As Crystal Jensen took a shower on Dec. 3, she was astonished — and then frightened — to find neon orange water all around her. She jumped out of the shower, filled the tub with the orange water and posted a picture of it on her neighborhood's Facebook page.
"I had a baby last year and I had been making her bottles with the tap water," Jensen said. "I felt horrible about what I was exposing my family to."
Jensen has lived in her Minnetrista home for two years, and her photos — and similar experiences by others — prompted a flood of complaints to the city.
On Monday, council members held a special meeting to discuss the problems and decided on a two-step process: to seek a feasibility study that will lay out the costs and options of different water treatment technologies to improve the water, and then survey water users to determine which solution they want.
Other communities with similar problems are watching, including Minnetrista's closest neighbor, Mound.
Minnetrista officials said the reason for the strong orange color in Jensen's house was the water's high iron content, and the fact that the city was flushing its water hydrants, stirring up sediment in the pipes. In response to the complaints, it has established an e-mail alert system and posted information on its website to warn residents in advance about hydrant flushing.
Jill Turner, another Minnetrista resident, said some people have problems and others don't. After moving into her home last summer, she noticed almost immediately that the water is sometimes cloudy and smells like rotten eggs and at other times seems fine.
"I sometimes don't use the water out of the faucets because it turns my laundry yellow, it turns my toilets yellow and it turns my shower orange," she said.
Turner said the city's response when it receives complaints is just to flush the system, which makes the problems worse.
Stew Thornley, a health educator for the Minnesota Department of Health, said iron and manganese occur naturally in groundwater. More than 30 metro-area cities have had high levels of it, he said, and most have installed water filtration systems in recent years to remove the elements.
"It's up to the community itself to decide if it wants to make the investment to improve the aesthetic qualities of their water," Thornley said. State health officials require analysis of public water systems in the state, he said, and Minnetrista's results show no problems. "The water is safe, and it meets the standards," he said..
Minnetrista draws its drinking water from five wells that serve about 1,150 of the city's 2,200 households. Other residents have private wells. Most complaints about orange or brown water have come from the Hunters Crest and Painters Creek neighborhoods, said City Administrator Mike Funk.
"There's no question residents are frustrated when they turn on their tap or wash their clothes or try to bathe, that the water is orangish and it has an odor," Funk said. "It's safe to drink, it's safe to use, but the city recognizes that residents expect better water quality."
The Minnetrista City Council is trying to decide the extent to which the water may need to be cleaned, and how much it will cost, Funk said. Early estimates range from $4.4 million to $8.5 million, he said, depending on the technology chosen. A big factor in cost is whether the city wants a system that will remove primarily iron and manganese, or other trace contaminants such as pharmaceuticals that may become regulated in the future.
Other cities have also had complaints about discolored water, and they keep track of one another's progress in dealing with the issue. Chanhassen built a treatment plant in 2007 to filter iron and manganese.
Mound offers advice on its website about "rusty water," including what to do if laundry inadvertently gets washed in it. The city's long-range plan is to construct two water filtration plants near its water towers after the street work is completed in 2018.
Back in Minnetrista, Jill Turner said the time has come for the water quality issue to be dealt with. "We've been kind of hesitant to talk to anybody about this because we didn't want our home values to go down," she said. "But something should have been done long before now, and it's time to get it fixed."