Tweet of blue tap water at University of Iowa raises concern

Water discoloration in the University of Iowa Seamans Center was the result of minor copper and debris in pipelines.


Jeff Sigmund

Old Capital as seen on April 13, 2020.

Simone Garza, News Reporter

David Cwiertny, a Civil Engineering Professor at the University of Iowa, turned on the faucet at the Seamans Center and blue water rushed out of the tap.

“An energy company took over my university’s water plant, and all I got was this blue water in my department office,” He tweeted on July 8.

ENGIE North America currently manages the UI’s utilities. The company has been managing the UI’s water since March 11, 2020.

The university transferred management of utility systems to the company as part of its public-private partnership plan, as previously reported by The Daily Iowan.

Currently, some construction is being done to the Seamans Center and pipelines, combining copper and debris to enter pre-existent pipes, Cwiertny said.

“The discoloration was from copper that was leeching out of copper pipes, as well as debris that was probably disrupted and knocked off the existing pipes,” Cwiertny said.

Cwiertny said he sent in samples to the State Hygienic Laboratory in Coralville as a result of corrosion issues.

“You can run into problems trying to make sure the pipes in your buildings behave and don’t leech out metals,” Cwiertny said.

Water wasn’t used as frequently since the buildings were at low capacity because of COVID-19 and summer vacation.

Cwiertny said blue water symbolizes extreme levels of copper.

“Copper can be an “acute” health problem. If you drink just too much water that’s high in copper you can have gastrointestinal issues,” he said.

Water discoloration has appeared in the Seamans Center and Voxman Music Building within the past year. Despite the challenges of fixing the water, Cwiertny said he is optimistic for a quick resolution.

“I’m hopeful that things will get resolved quickly so that we can have high confidence that the water being delivered is safe to consume,” he said.

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Aaron Pickens, an Environmental Specialist from the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, said the UI has not had any issues with lead and copper from recent sampling results in levels above EPA standards.

Pickens said the UI Utility System provides treatment to minimize corrosion.

“They do add a corrosion inhibitor, a form of phosphate which helps prevent corrosion in distribution systems,” he said.

ENGIE North America staff are required to monitor the levels of phosphate as well as other water quality parameters such as hardness, alkalinity and pH regularly to ensure they are at optimal levels to minimize corrosion.

Ben Fish, the Director of Utilities, said the first step is to continue flushing and testing the water to ensure it’s quality.

“Water flushing is going into a building and turning on all the sinks, faucets, and drinking fountains and just using water in order to get more water flowing through the pipes in the building, which essentially can help pick up any sediments when a piping change is made, but it also keeps the water freshened,” Fish said.

This method has been practiced since last April of 2020.

“We got some very dedicated staff members who have been going to every building that has low occupancy, running all of the drinking fountains and water faucets,” Fish said. “They have been doing that since last April when COVID-19 hit.”

Fish said the piping configuration is not permanently installed. The piping configuration will go back to its original arrangement in mid-August, as the current setup is temporary due to construction.

Once the configuration is complete, the cycle of flushing and testing will need to be redone to ensure good water quality. Fish’s goal for fixing the water is to be completed before students come back for the fall semester.

“We will do a better job of communicating and flushing the system for the occupants so that this doesn’t happen again,” Fish said.