BREWSTER — When the city public works crew flushed fire hydrants last week, it took about twice as long as usual for the gushing water to run clear.

The problem is a build-up of manganese, Public Works Director J.D. Smith said during the May 8 City Council meeting.

The water quality should be a priority of the council, Council member Jan May said.

May, also a health care professional at Three Rivers Hospital, said sediment in bathwater and drinking water “doesn’t promote well being.

“I am outraged as a citizen of this town,” she said. “Our children are drinking this.”

Manganese is an essential mineral that helps the body process cholesterol, carbohydrates and protein, according to MedlinePlus, a combined service of the National Insitutes of Health and the U.S. National Library of Medicine. It’s found in nuts, tea, whole grains, leafy green vegetables and legumes.

It also can be used to treat osteoporosis and anemia.

However, the safe recommended dose is less than 11 mg per day. Beyond that, there could be side effects such as shaking, according to MedlinePlus.

“It’s an inherent mineral in the ground; it’s just that some areas have higher levels of manganese than others,” Smith said.

Another problem is that a “high percentage” of the city’s water infrastructure are dead ends, he said, which means the manganese build-up is worse for residents at those ends.

May is one of those residents.

“I want to know what it’s doing to me,” she said. “I’m just sick about this.”

There have been several more complaints from the community over the past two weeks, Smith said.

“We do have a definite issue with manganese in the water,” he said. “Today was obviously a real eye-opener.”

Two hydrants were flushed earlier that day, and it took about 30 minutes to start seeing a change in the water’s clarity. Ordinarily, it takes only about 15 minutes for the water to clear, he said.

“We are working on resolving these issues, but it’s going to take some time,” he said.

The city plans to flush the system completely before cherry season begins this summer, and the public will be notified beforehand.

People should be prepared to see discoloration in their water when the system is flushed, and the city may shut off meters so the manganese doesn’t get into the service lines while flushing the main line.

What residents can do, Smith said, is turn off water heaters, remove or bypass their water filters and remove the screens to prevent the manganese from getting trapped during flushing. Anyone worried about using excess water can contact City Hall, he said, at 509-689-3464.

The city is also looking into funding that could upgrade the ground-water wells, pumps and storm drains, install a manganese filtration system and blow-off hydrants to expel water from dead-end lines.

Meanwhile, the city will send a diver with a robotic cleaner into the reservoirs to clear out the build-up.

The public works department tests manganese levels every year, Smith said. The mineral attaches to the inside of the pipes and builds up if the system isn’t flushed regularly, but it doesn’t build up as much in the summer when citizens are using more water.

When May asked if the city could test water at her home, Smith said it can be done at the city’s expense, but the state Department of Health requires the city to test the water at the source reserves.

The city has three reserve tanks that hold 200,000, 300,000 and 500,000 gallons each.

Mayor Lee Webster said he felt doing more tests would be worth the city’s money, and recommended putting the issue high on the water comprehensive plan list so the city has an easier time getting grants.

The city should “set a goal that’s reasonably attainable and work backwards from that,” Webster said, and suggested setting a time frame of five or 10 years to reduce the water’s manganese level.

Neighboring city Pateros has also discussed issues with manganese in past council meetings, but the situation isn’t dire, City Superintendent Dale Parks said.

“We’ve always had manganese in the water,” he said, but the city’s levels are “way below” the maximum contaminant level of 0.05 mg/l, a standard set by the Department of Health.

The city is considering injecting polyphosphate into the water system to put the manganese back into suspension.

The purpose is to counteract the effect chlorine has on manganese, Parks said.

“This would do the same thing as if we were never adding chlorine,” he said. “You won’t see it (the manganese) at all once we get it completely moved through our system.”

Pateros’ drinking water quality has declined since the Department of Health mandated in 1995 that the city chlorinate its water, Parks said.

He said the city is also looking into installing a new booster station below the reservoirs to force water through the system, thereby improving water pressure in residences, as well as a water system plan with Spokane-based engineering firm Varela and Associates.

According to a 2009 study by the non-profit advocacy organization Environmental Working Group, safe levels of manganese were detected in water systems in Okanogan, Omak, Oroville and the Alta Lake Golf Course Plat in Pateros, as well as Brewster.

No results for manganese testing were available for other Okanogan County towns, either because the mineral wasn’t found at all or because testing was not done for it.

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