ITHACA, NY – Over the past few weeks, many Ithacans have started getting discolored, odorous water from their taps. While the city is reassuring everyone that it’s fine to drink, some residents remain concerned.

Concerns about lead began with the Ithaca City School District’s issues with lead contamination earlier this year. With the revelation yesterday that several fixtures in Cass and Stewark Parks and in multiple city-owned buildings also tested high for lead, some people are looking for a connection.

“These two issues have kind of been conflated — and I can totally see why they have — people are seeing that they have discolored water and hearing that there’s lead detected at Stewart and Cass,” said Alderperson Seph Murtagh. “I totally understand why people are concerned, but at this point they are two separate issues.”

Murtagh also pointed out that, much as was the case in ICSD schools, the initial test results might not be reflective of the true lead content. As the fixtures were tested in May after a lower-use period, they are going to be re-tested under “typical” conditions.

Furthermore, the city is performing another lead test on its main water sources, two years ahead of its state-mandated testing cycle. The City’s 2015 water quality report showed no lead significant lead contamination in any of the city’s water sources.

A recurring issue

Murtagh said that he had heard of similar issues happening in previous years under similar dry conditions, though this was the first time he’d experienced them himself or heard of the problem being so wide-spread.

“We always have a few turbid water complaints in the summer, but it’s usually in the periphery,” said Assistant Superintendent of Department of Public Works Eric Whitney. “This is by far the greatest concentration of in probably over a decade.”

Whitney said that the Water and Sewer Department had received over 100 calls since the previous Friday. He explained the discolored water as a result of lower flows from the reservoir leading to increased concentrations of iron, manganese and calcium carbonate.

Both Murtagh and Whitney indicated that the dry season was a major factor in the water discoloration issue. Lower rainfall leads to more people watering their lawns and gardens, which puts more pressure on the system.

Whitney said that his department’s plan of attack seemed to be working. After flushing nearby hydrants, discoloration in water to nearby fixtures was significantly decreased. In addition, they have been making adjustments to achieve the correct chemical balances at the new water treatment plant, which has yielded positive results.

Aside from that, he said, getting a little rainfall would be a nice help.

(Featured photo courtesy of Eric Norris on Flickr.)

Michael Smith

Michael Smith reports on politics and local news for the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached via email at, by cell at (607) 229-0885, or via Google Voice at (518) 650-3639.