This bowl of water was posted to Facebook by someone who claims it came from Vassar’s water system.

Citizens see red over — and in — Vassar water

Carl Miller, director, public works, Vassar, shows one of the dials used to monitor pressure in Vassar’s water system. The dials are atop one of the city’s four wellheads. (Photos by John Cook)
Carl Miller, director, public works, Vassar, shows one of the dials used to monitor pressure in Vassar’s water system. The dials are atop one of the city’s four wellheads. (Photos by John Cook)

VASSAR — Water use in Vassar has fallen about 80 percent, causing system-wide issues – and keeping officials busy calming frustrated residents while assessing the extent of infrastructure problems.

That’s according to Carl Miller, director, public works, and Brian Chapman, city manager, who say residents are seeing the effects of a “significant” drop in demand for water over the last two years – on top of infrastructure an estimated 80 years old in some parts of the city.

They say that combination is especially, and understandably, alarming for citizens when they turn on the tap and see brown, red, or orange water being delivered to their homes.

“Nobody is discounting concerns. Nobody is saying it’s not happening,” Chapman told The Advertiser. “We understand what’s going on and we’re putting together a plan to address it.

“Years of decisions have unfortunately led up to neglecting the underground infrastructure.”

This bowl of water was posted to Facebook by someone who claims it came from Vassar’s water system.
This bowl of water was posted to Facebook by someone who claims it came from Vassar’s water system.

Still, Chapman and Miller said they want residents to know that Vassar water is safe, according to state tests, and that they are trying to get a handle on the situation, spending $670,000 ($603,000 from a state grant) to fully survey Vassar’s water infrastructure. But that doesn’t do much today for people like Ursi Knox Kramer, who has taken to social media to express frustrations over seeing red come out of their faucets.

““Can someone explain to me the problem Vassar has with their City water?” reads one Facebook post from Kramer. “I lived 13 years in Saginaw, using their city water and never ever seen what I seen here. The water there was always clear. And now I have a load of white laundry that is ruined. Sorry to say, I have seen cleaner creek water than this. Why is this happening at all?????”

The April 2 post was in the Facebook group known as “Vassar Concerned Citizens” where complaints about Vassar’s water are common.

Residents have complained of ruined loads of laundry, coffeemakers, humidifiers, boilers and say they’re afraid to expose grandchildren or other loved ones to the water.

Other posts have pictures of bathtubs and bowls full of water that came out of the faucet – water than looks similar to orange Gatorade, beer, even urine.

“We don’t even give water that comes from the city system to our dog,” Andrea Warle, of Vassar, told The Advertiser. “Everybody here buys bottled water.”

Chapman said that while it’s more appropriate for such concerns to be directed to city hall than social media, he doesn’t discount the validity.

To help address any immediate concerns, Chapman says the water is safe and points to tests from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality’s Drinking Water Laboratory as proof.

In most of the tests – conducted most recently last August – there’s no detection of nearly 70 volatile organic compounds. Where compounds were detected, there were only trace amounts.

Naturally occurring fluoride – a chemical added to water in metropolitan areas – was only slightly elevated, but not at levels to be of concern, Chapman said, though some have focused on that as an issue.

Chlorine is the only chemical Vassar adds to its water, Miller said, to help disinfect water and protect residents. Chlorine levels are monitored daily to ensure the right amount is used, Miller said.

And Miller said he takes his job seriously, especially since he said he views many family and friends as dependent on his work to make sure Vassar water is safe.

“I also drink this water. My family drinks this water,” Miller said. “This is our community – and our community is like a family — and I don’t want to hurt anyone in the community.”

 

Where Vassar water originates

Vassar city water comes from four wells – each about 300 feet underground and originally drilled in the 1930s and 1940s, Miller said. The source of water delivered to homes and businesses at any given time comes from one well that Miller calls the “lead well.” (That’s lead pronounced “leed,” by the way, not the metal). The lead well changes every week, Miller said.

He said the city only needs to use one well because of lowered demand for water use by citizens and businesses.

It’s that decreased use, in fact, that Miller says causes many problems. Specifically, he says, ever since the Metavation foundry shut down Oct. 15, 2013 and the amount of water pumped through the system fell from as high as 1.5 million gallons a day to about 230,000 – not even enough to fully empty the city’s 300,000-gallon water tower.

Further complications are caused by the fact that the water taken from the wells is high in iron, Miller said, to the degree where the city borders on needing a water treatment plant specific to iron.

Due to the chemical reaction between the chlorine added for treatment and naturally occurring iron, the iron actually rusts and turns into a solid, creating sediment.

Because of the decreased water flow, the sediment has a chance to settle in parts of pipes within the aging infrastructure. When there’s increased demand for water on those same pipes – say a fire hydrant is flushed or used to battle an actual fire – the sediment gets stirred up, pulled into the water stream and can wind up in a dinner glass or bathtub instead of putting out a fire or being dumped as part of a hydrant flush.

“When the foundry was here, we were able to keep that sediment moving so nobody ever saw it,” Miller said. “If you’re pumping a million gallons a day and suddenly you’re only at about 250,000 a day, you’ve drastically changed the movement. There are going to be issues.”

Miller likened the situation to that of Flint – a city left with a mess to clean up after most of the industrial businesses left.

“It’s the same issue down there,” Miller said. “They had all those plants down there that went away, the people moved away. There’s no movement down there in their system.

“Our biggest difference from down there would be – to the best of our knowledge – we don’t have any lead pipes in the ground.”

 

Where Vassar water is going

Chapman – on the job since October – and Miller (who took over water last July), say fixing individual problems as they arose over decades has left Vassar with a patchwork of pipes made of plastic, cast iron, ductile iron, and asbestos cement (commonly used early in the century). There could be other types of pipe – even wood – Miller said.

“I’m still trying to get a better handle on it myself and that’s what the study will show us,” Miller said.

Chapman, for his part, says he can’t speak to how previous managers and elected officials have led Vassar to have the water problems it has today.

Based on his experience, he said, officials in communities like Vassar have traditionally dealt with short-term solutions to problems, especially as tax bases have eroded and tough decisions of where to cut costs and save money have had to be made.

However, Chapman said that’s not going to work with Vassar’s water system anymore.

“I can only speak to the issues today and the plan moving forward,” he said.

The plan already is in motion, funded by a $603,000 grant from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality late last year.

Through the grant, the city is working with Rowe Professional Services Co. of Flint to do a complete water survey at a total cost of $670,000.

The plan includes capturing video images of what’s in the ground now, Chapman said.

“We don’t want to just start digging things up,” Chapman said. “We could dig up pipe that was replaced 10 years ago that is perfectly fine.”

That assessment is expected to be done by June 1. Once completed, officials will be able to get a better handle on just how bad things have become and be able to develop a strategy to fix it.

“That’s the stepping stone to addressing these issues we’re talking about today,” Chapman said.

Andrew Dietderich is editor of The Advertiser and can be reached at andrew@tcadvertiser.com

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