Frustrations mount with Ithaca’s widespread brown water issue

Residents say the City of Ithaca’s efforts to explain possible reasons for the widespread brown water coming from taps, and the efforts to reduce the problem, haven’t been enough. Some residents say they’ve been reporting problems for weeks or months.

Safe but not very pretty. Photo courtesy of David McKinley.

Reportedly safe, but not very pretty. Photo courtesy of David McKinley.

In general, discolored tap water is safe to shower or bathe with and even to drink. Area residents should hold off on doing laundry, though, and many are understandably hesitant to drink or cook with the water.

City officials say the Water & Sewer Division of the Department of Public Works “has been treating the water to reduce the discoloration and has been flushing the distribution system at the hydrants throughout the city to clear the discolored water.”

“Flushing just brings an endless stream of brown water,” wrote a City resident on Facebook. “Endless stream of gross looking water.”

“The new water plant uses membrane filtration, a different treatment process than the old plant,” officials said last week. “The water treatment processes are still being optimized to address the particulars of our water source and water distribution system.”

“It’s kind of scary looking, but it’s harmless,” Common Council member Seph Murtagh said in a newsletter for Second Ward residents last month. “It happens because the velocity of the flow in the city’s water mains has increased, producing a scouring effect on the mineral deposits — iron, calcium, and manganese — that have built up in the pipes over the years.”

In the meantime, Ithaca officials say an unrelated water quality problem has come to light: “The City learned that samples from two drinking fountains and an ice machine at Cass Park and three drinking fountains at Stewart Park contained lead concentrations above the action level of 15 parts per billion (ppb),” according to a statement. Affected water fountains and taps at these city-operated parks have been removed from service until retesting can take place.

The City of Ithaca’s annual drinking water quality report for 2016 is available at

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