bathe, brush our teeth, wash our dishes and rinse our food,” Tracey Hutson said earlier this week.

Hutson lives on Bank Street west of Meridian Avenue, a dead-end street located behind the South Pasadena High School Football Stadium that has a large number of affected residents.

Lauren Black, one of Hutson’s neighbors, said she is worried about exposing her kids to the water. “The water doesn’t taste right, doesn’t look right, it’s concerning,” she said.

Yet the City insists the water is safe to drink.

“The City must test weekly within its distribution systems and monthly at sources for coliform (bacteria) and contaminants identified within Title 22 of the Safe Drinking Water Act,” South Pasadena City Manager Stephanie DeWolfe said Tuesday, explaining the City’s water safety testing system. “Results are sent to Division of Drinking Water and if the City is in violation a public notice is issued notifying residents. All results are within acceptable limits and the City has no violations.”

The cause of the discoloration, the City says, is water blending resulting from a new state regulation limiting the maximum contaminant level (MCL) of 1,2,3-Trichloropropane (TCP) in the public’s water supply from 7 parts per trillion to 5 parts per trillion. Since January, when certain wells serving as South Pasadena’s primary water source became out of compliance with the new mandate, the city has diluted its water by introducing into it surface water from the Metropolitan Water District (MWD). The MWD water supply is an approved water source and South Pasadena’s back-up water supply, DeWolfe said.

“The City has used this interconnection numerous times and has not seen these issues in the past. The larger volume of inflow in the system is creating a problem that could not be anticipated. The change in color and odor is due to nitrification in the water and water chemistry makeup,” DeWolfe explained. “Water is initially yellow and if left that way will turn brown as there is more reaction with iron in the pipes,” she continued.

DeWolfe also said that the areas most impacted “include dead ends, areas with low demand, apartment buildings where water lines to individual apartments don’t circulate or create dead ends in the units, and buildings with older iron pipes.”

Another Bank Street resident, Heidi Mayne, says the City’s response thus far has been inadequate.

“The bottom line,” she said, “is that, if this is how our water is going to be for the foreseeable future, we want to know exactly what’s in it. Is it rust, manganese, iron, what exactly is in our water?”

According to the State Water Resources Control Board, 1,2,3-TCP is a “chlorinated hydrocarbon with high chemical stability…a manmade chemical found at industrial or hazardous waste sites.” Its presence in drinking water sources, the site continues, “is attributed to various industrial and historic pesticide uses.” 1,2,3-TCP has been identified as a “likely human carcinogen,” according to the Board.

The blended water – though brown and yellow – is “technically safer” than it had been previously, DeWolfe said, because of its lower level of 1,2,3-TCP. “While the appearance has changed for a small number of residents, it is not an indication of the safety of the water,” she said. “Under new State rules, the water is now considered cleaner and safer because it no longer contains 1,2,3-TCP.”

Mayne, however, who first reported the matter to the City on March 12, remains skeptical. “It’s clear that no one wants to be drinking 123-TCP,” she said, “but no one wants to drink this yellow/brown water either. Or wash vegetables with it. Or shower in it. Or have their clothes be stained by washing whites in it.”

“Would you drink this water?” South Pasadena resident Heidi Mayne said in an email recently addressed to the City Council. Courtesy photo

In an email addressed to the City Manager and City Council Members, Mayne asked, “Would you drink this? Would you let your children or your elderly parents drink this? Would you eat a piece of fruit washed in it?”

While the City says it is doing all it can to find short-term solutions, DeWolfe said a long term solution will not come until a new water treatment facility is completed.

In the Request for Proposal (RFP) issued for that project, entitled “Wilson Street Reservoir TCP Wellhead Treatment Design-Build Project,” the project description says the City “plans to add Wellhead GAC treatment…to optimize groundwater production and meet the Health Department requirements.” Issued on April 16, the RFP confirms that the city’s “groundwater production wells are impacted by contaminants, including TCP.”

In DeWolfe’s words, “water blending will no longer be required when the City has completed construction of a new well treatment facility that will remove TCP from local water sources. The construction is being expedited and is anticipated to be completed by the end of 2018.”

Some residents believe they should have been notified about the potential of a change in water quality months ago. Janie Huang, who lives with her boyfriend near Orange Grove Park, says she is disappointed with the City’s lack of transparency on the issue.

“Until I looked on (social networking service) Nextdoor and found the thread on which lots of people are complaining about the issue,” Huang said, “I thought mine was an isolated incident. For the community to have to get together to track down the answers is not what I would expect in South Pasadena.”

Residents have noticed stains such as this one photographed above after running their clothes through their home washing machines. Courtesy photo

Huang, one of a number of residents who have been drinking bottled water for weeks, said she hasn’t had the time to file a complaint with the city, but is planning to do so this week. “My guess is there are a lot more people like me out there. By the size of the thread on Nextdoor, it is a wide-ranging issue.”

In a Letter to the Editor (see pg. 8), Mayne asks the City for an “open and responsive line of communication with honest answers as to the immediate steps being taken to solve [the water problem].”

DeWolfe said that she understands the widespread frustration, but that the city is in a bind until it can complete a new well treatment center.

“The City understands the concerns of the residents and is doing everything possible to resolve the issues in the short-term and the long-term,” the City Manager said.

“It is unfortunate that there are no alternatives at this time for compliance with new State TCP regulations other than to blend water sources, which is the cause of the problems. Water providers were given three months from implementation of the new rules to compliance, which is not enough time to build a new treatment facility. Until the facility is complete, the City is mandated by the State to blend water sources to reduce the amount of TCP.”

To the City’s recommendation to flush their water systems, many have raised concerns over costs and waste. “If this is going to last for a long period of time,” Mayne said, “we want a refund for the months our water has been dirty and a rebate for those of us who install a full-house water filtration system.”