Students struggle with ‘dirty’ drinking water

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Ethan Mathes, a sophomore in the Games, Interactive Media and Mobile (GIMM) program, was spending a regular Friday night with his three roommates in their Green Leaf River Edge apartment when one of them noticed something strange about the water coming from their faucet. 

“We just noticed at one point that the water was turning brown,” Mathes said. “So then we turned on all (our) water, and it was brown everywhere.”

Mathes is one of many residents living around the Boise State campus that experienced a 4-5 hour period of brown, odorous water in the late hours of Sept. 13. When Mathes and his roommate asked the front desk about the issue, the management staff told them it was a “city problem.” 

“I drink that water all the time,” Mathes said. “And (now) I don’t know if its dangerous or not. It makes me nervous to (think) that there might be stuff in there that could hurt me.”

Josh Wolfgram, owner and operator of Idaho Water Solutions, attributes the brown water to sediment particles that get carried through the water transit systems directly from the wells. 70% of Boise drinking water is sourced from 79 different wells in the area, according to the 2018 Consumer Compliance Report distributed by Suez, a water utility company that services the majority of the Boise area.

However, Wolfgram explained that when residents are experiencing an extended period of brown water, it could mean that the water utility company is attempting to clear build-up out of the pipes. 

“When they’re flushing out the hydrants and they’re disturbing the water lines, that’s when a lot of people start to see the (brown) colors,” Wolfgram said.

Sarah Kelsay, a drinking water compliance officer with the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), explained that a high concentration of natural underground iron deposits in the Treasure Valley may be another contributing factor to the tinted water. 

According to Kelsay, the DEQ and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) do not regulate iron found in water, as it does not pose any imminent health risks when consumed. 

“I fully understand that it can be a bit unnerving to drink water that has a brownish red tinge to it,” Kelsay wrote in an email. “However, for DEQ and EPA standards, iron does not cause an issue for a (water) system to be out of compliance.” 

Unfortunately, Mathes’ water problems have extended beyond just the one night of discoloration. Mathes claims he also notices a chemical smell occasionally emanating from his tap water. 

Because Suez (also) utilizes surface water, they are required to use chlorine to maintain a level of required disinfection throughout the entire distribution system,” Kelsay said. 

Suez reports that 30% of its utilized water is sourced from surface water. 

Wolfgram said many of his clients are looking to eliminate the taste and odor associated with this chlorine use, but the severity depends on their location. 

“Sometimes you might get a little higher (chlorine) dosing being closer to the (water treatment) plant,” Wolfgram said. “(Because) at the end of the line, there still has to be some residual chlorine in the water.”

Regardless of locational variants, Kelsay claims that Suez has consistently remained well under the EPA’s allowed limit of chlorine content. 

EPA regulations set the maximum contaminant level (MCL) of chlorine in the water to be 4.0 mg/L,” Kelsay wrote. “To put this number in perspective, the usual amount of chlorine in a pool is around 2.0 mg/L.”

Kelsay explained that once the chlorine residuals exceed 1.5 mg/L, there is a much higher chance of smelling or tasting the chlorine.  

“Residuals for Suez tend to stay between the 0.7 mg/L to 1.3 mg/L range,” Kelsay wrote. “This is not to say that certain individuals may be more sensitive to the chlorine smell and taste, but for DEQ regulations, Suez is not out of compliance in this area.”

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