CBS7 INVESTIGATES: What's in the water?

Published: Nov. 13, 2019 at 10:19 PM CST
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It's a sight that no homeowner wants to see: bright orange water swirling around in their toilets, running out of the kitchen faucet and even their showerheads.

Some residents who live in central Odessa have coped with the problem for months - and it could take months, or even longer before the city pipes get fixed.

Bennye Scown has lived in a house on East 17th Street for 31 years - and never, she said, has she had to shower in water like this.

"The water was cloudy, and then it just started turning yellow and then turning orange," Scown described. "Sometimes it smells like lake water. Here lately - I'm going to say the last 3 or 4 weeks - it consistently smells really metallic."

Scown said city crews were working in her alleyway back in February. Since then, her home plus five others on 17th and Wilshire Drive have had to live with foul looking and smelling water.

"When your water is orange - you don't want to drink it, you don't want to cook with it. I don't let my dog drink it," Scown explained. "But I also, when the water is particularly bad, will go over to my son's house and shower and do laundry."

After calling the city numerous times, Scown said city workers finally came out a handful of times to flush the lines, which cleared up the water briefly - but it also ran up her water bill.

She said workers told her for months that it was an individual home problem, not a city line issue.

"Several neighbors - back to back, beside each other - are calling about a problem. Then to me, the city knew or should have known that there was a problem with their line, and then maybe let us know," Scown explained.

After suffering for six months with orange water, Scown paid to have it tested by a Texas Commission on Environmental Quality certified lab.

The result: 8.12 milligrams of iron per liter in her water.

The Environmental Protection Agency says anything above .3 milligrams per liter is unacceptable.

That means Scown's water sample had 27 times the acceptable level of iron in it.

We decided to test the water as well.

We bought an at-home testing kit from Home Depot. After dipping the iron test strip in a sample of Scown's water, the levels lit up fairly pink - showing about 3 milligrams of iron in it.

Local primary care doctor Vicky Bakhos-Webb said, while iron-rich water isn't necessarily hazardous, too much of it can be.

"With too much iron that deposits on your liver, pancreas, joints - it causes liver dysfunction, joint pain," Bakhos described. "So, too much iron could not be good for you."

We also sat down with the Public Works Director Tom Kerr. He said he's aware of the problem, and the department is in the design process to replace Scown's pipes. Although he added, his workers have also been overwhelmed servicing the rapid growth in Odessa - while also replacing hundreds of miles of ancient, rusty, leaking iron-cast pipes in the older areas.

"It creates a balancing problem, a balancing act because you need money for both. You can't ignore one or the other, or you'll have real problems," Kerr described. "The growth right now is driving a heavy priority."

The city just completed a 263-page water master plan calling for more money to be spent replacing older pipes within the next 25 years.

Kerr admits the plan doesn't even include much-needed upgrades to their water treatment facility.

Kerr said Odessa, like many other cities across the country, waited too long to set aside the money and upgrade its water systems.

He's aware of at least three other areas in Odessa with the same problem: rusty water.

Ultimately, after nine months of dealing with orange water, Scown has just wanted the city to respond.

"If the city had taken the problem more seriously, investigated more and taken responsibility from the beginning - a lot of stress and frustration could have been avoided," she said.

Although, Kerr said it could be another year before the lines get replaced.

He admits that any significant repairs are dependent on the passage of a new bond issue by the city council, and that might mean water rates will have to rise.

The City of Odessa let us know this week that the utilities department has since installed an auto flusher in the alleyway of 17th and Wilshire.

It began flushing out the pipes twice a day, and now it flushes once a day to help clear up the rusty water for the time being.

Scown said her water is still cloudy, so she's still drinking and cooking with bottled water, but her showers have been much better than they've been in the last nine months.