Botwood's brown, dirty tapwater problem could take years to fix
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Botwood's brown, dirty tapwater problem could take years to fix

Jul 25, 2023

Every morning, Sherri Anderson, checks the tapwater in her Botwood home to see if it's clear.

More often than not, she says, it isn't.

"When it's not, my husband runs the hose outside and lets the water run for hours, sometimes more than a day, until the water is clear," she told CBC News in a recent interview. Those were the instructions she received from the town council.

She describes the water as brown, dirty, and sandy, even though she's had three water filters and a softener installed in her house.

"We had showers where we got out and there was sand in our hair," she said.

Anderson and her husband, who are retired, moved to Botwood two years ago to be closer to her mother. Before moving, she had heard the town had an issue with discoloured water and some residents had to boil it, but she said she never imagined it would be this bad.

"It's an awful way to live. We buy so much water that I can't even tell how much money I'm spending on water bottles. It's constantly on our minds," Anderson said.

"I worry about the appliances because that dirty water goes through the dishwasher, the washer, and the hot water tank and leaves residue."

About 2,800 people live in Botwood, and Anderson says hundreds of them struggle with dirty water. Botwood Mayor James Sceviour isn't sure what the number is but said it could indeed be hundreds.

"The water lines are very old. Some of them are 50 to 80 years old," said Sceviour.

He said the discoloration occurs when pipes are flushed by the town for cleaning, and sediment from the ductile iron pipe discolours the water. Another culprit could be breaks in some of the town's pipes or, according to Sceviour, a break in a pipe in a different town.

The water line starts from the New Bay Lake area, which supplies water to Botwood and other towns, including Peterview, Bishop's Falls, Grand Falls-Windsor and Northern Arm.

Sceviour says the best solution would be to replace the aging infrastructure, but that comes with a big price tag. The council has two projects underway for the next two years that will cost as much as $4 million, split with the provincial and federal governments. The town pays 10 per cent of the cost — $400,000 — financed for the next eight or nine years, he said.

"Before we can pay it off, we sign a new project for the next year, which is another mortgage we take, and so on."

This year, however, two projects that were set to replace old pipes had to be postponed because the cost turned out to be 30 per cent over budget, Sceviour said.

"We're doing the best we can with what we have, and we only have so much money to go forward on a year-to-year basis," he said.

"I understand people's frustrations, and they are justified. Unfortunately, this situation isn't unique to our town."

Similarly, in Grand Falls-Windsor, Mayor Barry Manuel said residents have been complaining about water discoloration.

The problem there isn't new, either, and Manuel says while the water is fine for most people in town, some residents have ongoing issues that they are trying to solve.

"We do understand people's frustrations and we are trying to be responsive to find fixes," he said. He also blames the aging infrastructure.

The town is undergoing an ongoing construction project on the water and sewer infrastructure, he said.

"We try to prioritize work because obviously we are spending money on this infrastructure and plan to spend more. But I think we could do a full assessment of our community to determine which water lines need replacement, [and] I expect the cost would be close to a billion dollars."

In Botwood, Anderson says she's disappointed it's taking so long for the town to fix the problem.

"We've been told that there is no money and that other towns are affected, and to be patient, but the money has to come from somewhere," she said. "Something has to be done because it's an awful way to live. I just recently learned that some people buy water to bathe in. That's unacceptable."

Although he doesn't advise drinking the water, Sceviour says the town tests the water for safety daily.

But he's not optimistic about the time it would take to completely replace the town's infrastructure.

"I wish I had $30 million, but we don't have that money. I can't say how long it would take us to solve the problem completely, but it could take many more years before it's resolved completely."

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Arlette Lazarenko is a journalist working in St. John's. She is a graduate of the CNA journalism program.

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