Edina residents see red over murky water

Aging pipes and warm weather have combined to color tap water in houses. Some residents say they're afraid to use it to cook or bathe.

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Glass on left: Water from Tara Bizily’s tap on Sept. 26. Middle glass: After tap ran for 30 minutes. Right glass: Water treated with reverse osmosis.

At first, the water on the 4000 block of Edina's Lynn Avenue was yellow. Julie Banker apologized to guests, explaining that the toilets had been flushed. Then Nan Schwappach's water turned brown, and last spring she started taking showers at her health club. Up and down the street, laundry was stained with what looked like rust spots.

The problem ebbed and flowed all summer, but the topper may have come one day in September, when Tara Bizily turned on the faucet and what looked like muddy water poured out. It was so bad that she took a picture.

"It was definitely brown and it had tiny things floating in it," she said.

Aging cast-iron city water pipes and an unusually warm summer appear to have created the problem in the Morningside neighborhood, in Edina's northeast corner.

Next spring, the city will begin scouring rust from the inside of pipes and reline them with cement or plastic, starting with the area around Lynn Avenue.

Within two to three years, all of the 4.1 miles of old cast-iron pipe in the neighborhood should be done, said Wayne Houle, the city's director of public works. The city has budgeted $1.4 million over three years for the job.

"All indications from the [state] Department of Health and our experts here is that the reddish color, even though it is high in turbidity and high in iron, is still safe water," he said.

Water is 'perfectly acceptable'

For now, the city has been opening hydrants in the area to flush water pipes, and residents say that has improved water quality. And the winter should bring a reprieve: Once water temperatures at the source -- the Mississippi River -- dip below 50 degrees, the problem should be gone, or mostly gone, until next year. But Houle admitted the problem could return in spring.

Enough residents complained that earlier this month the Edina City Council called in a phalanx of experts. Two engineers testified that the water was safe to drink, though it might fail aesthetic standards for clarity.

Morningside gets its water from the city of Minneapolis. Chris Catlin, Minneapolis superintendent of water plant operations, told the council that water leaving Minneapolis' treatment plant "is very high quality, and we're very proud of that. Unfortunately, that doesn't end the story."

Edina has old water mains made of untreated cast iron. Rust that can harbor non-disease-causing bacteria formed on the inside of pipes, Catlin said. While that's "not terribly sanitary," he said, it does not cause disease.

"Ninety-nine percent of the time this is of no consequence to anyone," he said. "The water just goes by and what's transmitted in these pipes is perfectly acceptable."

But sometimes chemicals that are added during the water treatment process make the water more acidic, loosening deposits in the pipes and sending them into people's homes, Catlin said. This year, some homeowners in Minneapolis as well as Columbia Heights, another city with old water pipes, have reported yellow, red or brown water.

"This year has been rougher than most," Catlin said. "From a real solid health standpoint... the water leaving our plant is meeting all the requirements and actually at the users' tap, it's meeting all the regulations." But, he said, the discoloration is "a concern and we want to get it remedied."

Eager for a fix

Catlin said that for about a decade, Minneapolis has been relining its aging water pipes with cement. This year, it shared the contractor with Columbia Heights, and Catlin said the same could be done for Edina next summer. The work can be done only in warm weather because during repair, homeowners get their water through temporary pipes laid on top of the ground. If the work were done in the winter, those pipes would freeze.

Residents are eager for the problem to be fixed. Though the city has offered a free rust remover for laundry, residents say some stains have proved impossible to get out. Many have spent hundreds of dollars installing water purification systems and replacing water heaters, washing machines and coffee makers. Banker wouldn't use the water to even cook pasta, and she took her two smallest children to her parents' house in Plymouth for baths.

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