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In Sierra Madre, the yellow tap water is a turnoff

City officials say the temporary use of imported supplies from the Metropolitan Water District is to blame for the off-putting color.

December 11, 2013|By Bob Pool
  • Grant and Maurene Nelson say the water in their Sierra Madre home is often disturbingly yellow. Here Grant checks a wine glass full of clear tap water -- the result of continuously running their kitchen faucet, which removes the rust formed by chloramides in the steel piping. The city says the discolored water is more an aesthetic issue than a health one.
Grant and Maurene Nelson say the water in their Sierra Madre home is often… (Ricardo DeAratanha, Los…)

Embarrassment is on tap when Maurene Nelson turns on a faucet at her Sierra Madre home.

The water that flows out, she says, is often disturbingly yellow.

"My bath was full of gold water last night," said Nelson, a speech communications instructor at Pasadena City College and Glendale Community College.

Officials in the tiny city at the base of the San Gabriel Mountains say the temporary use of imported water provided by the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California is to blame for the off-putting color.

The Sierra Madre Public Works Department normally uses chlorine to disinfect water drawn from its own four wells and a pair of natural spring tunnels dug deep into the mountains.

But the MWD uses chloramines to disinfect the water it pulls from the Colorado River and the California Aqueduct. A mixture of chlorine and ammonia, chloramines interact with the rust in steel water pipes to produce the yellowish color.

Sierra Madre water system operators were forced to switch to the imported water in mid-September after the state determined that the city's underground aquifer was running dangerously low.

The aquifer, known as the Raymond Basin, became the state's first adjudicated groundwater basin in 1937 and normally provides drinking water for 16 local entities.

Nelson's husband, Grant, who worked for the MWD as an electrical engineer for 25 years, said the discolored water actually tastes similar to Sierra Madre's own well water.

"It tastes the same, but it's embarrassing when people visiting look in our toilets," Maurene Nelson said. "I tell them we actually don't live like that. I scrub the toilets, but it collects back so rapidly you can't keep up."

Continuously running a faucet removes the rusty water from residential piping and causes the flow to clear up, the Nelsons have discovered. Maurene said the couple use that trick when they want to drink the water or use it for coffee and cooking.

But some neighbors along Liliano Drive are taking other measures.

"I flush and flush and can't get rid of the yellow water at my house," Eleanor Woolsey said. "I won't drink that water. I'm going out and buying Arrowhead."

Another neighbor, Laurie Godfrey, said her home's water is crystal-clear. "I had my pipes redone with copper," she said. "My water is fine.

"But I've talked to somebody who says she's lost three plants because she watered them with the yellow water."

Sierra Madre spokeswoman Elisa Cox said the discolored water is safe to drink and to use on plants. Although the city routinely flushes its water lines by opening hydrants, it cannot clean out homeowners' pipes on private property.

It's unclear how long the city of 10,917 will be putting up with the imported water, Cox said, although it could take as long as five years for the Raymond Basin to be replenished, depending on rainfall.

Sierra Madre has issued a notice to its water customers explaining that the use of chloramines does not pose a health problem except for those undergoing kidney dialysis. It is also toxic for fish, meaning aquarium owners should contact pet or fish shops for advice.

Jim Green, manager of water system operations for the district, predicted that the issue of discolored water will disappear within a few months as Sierra Madre's pipes become acclimated to chloramines.

"Right now, it's an aesthetic issue, not a health issue," Green said.

bob.pool@latimes.com

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