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La Porte grapples with spike in water-quality complaints

April 18, 2017 GMT

City officials continue to investigate an unusually high number of complaints about rusty and cloudy water, even as they work to assure residents the water supply in La Porte is safe.

Todd Taylor, director of the city’s Water Department, said most of the problems in the first quarter of this year have been tied to unauthorized use of fire hydrants, disruptions from water main breaks and a fire pump test.

“That being said, we are continuing to investigate if there are additional contributions to this issue,” he said. “We feel that our customers deserve better water than this.”

A test of new water lines near the airport earlier this week disrupted pressure in existing lines on the city’s south side, prompting a new string of complaints, Taylor said.

Nearly 50 complaints have been filed so far this year, he said last week, and residents are urged to contact the department when cloudiness occurs so the cause of the problem can be addressed.

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The number of complaints are expected to spike further when a twice-a-year program of water-system flushing gets under way again on April 23.

A general hydrant-flushing schedule was included in city water bills this month, but unlike previous years, no specific timetable was set. This will allow crews to determine how long to flush certain areas based on the needs of the system, he said.

“It may take longer than the planned two weeks this year, and there will likely be an increased number of households that experience rusty or discolored water,” Taylor said.

Customers are encouraged to look at their water before doing laundry, for example, and to open the tap a few minutes until any rust clears. If the water does not clear, he said, customers should contact the Water Department so certified inspectors can determine the cause of the problem.

Iron and manganese are the primary mineral deposits causing the discoloration, Taylor said, but they are not harmful.

News reports of lead in the water in Flint, Michigan, and an industrial chemical spill into Lake Michigan last week can heighten concerns, but Taylor said La Porte’s water comes from underground aquifers and is constantly tested and monitored. The water supply exceeds all federal safety standards, he said.

Assurances about water safety aside, he said, the recent surge in complaints about cloudy water represents “a new problem for us.”

Parts of the system are 140 years old, according to Taylor, so when a sudden change in pressure occurs or a buildup of minerals breaks loose for any reason, some discoloration inevitably follows. An ongoing valve-replacement program may also change flow patterns and kick up minerals on occasion, he said.

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Taylor said some of the problems earlier in the year were tied to unauthorized use of hydrants by volunteer firefighters and construction contractors. The city is reaching out to these groups, he said, but policymakers are also considering the use of fines if the practice does not stop.

“If we are notified that a fire hydrant needs to be used, we can prepare by pumping more water into the system to replace the water flowing from the hydrant,” he said.

The city also is working to develop a dedicated tap on Lake Street across from the treatment plant that can pump large amounts of water into trucks. Taylor said similar systems in other cities get good reviews by water providers and users alike.

Taylor said the city has an experienced staff with nine Indiana Department of Environmental Management-certified operators working to resolve the issue. He said the department will continue “working nonstop” until the problems subside.