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After a month of yellow drinking water, Altus officials say they've addressed high manganese concentrations

Two plastic jugs with red caps sit in the trunk of a car. They're both about three-quarters full of a brownish-yellow liquid, approximately the color of apple juice. The jugs are labeled in Sharpie: "0/9/13/22 P.M." and "09/13/22 A.M." Gloves and manganese test strips are also visible in the trunk.
Graycen Wheeler
Robert Kilburn said he collected these jugs of tap water at his Altus home on Sept. 13.

High manganese levels have plagued the drinking water in the southwestern Oklahoma city of Altus since mid-August.

Altus resident Robert Kilburn said he got used to the yellow water after a while.

“The water had been milky and kind of yellowish for probably a few weeks,” he said.

But on Sept. 12 and 13, the water coming from Kilburn’s kitchen tap was the darkest yellow he had seen yet. He grabbed an empty jug and filled it with the amber liquid.

He said the water is usually darkest when he first turns on a tap in the morning, and he wanted to capture it at its least appetizing point.

“What’s in that jug is the worst-case scenario,” Kilburn said. But when he collected another jug that afternoon, the water looked even darker.

Kilburn’s observation matched the city’s data—Sept. 12 showed the highest manganese levels Altus’s water treatment plant has recorded this summer.

Altus gets its water from Tom Steed Reservoir. Chris Riffle is the city’s special projects and communications director. When Altus residents first started getting yellow water out of their pipes, Riffle said the city believed the problem would be resolved quickly.

“The cause of it was entirely natural,” Riffle said. “Tom Steed Reservoir apparently did what they call a lake turn.”

During extended hot periods, the water in a deep lake settles into layers. The sun-warmed surface doesn’t mix with the cool, dark water below.

But as the water on the lake’s surface cools at the end of summer, those layers start to mix. Some of the nutrients and chemicals that were stuck at the bottom of the lake float to the top. Seasonal turnover is crucial for the health of a lake’s plant and animal life. But it can change the taste and chemical makeup of drinking water drawn from the lake.

A photo of a calm blue lake in the middle distance. The foreground features grass, yellow wildflowers and scraggly trees. There's a wide strip of red dirt and low, shrubby vegetation that looks like it's normally covered by water. In the background, hills beyond the lake and clear blue sky.
Kateleigh Mills
Throughout August and September, Tom Steed Reservoir has sat about 6 feet lower than normal.

Altus draws their municipal water from Tom Steed Reservoir. On top of the lake turn, drought in southeastern Oklahoma has caused Tom Steed to sit about six feet lower than normal. These drought conditions could be causing longer-term changes to the reservoir’s composition, Riffle explained.

“We've seen some levels of salts and minerals in that raw water change over the last month to some levels that we frankly haven't seen in a very long time,” Riffle said.

But the city is working to adapt its treatment strategies.

“Dirty water is not the new norm,” Assistant City Manager Terry Mosley said at a town hall meeting on Sept. 19. “The new norm is our aggressive nature in monitoring, testing and treating what we feel like maybe prolonged levels of the manganese situation.”

Manganese in drinking water is monitored but not regulated

For chemicals that are known to pose health risks at certain levels, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency sets regulatory standards that states must legally enforce. When a water system violates one of those primary standards, there’s a legal framework for addressing the problem.

There aren’t primary regulatory standards for manganese, because the EPA considers it safe.

“It's in foods, it's in Gatorade, it's in multivitamins,” said Johnny Barron, Altus’s city engineer and public works director. “It's kind of like iron—there's just no regulatory limit. If it were likely to cause significant harm, there would be limits set by EPA.”

Manganese is important for healthy bone, brain and joint function. Most people get enough manganese from their diet and drinking water. Some even take supplement pills to increase their manganese intake.

“They say manganese is actually a nutrient the body needs, but not a whole lot,” Kilburn said, gesturing to his bottles of yellow water. “Not that much.”

Although it’s rare, very high doses of manganese can cause neurological problems. Manganese-related disorders are usually only found in people with jobs where they regularly breathe in manganese dust over long periods of time. Those occupations include manganese miners and agricultural workers who spray pesticides that contain the metal.

Those harmful doses are so high and require such long exposures that researchers haven’t determined exactly how much manganese it takes to cause health problems, according to Erin Hatfield with the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality.

So the EPA classifies manganese as a “nuisance chemical”: a chemical that can make drinking water unpleasant but not unsafe. Because of that, there’s no enforceable limit for manganese that could put a water system in legal violation with the EPA or the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality.

