Carol Williams, a local environmental advocate and a co-founder of the Friends of Havens Beach, thought she must have accidently put some kind of chemical in her washing machine on October 17 when she pulled out two nightgowns.
Originally white, they had turned a rusty brown after a cold-cycle-only washing.
Having had trouble with brown water before, she took a photo of the grungy-looking nightgowns hanging on a line with an otherwise identical, previously washed, perfectly white one, just to prove to the world she hasn’t been crying wolf.
“The nightgowns are the first tangible evidence I have to show how bad the situation is,” Ms. Williams said in a phone interview.
Ms. Williams, who lives on Jermain Avenue opposite Pierson High School, called the Suffolk County Water Authority to ask if it had been servicing its system in the area; she was told it had not. She also called Sag Harbor’s superintendent of public works, Dee Yardley, who said no village crews had been working in the area either.
Her friend Jill Musnicki, a member of Sag Harbor’s new Environmental Advisory Committee, lives a couple of blocks to the west on Madison Street and also reported brown water that day. The Water Authority told Ms. Musnicki when she called that evening that it had been in the area flushing hydrants.
For Ms. Williams, the contradiction is part of her frustration with her periodic brown-water problem, which she says occurs probably three or four times a year, sometimes lasting a day but usually three or four days and on one occasion even longer.
“This spring was the longest episode, maybe three weeks,” she said of an episode in March. Ms. Musnicki and another friend who lives nearby, Mare Dianora of Grand Street, also a member of the Sag Harbor Environmental Advisory Committee, regularly communicate and exchange photos of their dirty water when they find it coming from their taps.
“The Suffolk County Water Authority was not helpful at all,” Ms. Dianora said in a phone interview, always telling her “it’s not us,” she said, and advising her that other agencies that have access to the system, such as water carriers and fire departments — which can tap into the system at hydrants to fill their tankers — may cause brief flows of rust-colored water.
But nothing explains a multi-day, much less a multi-week, episode.
“There’s never been a logical explanation,” said Ms. Dianora. As a result, she said, “We’re doing a lot of research on water filters.”
“It’s mysterious why they can’t tell us why,” said Ms. Musnicki.
She called the Suffolk County Department of Health Services this summer, when brown water was flowing from her taps, to request a test of her water quality. They sent someone within days but, by then, the water was running clear again. The test results came back in October, showing no pollution or health issues with her water.
Even so, the neighbors do not feel confident. “For all that time in March,” Ms. Williams said, “I never knew when it was okay to do laundry or use the dishwasher. That’s when I stopped drinking tap water, too,” she wrote in an email.
“If Jill’s tests are right, it might be fine — some of the time,” she added. “What we need to know is when. In these days of the internet, mightn’t there be a way to notify customers?”
Tim Motz, communications director for the Suffolk County Water Authority, said brown or rusty water is “generally caused by naturally-occurring iron in groundwater and is not harmful to health. It’s more of an aesthetic concern; obviously, no one wants to drink or wash their laundry in rust-colored water, so we’ve invested in technology to remove excess iron from the distribution system where necessary.”
There is no such technology installed in Sag Harbor, he said, “as it historically has not had significant iron issues.”
He said there was no record of Ms. Wiliams’s call on October 17 but there was one on March 8 and on another date in October. He noted that a flushing schedule for the whole year is available at scwa.com. It shows most recently that the water authority was working in Greenport on October 14 and 16 and Northport from October 17 to November 1 to flush iron build-ups from its local mains.
The schedule doesn’t list any flushing dates at all for Sag Harbor in 2019, despite what Ms. Musnicki says she was told.
In the March call, according to Mr. Motz, Ms. Williams indicated the problem occurred only with hot water, which he noted would have indicated a problem most likely with her hot water heater, not the water authority. Ms. Williams said she had quickly ruled out her hot water heater as the cause.