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Campus Hills residents 'anxious' for repairs to stop brown water flowing from faucets

Brown water runs from a faucet into the bathtub at Sara Straw's house in Campus Hills. Straw has since installed a water filtration system.
Brown water runs from a faucet into the bathtub at Sara Straw's house in Campus Hills. Straw has since installed a water filtration system. (Courtesy/Sara Straw)

After years of dealing with discolored water, residents of Towson’s Campus Hills neighborhood are hopeful that a fix underway by Baltimore County will prove to be the answer to their problems.

For at least seven years, the northeast Towson neighborhood has dealt with murky, brown water pouring out of kitchen and bath faucets, according to Campus Hills Community Association president Jaideep Sinha.

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Though residents are told the water is safe to drink, Sinha said, the problem has grown worse this year, or at least better known, as neighbors have connected with each other on social media to share stories of muddy laundry and other problems caused by the rust-colored water.

In response, the Department of Public Works is designing a project to repair the eight-inch water mains in a large portion of Campus Hills that county officials say are causing the problem. Bids for the repairs are expected to go out in the spring or early summer and construction on the $4.5 million project is expected to start in 2018.

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“We realize that work and things need to be done from time to time but from our standpoint it’s been years,” Sinha said.

The water discoloration residents are seeing is the result of mid-1950s water mains that must be reinforced with concrete to be brought up to modern-day standards, said Baltimore County’s Department of Public Works spokeswoman Lauren Watley.

Cast-iron water pipelines installed throughout most of the United States prior to 1957 did not come with a cement lining, Watley said in a Dec. 13 email.

Without it, naturally occurring mineral deposits in water react with the bare cast iron in the pipe and form a rusty deposit that may reduce the interior diameter of pipelines over the years by as much as 50 percent, Watley said.

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This can reduce water flow and affect its color, according to the Environmental Protection Agency website, leading municipalities across the country to budget for costly water infrastructure repairs and replacements.

EPA spokesman David Sternberg said the department has not received any complaints from the Baltimore County area. Residents concerned about potential health risks from their drinking water should contact their public water system, he said.

Baltimore County officials first recognized the problem in the early 1970’s and started a main replacement and cement-lining program, Watley said. To date, 95 percent of cast iron water pipelines in the county have been replaced or lined, she said, at a budgeted cost of $20 million every two years.

“Normally, water usage in neighborhoods turns over the water on a frequent cycle, but from time to time the discolored water builds up to the point where flushing is necessary to purge the water in these older pipelines,” Watley said, adding that it has been necessary to flush the pipelines in Campus Hills for the last several years because of the problem.

Jen Latteri, of Southwick Drive, has lived in Campus Hills for about seven years but said it been in the last four years that the brown water began to concern her, she said.

On at least four instances, the water could be described as “horrendous” and too brown to bathe her children in or use to cook, she said.

“I don't even fill my dog's water bowl up with tap water; I use the filtered water from the refrigerator,” Latteri said, adding that she was concerned about lead, copper and iron leaching into the public water system from the aged pipes.

“I guess I am optimistic about the water main replacement,” Latteri said. “I have to be. I love our neighborhood and community, but I'm still uneasy at this point.”

Discolored water alone does not mean the water is unsafe, said Baltimore City Department of Public Works spokesman Kurt Kocher. However, the department will be contacting residents to offer water quality tests, he added.

Though Baltimore City manages and operates the water system and is responsible for its maintenance, Baltimore County is responsible for the capital improvements to the water pipelines in the county, Watley said.

DPW officials expect to advertise the project for bids in February, with construction expected to start in late spring or early summer and take about 18 months to complete, according to Watley.

In the meantime, residents are advised to let the water run until it clears, Watley said, adding that “the safety of the water is not at all an issue.”

Campus Hills resident Livia Laun said she worries about the water quality. The discoloration has happened intermittently all six years she has lived in her Scarlett Drive home, causing her to call in complaints as recently as last week.

The family has had to replace a water heater after it filled with the discolored water and often has to re-wash or throw away white clothing if washed while the taps are running brown, she said.

The problem is most apparent at bath time, when Laun said she fills the tub for her two daughters, ages 3 and 6.

“When you go home and you can’t use your water it’s very difficult to function,” Laun said. “No one should be drinking brown water in the USA in 2017—here or anywhere. We’re just anxious to have it done.”

This story has been updated.

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