Discolored tap water caught Oak Bluffs businesses by surprise

Fushing of water hydrants by the town water department on the last day of the year generated concern along Circuit Avenue.

Businesses are looking for guidance from the state on how to reopen the Island for business.

Updated 11 am, Wednesday

System flushing during water-main work on the last day of the year by the Oak Bluffs water department that caused discolored tap water in parts of the town took a number of business owners by surprise, and generated water quality concerns over the busy holiday weekend.

Water department superintendent Kevin Johnson told The Times in a telephone call Monday that the discoloration is normal when the department purges the water system, as it needed to do during water-main work, and that there was no health hazard.

The water department flushed part of its system to clear a water main during work on the North Bluff. Mr. Johnson said that they did not expect much residue to be upset, but when local businesses discovered rusty water in their taps, the department performed follow-up flushing to clear out the system.

Water distribution systems and hydrants are flushed by jetting water through the pipes at a high velocity, Mr. Johnson said. The high rate of water traveling throughout the system can dislodge residue, such as rust, that has accumulated within the pipes. As a result, nearby water customers will often notice discolored water coming from faucets until the system is cleared. Mr. Johnson underscored that the discoloration is normal and will likely occur again when the water department flushes the entire system in the spring.

Mr. Johnson said that typically the department would warn nearby property owners, but because work was being done in such an isolated area, they did not anticipate the problems that occurred. “I did not think, at that point in time, this would raise as much material as it did, Mr. Johnson said. “It’s unfortunate, but we were very aggressive about taking care of it.”

The Oak Bluffs water department received concerned calls from Offshore Ale, the Lookout Tavern, Linda Jean’s Restaurant, and Reliable Market.

Management from Linda Jean’s and Offshore Ale both told The Times that they first noticed yellowish water late in the afternoon on Thursday, Dec. 31, and that it went away a few hours later.

“We were told that it was some iron deposits,” Offshore Ale owner Phil McAndrews said.

Mr. McAndrews said that he was not notified ahead of time that the water department would be flushing hydrants, but that he has been notified in the past. “I do recall, since I’ve been here, sometimes they do pass out flyers that they’re going to open up the fire hydrants, and they’ll give you a date,” Mr. McAndrews said. “I don’t know if they’ve done it every single time.”

Linda Jean’s manager Nadine Barrett said that management at the popular Circuit Avenue restaurant was not aware of the flushing. Initially, employees thought the discolored water was a problem in their own building. It was not until employees at Reliable Market called them, concerned about their own yellow water, that they learned about the system flushing. Ms. Barrett said the discoloration did not affect business.

“It was about a few hours and then it was gone,” Ms. Barrett said in a phone conversation with The Times. The water was entirely clear the next day, she said.

Flushing hydrants is part of regular maintenance that the water department performs, Mr. Johnson explained. The department tries to flush the entire system twice a year, but because the department is so small, it often does it only once, he said. That big flush takes place in the spring.

“Material settles out in the pipes. It’s just a common fact. And also pipes do get rusty on the inside of them … What flushing allows us to do is to cleanse our system of rusty water,” Mr. Johnson said.

More than that, flushing also acts as a checkup on the water distribution system as a whole.

“The other thing flushing is so important for is it allows us to have a gate valve exercising program, if you will,” Mr. Johnson said. “Every time you go into a flushing mode, you’re closing gates, you’re opening gates. Hydrants are the same way … It’s a really good program for us to do to go out and see our infrastructure.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story failed to make clear that the initial hydrant flushing was not routine, but was connected to water-main work in the area of North Bluffs.