Passaic Valley Water Commission Meets with Clifton City Council to Address Discolored Water Issue

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​The thorough presentation presented by the Passaic Valley Water Commission Executive, Jim Mueller became the highlight of the Sept. 20th Clifton Council meeting.

​Mueller came prepared with his team and a presentation that discussed the issue of brown-colored water in Clifton starting from late August until early Sept. The presentation, which is available on the Clifton website here,  begins with an explanation of how the water distribution system works in Clifton. The Wanaque and Passaic River are the two main sources where water is taken from, which is then treated in Totowa and discharged to three drinking water reservoirs, Great Notch, New Street and Levine. The system includes 650 miles of water mains with 100 miles greater than 16” called transmission mains.

​“When the water system operates normally in your community, it’s fairly low flow,” Mueller said while presenting. 

​Mueller’s presentation included graphics that explained how hydrant flushing is a mandated maintenance requirement that occurs annually as an industry standard. The low pressure flow in the water system is due to the activity of the hydrant flushing, but it is rare and done annually. He also explained that when there is a fire emergency, an announcement of low-pressured and discolored water is usually given. However, this required flushing can stir up sediment that can become one of the major causes of occasional discolored water.  Hydrant use increases water flow up to 20 times, that stirs up sediment in the pipes and moves it into the system. An investigation into the spike in discolored water complaints seen in late August to early September showed a misuse of fire hydrants by contractors, including PSE&G which is doing court-ordered replacement of gas lines.

​“Misuse of hydrants by contractors can cause widespread tribulation,” Mueller said. “Unauthorized use of hydrants mostly comes from contractors doing street work, paving, swimming pool contractors and any number of private folks who might have access to hydrants for the need of water to support their activities. Water hydrants are great because they are high-pressure, they can fill your water tank quickly, so it’s a very effective tool for them. However, if those hydrants are in a concentrated area, you’re stirring up sediment system-wide, causing tribulation in those pipes, which can get into service lines of the houses.”

​Mueller further discussed that unplanned and much more frequent use of hydrants to support construction activities can cause these problems and that’s what the PVWC believes happened during that time period. The presentation showed the Clifton annual flushing timeline of 20 days routine flushing from zones 1 to 14, which showed the four zones facing discolored water. In one of the maps, the left part of it with shaded dark gray indicated problems for zones 1 to 4. These are considered concentrated areas with complaints reported in a very short amount of time.

​Zones 1 to 4 were already flushed back in June with 58 days to rotate through all four zones annually. There were some expected discolored water complaints and residents were advised to normally just run their water to flush out the discolored water. Following the weekend of Labor Day in August, there were systemic widespread complaints were recorded in those four zones.

​“At first, we were scratching our heads,” Mueller said. “because we had no activities going on at that time to be causing this since we already flushed. We investigated very thoroughly and spent over a week or so, and found out that there was an enormous amount of street construction going on in those four zones, especially the curve-to-curve paving. Street construction has an enormous amount of water intensive activities.”

​After communicating with city manager, Nick Villano the PVWC started reflushing the four zones, consistently street-by-street in ten days, for 24 hours. There was also water distribution done, which isn’t typical to support maintenance hydrant flushing but Mueller explained this was the best thing to do for the customers while the cause was investigated.

​The maintenance flushing for zones 5 to 8 was also going on at the same time of the re-flushing of the problematic zones 1-4. The continued efforts to re-flush the rest of the zones are currently ongoing and PVWC is hoping to wrap-up the first week of Oct. and be done with Clifton entirely.

​The presentation next showed a bar-graph of the customer complaint logs from August to Sept., showing a spike starting on August 26th, both for discolored water and poor pressure. The complaints, which are recorded regularly are graphed to know whether the problems occur. One of the slides showed an example of contribution to the water problems caused by contractors. PVWC used a drone to photograph an aerial-view on Sept. 13, capturing a moment of an unknown contractor in a red vehicle using one of the local water hydrants. The 47 second clip showed many of one of the paving activities taking place in Clifton. The anonymous individual is seen quickly taking water, filling up and shutting down the hydrant. Street sweepers and others were qued-up to fill their tanks as well.

"​It’s helping the truck, but certainly not helping our system,” Mueller said while showing more pictures of construction. “There are more pictures of construction activity from Sept. with large equipment and other material by contractors.”

​Mueller and his team gave short and long term plans for improvement during the presentation, which are available to be viewed on the website as well. The short plan follows known rules and regulations:  

  1. Coordinating closely and improving communication with utilities and owner cities on planned street work, development, paving plans and routine maintenance activities.  
  2. Bringing the permitting process back for contractors to apply and submit payment to PVWC for water use, giving the reason for the need, amount of water use and when exactly needed. This will push contractors to demonstrate proper hydrant use, which is also important to prevent the “Water hammer” that can break pipes with its flow, which PVWC has also seen a spike in this summer. 
  3. Clifton’s enforcement of existing ordinances prohibiting unauthorized hydrant access: The City of Clifton's Code (455-2) specifically prohibits the opening/operating of any fire hydrant.

“These are all short-term, we want to move in very quickly,” Mueller said. “We are going to be using what’s already on the books, but with more enforcement.”

​The long-term plan gives the options of lining and or replacing the 80-100 year old cast-iron water mains in problem areas. The map on the second to last slide showed the majority of the pipes covered in yellow lines, which are unlined and made of cast-iron, a common factor contributing to sediment build up.

​“This particular area is really filled with unlined pipes,” Mueller said. “We plan to do a replacement line program, which we have to do.”

​Mayor Anzaldi asked some questions during the “Q&A”, about the time frame of the long-term solution. Mueller said that construction on the first round of storage tanks will take place soon, but with a total of three reservoirs that cannot be done at the same time, it will take up to 10 years to cover all 3 reservoirs.  Anzaldi also questioned whether digging needs to be done when only lining the pipes.

​“You do need to access pipes to get in there with the lining."  Mueller explained the lining and replacement "needs more planning based on the types of pipes, the area they’re in and where the problem is. We will prioritize according to the area most affected first.” 

To view the entire PVWC presentation, click here.



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