However, the EPA describes non-enforceable, non-regulatory health advisory levels for manganese, which serve as guidelines for keeping nuisance chemicals under control. These are manganese concentrations that the EPA knows to be safe. This doesn’t necessarily mean that water above those concentrations is toxic; but these doses have been studied and proven to be safe. The agency provides more information about how they determined their guidelines on page 34 of its Drinking Water Health Advisory for Manganese.

Altus stuck on a roller coaster of manganese concentrations

Since Altus’s manganese concentrations first rose in early August, they’ve yo-yoed up and down, experiencing three spikes above the 0.3 milligrams per liter threshold. On Sept. 12, the manganese concentration in Altus’s treated water rose above 1 milligram per liter for the first time, according to manganese testing levels the city shared on its Facebook page.

Riffle offered some simple advice to Altus’s water customers: “If yucky water comes out of your tap, don't drink it.”

Riffle said he uses a countertop Brita filter. Barron’s house came with a reverse osmosis purification system for drinking water. Both men said they didn’t see discoloration in their drinking water at home.

But Kilburn said it wasn’t that simple for him. After collecting samples of his dark yellow tap water, Kilburn went to buy bottled water for him and his pets.

“I went into Walmart and all the gallon jugs were gone,” he said. “They had a few of the expensive gourmet kinds of water in the fancy jugs. But all the regular gallons and bottled water were gone.” Because the tap water wasn’t unsafe, the city did not provide bottled water for residents.

Hatfield with the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality said that these problems aren’t limited to Altus. The nearby cities of Frederick and Snyder, which also get their drinking water from Tom Steed Reservoir, have measured high manganese concentrations as well.

Hatfield said that the systems have been treating the water with certain salts that make it possible to filter out solid manganese. Those treatments enabled Altus to keep its manganese concentrations below 0.3 milligrams per liter for weeks at a time, but they spiked again on Sept. 11 and 12.

A grocery store aisle well-stocked with water. Two-thirds of the shelves' height is taken up by 40-packs of generic bottled water. Gallon jugs of water sit above.
Kateleigh Mills
Robert Kilburn and other Altus residents turned to bottled water during the manganese issues last month.

“The issue at Altus is that the system had temporarily run out of that chemical supply,” Hatfield said, referring to the salts that allow manganese to be filtered. “So they were waiting on a shipment. And now that it’s come in, they were already seeing some of the issues being resolved.”

Keeping an eye on the future of Altus’s water

Before the recent manganese issues, Altus’s water quality was on the upswing after a slew of issues. In 2012, performance issues and a lawsuit caused the city to close its water treatment plant. A few years later, the city violated the EPA’s regulatory limit for trihalomethanes, which can lead to increase cancer risks. Altus is in Jackson County, which, ranked 8th on a list of U.S. counties with the most EPA contaminant violations in 2017.

But since then, the city’s drinking water has met all of the EPA’s regulatory requirements. Barron said that’s thanks to tireless work from workers at the treatment plant. Altus nearly won the American Water Works Association’s state drinking water taste contest this year.

“We tied for first place in a blind taste test,” Barron said. “In the tiebreaker, we lost to Midwest City, but I'm proud of the water we put out. I think it's it's good quality water, and I have no problem drinking it.”

The city is making improvements to their treatment and monitoring systems that Barron said should head off any future issues.

“We weren't ready for the manganese when it hit,” Barron said. “We didn't have everything on hand that we needed, and it took us a little to catch up to it. It's money, we should have been spending all along.”

Residents have asked for more frequent updates on the manganese levels at the water treatment plant. Barron said the city is considering purchasing a monitor that would take continuous manganese measurements. But Riffle said the city isn’t sure how often it would share those measurements with the public.

In the meantime, Oklahomans can check their water system's annual consumer confidence report through the DEQ’s Safe Drinking Water Information System.

“You can look at any system’s drinking water, the testing they've done and if they have violations,” Hatfield said.

The Oklahoma DEQ offers a fact sheet on manganese in drinking water. It advises that washing clothes with manganese-tainted water can stain them. Boiling water does not decrease its manganese levels. Instead, the manganese stays in the pot while the water evaporates away, leading to even higher concentrations.

The manganese in Altus’s treated drinking water has once again come down to normal.

“It’s back to it's clear now,” Kilburn said. “It's not the light yellow color was for about a month.”

But after that month of ups and downs, Kilburn said he’s sticking with bottled water for the time being. He doesn’t seem to be alone—many shoppers at Altus’s Walmart were still loading their carts with water bottles at the end of September.

City officials are still working to reassure them that the water is safe.

“This stuff literally keeps us up at night,” Barron said. “We hate so much that it happened, and we're doing everything to make sure it doesn't happen again.”

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Graycen Wheeler is a reporter covering water issues at KOSU as a corps member with Report for America.
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