ITHACA, N.Y. — Fall Creek resident Lisa Sanfilippo first noticed discolored yellow water at her home on Cayuga Street approximately three weeks ago. Her water was dark yellow on the first day she noticed the problem.
Although the discoloration is easier to spot against a white surface, she said it would have been difficult to miss even in her stainless steel kitchen sink.
After two to three days, the discoloration was less severe and her family believed the problem had been resolved.
“It seemed like it went away, but when we’d fill a glass pitcher [with water], we’d realize it was actually still discolored,” said Sanfilippo. “That’s how it started. It kind of came and went for a week,” she said. “It would randomly get better, then worse again.”
Initially, she wasn’t too concerned about the discoloration. Sanfilippo has lived in Ithaca for 17 years and has come to expect occasional water quality problems.
“It’s not atypical because when you live in the city once a year or so they flush the hydrants, and you’re used to the kind of random, rusty water every year or two,” she said.
But as time went on, more questions arose about when the problem might be solved.
“I did have the nagging concern that there was other stuff in there as well that wasn’t coming to light. So the longer it’s gone on, I’ve been a bit more concerned,” Sanfilippo said.
Three weeks later, the discolored water is still present in her home. “Even when we thought it was getting better, we could see from the water in the [white] toilets that it wasn’t” she said.
As the discolored water persisted, she did notice a hydrant around the corner from her home being flushed— a solution public officials have claimed should solve the problem.
“For the last week I’ve been buying water for drinking,” she said.
Although she still has questions about when her discolored water will turn clear again, Sanfilippo feels that Fifth Ward city Alderperson Josephine Martell has been transparent about the problem. “
I think that’s been really helpful in addressing people’s fears about what’s been going on,” she said.
Another Fall Creek resident, Muhammad Niamul Arif, noticed yellow water July 5 at his home on the 1100 block of Cayuga Street when he arrived home for lunch.
Being a photographer, his first instinct was to fill a jar with his tap water and snap a picture to document the discoloration.
“During the day I turned on the faucet and it seemed a little yellow so I wasn’t sure. Later that day I tried again, and it was yellow so I said okay, there’s something going on. I thought I’d just run [the water] for a little bit and it seemed to clear up, but a little bit later it was dirty again.”
At first, he wondered if it was because of the construction on the Lake Street Bridge.
“I actually didn’t drink the water at the time,” he said.
Later that day he noticed that Mayor Myrick had posted on Facebook alerting residents of water discoloration around the City.
“I wish that there was some sort of mailing list or general announcement mechanism to let the citizens of Ithaca know that there is something going on. That would have been nice,” said Arif.
(Editor’s Note: The city does have a mailing list system called Notify Me. They sent out their first email to the “News Flash” mailing list about the water discoloration on July 5 with updates on July 7 and 12.)
The following day, the yellow water in the jar he filled had cleared at the top, with sediment like particles settling to the bottom. Although he has tried to remain informed about local water issues, he believes he is less concerned than others.
“I know that even though the water looks so murky it’s usually just because something gets stirred up, not because it’s toxic or full of contaminants.”
Like Arif, City of Ithaca resident and former Common Council member Michelle Berry wishes there was more communication from public officials about the water quality. She contacted her elected officials, in addition to repeatedly vocalizing concerns through Facebook comments and posts. However, she still does not feel satisfied with the information provided regarding the discoloration.
In an email to The Ithaca Voice, Berry wrote, “Right away, when the water was discolored, the City needed to issue a FAQ, even anticipate needing a hotline for questions.”
Several people who called the city with water issues have reported being unable to get in touch with the City of Ithaca Water and Sewer Division in a timely manner — calling and getting a busy signal or no answer.
Two months ago, her family noticed a sulfur smell from their water and called the City to report.
Then, about a month ago, Berry began to notice her water turning brown and murky, in addition to yellow discoloration running from the faucets at her home on the West End. She filters her water twice, in addition to using a Brita pitcher, but still wonders if her water poses safety concerns for her family.
“I do not feel safe even filtering it – nor showering – but what other choices exist?” she wrote.
Unlike other City residents, Harry Bowman believes the water poses little threat to public health.
While growing up in Elkhart, Indiana, the presence iron and rust in water was a consistent problem. He first noticed discoloration in the water at his home on Geneva Street nearly two weeks ago while filling his bathtub, a day or two before the City released a notice explaining the problem.
Although he has been living in Ithaca since 1994, he has not previously experienced any water quality issues. He attributes the current discoloration to the aging of pipes in the City’s water system.
“It was really bad for several days,” he said.
Despite this, he did not report the discoloration at his home to the City.
“It’s very different from in Flint,” said Bowman.
Ithaca City Chief of Staff Dan Cogan said that these issues occur annually in some parts of the city.
“There was a lot of stuff happening in Flint that understandably makes people not trust government, and not trust the people who are charged with guarding the public health. But that’s not what’s happening in Ithaca,” said Cogan.
He encouraged residents experiencing water discoloration to continue reporting the problem to the city.
“People who are out there can be the cities eyes and ears,” he said.
With recent reports of lead present in the Ithaca City School District’s water system, in addition to water fountains located at Cass Park and Stewart Park, Cogan understands the high volume of concerns voiced by local residents.
“We are basically trying to keep the city as informed as we can. Obviously, we can always do better, and sometimes it takes us a week or a few days to get information out. But there’s nothing that we’re sitting on that we’ve known for a year that the water is unsafe…We’re reporting it to the health department and we’re following all of their guidance and regulations and trying to get information out as quickly as we can,” said Cogan.
However, if water discoloration occurs most years due to iron and rust present in pipes, Downtown Ithaca residents such as Sanfilippo and Berry find themselves left with questions:
Why are they hearing so much about yellow water from the City this year, and why has the problem yet to be resolved in some cases?