It was probably the most common topic of conversation on campus: the water. Beginning two weeks ago, the town of Norton performed its semi-annual flushing program, causing the water in the bathrooms and soda fountains in the dining halls to turn an unappealing shade of yellow or brown. Residential Life sent out an email notifying students that the flushing would begin Sept. 15 and included a link to the town of Norton’s website for more information about the process.
For those unfamiliar with the flushing process, the state of the water was a shock. “I’ve never turned on the faucet and had brown water come out before. That was a first,” said Elise Grape ’17.
According to the town of Norton website, the reason for the flushing is to remove iron and magnesium particles in the water main, the system of pipes that distributes the water throughout the town. This process occurs twice yearly, usually around April and October. Although Wheaton is only affected for a few days, it actually takes ten to twelve weeks to cover the entire town of Norton.
Bernie Marshall, the superintendent of Norton’s water/sewer department, helped explain some of the science behind the water and the flushing program. Norton’s drinking water supply is from ground water in the Taunton River Basin. Iron and magnesium are both elements that are naturally found in this water source. Marshall explained that the water can hold iron and magnesium in solution only for so long and that the elements inevitably “fall out of solution and deposit inside the water main.” Over time, the iron and magnesium build up on the walls of the water main so much that, if left, it would become very hard and would decrease the size of the pipes. The flushing program sends water at a high velocity through the main to dislodge this build up.
The discoloration of the water is the result of the iron and magnesium deposits in the main being flushed out. Although the yellow and brown water is unsightly, it is what the water/sewer department wants to see. “This means we are in fact doing our job,” Marshall said.
Disruptions to the system, such as wells turning on or off or fire hydrant use can also cause some of the deposits to dislodge, and contributes to water discoloration during other times in the year when the flushing program is not in process. The Norton website advises that, due to the water system’s infrastructure, several areas of the town can be affected by the water discoloration, even if the disruption did not occur nearby.
Norton and Wheaton are not the only communities that experience water discoloration when flushing programs take place. Iron and magnesium are common elements found in the water sources of New England and towns with similar water systems face the same problems. Stacy Henderson ’15 remarked that the same kind of thing would happen in his high school in Vermont.
The only way to avoid the water discoloration would be to prevent the iron and magnesium deposits all together. This could be done by building a water treatment facility that would use filters and chemicals to remove the excess elements.
“The Town of Norton Water/Sewer Commissioners have begun a preliminary design phase for such a treatment facdility,” said Marshall, and he added that they have hired an engineering firm for this project, although he did not have a date for when it would be built or completed. The facility will filter water from three of Norton’s water sources with the highest levels of iron and magnesium.
Marshall assured that the water is safe, even if it does not look clean. It is also safe to wash in, although the hot water from the shower causes the elements to fall out of solution more easily and therefore looks dirtier. He does not advise washing clothes while the flushing program is in effect, as the water can stain clothing. Before doing laundry, he suggested running the water in a sink for a few minutes to check its clarity. If it is clear, the water for the laundry should be fine to use.