brown water

Emmitsburg residents have complained recently about brown water flowing through their systems.

For much of November, Kevin Ball kept a close eye on water entering his home.

Ball, a resident of Emmitsburg’s Southgate neighborhood, has been dealing with sediment in his water and regularly replaces filters to clean it.

Yet despite his efforts, the sediment and discoloration have persisted.

“We started seeing problems five weeks ago, and I’ve been putting a new filter in once a week,” Ball said. “And without the filter, you’re going to get a ton of rust and sediment that gets into your pipes.”

Several people, along with Ball, have commented on Facebook about continued water issues at their homes around Emmitsburg. Town officials, however, said the town’s water is safe to drink given recent tests done by a local water testing lab.

Town Manager Cathy Willets said town staff have flushed hydrants in multiple neighborhoods several times in the past month. Town Manager Cathy Willets said a combination of reasons, or a “perfect storm,” led to reports of brown water across town.

Those reasons, Willets and Mayor Don Briggs said, may have included:

  • The St. Joseph’s Provincial House, near the town office and owned by the Daughters of Charity Ministries, flushed its hydrants before the town’s regular scheduled flushing of fire hydrants, which occurs roughly every six months.
  • A local business, which Willets declined to name, pulled water from one of the hydrants around the time the hydrants were flushed.
  • A drought earlier this year caused water levels at Rainbow Lake — which the town uses for half of its water supply — to drop, meaning the town could not flush its hydrants at “full blast.”

In late November, town officials asked Catoctin Labs Inc. near Thurmont to complete five random samples around town to determine whether the water was safe for consumption. At all five locations, Catoctin Labs determined the water was safe to drink.

Allen Haines, laboratory director at Catoctin Labs, said in an email that analysis of coliform and E. coli — the two bacteria listed in the samples — “are the most commonly used methods for determining bacteriological contamination in water supplies.”

“Generally speaking, rust and sediment usually do not impact bacteriological quality from the water supply,” Haines added regarding concerns that residents have about rust and sediment in the water supply. “Rust and sediment are typically traced back to a condition within the distribution system, not the source water.”

“Catoctin Labs, Inc. employ State Certified Water Systems Operators and occasionally get asked similar questions from the systems we contract operate,” he said.

Willets said Monday that if residents are still having issues with their drinking water, they need to contact the town office by phone or email, so town officials can create a log of any issues.

She added it is difficult to verify issues residents might be having without an on-site visit.

“It is clean water coming out of their taps,” Willets said regarding the water in town. “I want to get that clear. People are challenging the water quality of the town ... [but] everything is normal, it comes back [passing] MDE [Maryland Department of the Environment] limits on everything.”

Willets admitted it was probably a mistake to allow the Provincial House to flush its hydrants first, but added the town is looking at updating its hydrant flushing schedule and other improvements to ensure it doesn’t occur again.

Both she and Commissioner Frank Davis said this current stretch of brown water in town is the worst they’ve seen. Davis added, however, that the town’s water treatment plant isn’t the issue.

Improving the town’s water pipes underground would probably cost millions of dollars, but town officials would seek grants and other assistance versus raising water fees, Davis said.

“You could always raise the water rate, but that’s the last thing I want to do. ... I can assure you one thing, the water coming out of the treatment plant is one of the best in the state of Maryland,” he said. “Bad piping is what the problem is.”

Still, residents like Ball are concerned about long-term solutions to the problem. He still refuses to drink the water.

“Things have not gotten any better. I’s been exactly the same. ... We cannot continue to pay for water we can’t drink,” Ball said.

Follow Steve Bohnel on Twitter: @Steve_Bohnel.

Steve Bohnel is the county government reporter for the Frederick News-Post. He can be reached at He graduated from Temple University, with a journalism degree in May 2017, and is a die-hard Everton F.C. fan.

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