ST. AMANT — The brown water comes without warning.
Sometimes on school mornings, sometimes at midday, there it is, the brown water, in bathtubs, in sinks and in toilets of the Bayou Estates subdivision.
When the brown water’s there, clothes can’t be washed, teeth can’t be brushed and ice can’t be made. Bottled water for drinking is common, residents say.
“If you get the brown water and wash, it will stain your clothes and not come out,” said Diana Hughes, 68, who has lived in Bayou Estates since 1986.
She said it can take two to three hours of running water and repeated cycling of household appliances like washing machines to get the brown water to dissipate.
She and other residents of this Ascension Parish neighborhood off La. 431 claim they have been dealing with periodic appearances of the brown water and unexplained low pressure for years that have not been followed by boil water advisories. But the problems have recently worsened.
“It’s just getting ridiculous. I mean they have to do something about it,” said Ashley Cavalier, 23, who has lived in Bayou Estates for two years.
She and other residents say their water company, Diversion Water Co., has suggested changing hot water heaters and told them the brown water is safe to drink.
“You tell me if you would like to have water that’s as dark as this table,” said Hughes, motioning to her wood veneer dinner table Thursday afternoon inside her Penny Street home.
“It might be safe to drink, but I don’t think I’d want to drink it.”
Parrish Valega, owner of Diversion Water, said manganese and iron in the subdivision’s pipes, which date from the 1970s, are causing the discoloration.
He said the brown water appears when there is a drop in pressure or a shift in water flow that causes the manganese and iron scale in pipes to break off.
The state Department of Health and Hospitals recently required Diversion Water to switch the chemical used to disinfect the water. The new chemical, free chlorine, is more effective at disinfection but does not mask the discoloration caused by manganese.
The latest brown water incident happened the week of May 4 when an electrical system for the neighborhood’s water well pump tripped and pressure dropped.
“This is not an every day issue. This isn’t even an every week issue,” Valega said.
He said the system has been running clear for about a week.
Jake Causey, DHH chief engineer and safe drinking water administrator, said the brown water appears to be an aesthetic issue as testing shows the water has good chlorine levels for disinfection.
Bacteria and other contaminants that would make the water unsafe to drink have not been detected at unhealthy levels. Still, Causey recommended residents play it safe.
“What I would do if the water’s brown, I would not drink it. I would not recommend other people drink it,” Causey said.
Residents like Hughes and Cavalier also complained about the complete loss of pressure at times without warning.
Pressure below 15 pounds per square inch requires boil water advisories because contaminants can get in the lines, Causey said, but the company has not issued a boil water advisory in at least the past three years.
Valega disputed the neighborhood ever had a severe enough pressure drop to require advisories and stood by the company’s claims the water is safe from contaminants. But he also agreed he would not drink the brown water, either.
To try to resolve the problem, DHH has required Diversion Water to install five hydrants and to use chlorine to flush and clean the lines.
Diversion Water is sending out an apology letter Friday about the brown water, promising to reimburse some customer water costs and detailing the flushing plans, which should be carried out at night next week.
But Melissa Miller, 46, who also lives on Penny Street, says the company is trying stopgap fixes and she wants Diversion Water to replace its system. She has been circulating a petition over the issue.
“Just upgrade the system. Things get old and things have to be replaced. That’s all,” Miller said.
In July 2013, the Louisiana Public Service Commission agreed to give Diversion Water, which serves 1,800 customers in St. Helena, Ascension and Livingston parishes, an $8-per-month increase, on average, for residential customers. The company had to finance $1.5 million in required upgrades.
Valega said Bayou Estates has one of the last of those improvements to be done. The work won’t upgrade the system’s pipes but will link the subdivision with another water well about a mile away.
Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.