WRAL Investigates

'Don't drink the water': Rust-colored water plagues North Raleigh residents

Posted November 2, 2015
Updated November 3, 2015

— For Joe and Patsy Booth, turning on their water is always an adventure. Joe Booth remembers a time he was taking a shower and discolored water began flowing out of his shower head.

“It went from reasonably clear to almost brown,” he said.

Discolored water has become a way of life for thousands of people in Raleigh who get their water from Aqua North Carolina, a private well company that serves 51 counties from the mountains to the coast.

More than a quarter million people depend on Aqua for clean drinking water, but homeowners in a troublesome pocket of North Raleigh say that’s not what they’re getting. Many refused to drink the rust-colored water and say it has ruined appliances, corroded fixtures and stained toilets and sinks with black sediment.

The homeowners say they blame not just the company but state regulators for not demanding a fix. WRAL Investigates found that help is on the way, but it comes with a cost.

The Booths say their water started looking bad more frequently last fall. It’s so unappealing, they say, they won’t even give it to their dog.

“I don’t think anybody would like to get a clean glass of water out of their faucet and it looks like a cup of tea that’s been steeping for a couple of days and say, ‘Oh, this is clean,’” said Patsy Booth.

The Booths’ home, which is on the Coachman’s Trail well system, where they’ve lived for 30 years, is hooked up to the Bayleaf Master System, which includes approximately 112 active wells that serve thousands of customers in North Raleigh.

“It’s kind of like you never know what you’re going to get,” Patsy Booth said.

The Booths, like many other homeowners on the Bayleaf system, won't drink the water they pay for.

WRAL Investigates sat down with the head of Aqua to see if he would drink what's coming from the wells he oversees.

“I get asked that pretty regularly, and my answer is, ‘No, I wouldn’t,’” said Aqua President Tom Roberts.

Aqua North Carolina began operating in 2004 after purchasing existing utilities. Roberts says he understands the frustration, but says his company's first focus is providing water that passes the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s drinking water standards.

“Our number one priority is primary water quality (and) health-related issues,” Roberts said.

Under current standards, the discolored water is not a primary violation. Instead, it's caused by high levels of iron and manganese in the groundwater, which is a secondary violation, something state law says Aqua does not have to fix unless the levels are deemed to be extreme. However, the state water quality rules are not clear on the solution to fix the problem.

After hearing years of complaints and state filings that show iron and manganese levels are, at times, 10 to 15 times too high, Aqua is finally installing special filters at well sites that will remove the iron and manganese.

“We heard them loud and clear, and that’s why we went to the legislature and worked with them to educate them as for the need for the surcharge that would incentivize us to do these kinds of projects,” Roberts said.

What that means is Aqua will make the necessary upgrades, but customers are footing the bill. Aqua can charge more because of a new state law that allows utilities to hike rates for water system improvements without going through the normal, lengthy hearing process.

North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper fought the new state law.

“I think good, decent water is a necessity and not a luxury,” he said. “It ought to be more difficult to get a rate increase if the performance hasn’t been there.”

Cooper says the law benefits Aqua, while silencing customers about water concerns.

“I think the frustration you’ve seen is that you’ve seen over the years a number of substantial rate hikes without improvement in the quality of water,” Cooper said.

Of Bayleaf's 121 wells, four are now equipped with the new filters, paid for by the new rate hike.

“We’re going to spend, and we’re going to try to fix these problems,” Roberts said.

Homeowners like Joe and Patsy Booth will soon see some relief. Aqua is installing a $4 million filter on the well that serves their home. But until the tap runs clear, Patsy Booth says there’s no way that water is going in her body.

“Is it a matter of life or death? Probably not, but who knows. I’m not going to drink that water,” she said. “You know that old saying, if you go out of the country, don’t drink the water? You come to North Raleigh, don’t drink the water.”

Under the new state law, Aqua can raise rates system wide as much as 5 percent to cover the cost of the improvements. The rate hikes for improvements are on top of regular rate increases that Aqua requests every three or four years.

The full North Carolina Utilities Commission hears those rate hike cases. It appears the customers themselves are partly to blame for Aqua’s continued growth and the rate hikes approved by the commission. During the last two rate hike cases in Raleigh, only five customers showed up to testify to the commission about their concerns with the water quality.


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  • Brad Holton Nov 6, 2015
    user avatar

    David and Sean, right on the mark... Thanks, BRAD HOLTON

  • Edward Anderson Nov 3, 2015
    user avatar

    Yay, NCGA and Guvner McCrory! Let's bring more jobs to NC by letting utilities sock it to their customers without a review. Next we'll all be paying for Duke to remove their coal ash...oh, wait. *rolls eyes* "Jobsjobsjobs" is not what more profits make. Reagan *PROVED* that trickle-down economics DON'T WORK!!!

  • Sean Creasy Nov 3, 2015
    user avatar

    What that means is Aqua will make the necessary upgrades, but customers are footing the bill. Aqua can charge more because of a new state law that allows utilities to hike rates for water system improvements without going through the normal, lengthy hearing process
    Read more at http://www.wral.com/-don-t-drink-the-water-rust-colored-water-plagues-north-raleigh-residents/15044256/#RY8zzyAA808A8s4m.99... And there's your answer as to why Aqua waited so long to fix the problem.. They didn't want the cost of providing CLEAN water to impact their profits from providing a substandard product...

  • Terry Lightfoot Nov 3, 2015
    user avatar

    Republican state law makers don't care about safe drinking water, customers of Aqua should not have to foot the bill, the State should step in an force Aqua to absorb the cost themselves. Clean drinking water is a human right in modern societies.

  • David Carter Nov 3, 2015
    user avatar

    I know you have a short amount of time on air to discuss this issue but there is a lot more to this story than what was discussed. The comment that people are not complaining to NCUC is not accurate. I have complained dozens of times over the years and have both called and written paper and email letters. I know my neighbors have as well. The bottom line is we never had these problems until Aqua became the service provider when they bought Heater Utilities out many years ago. Since then ...nothing but issues and the sad part is Aqua could care less. You can call and complain and they are rude and disrespectful. Aqua has caused a lot of problems for a lot of people and the State of NC does nothing either. And now they have the right to raise our rates w/o a public comment period. Thanks NCGA! Please continue to dig a little deeper....

  • Ryan Turner Nov 3, 2015
    user avatar

    My wife and I looked at a home in Chapel Ridge, in Pittsboro. After I found out the neighborhood is on Aqua sewer and water, I ruled the neighborhood out, entirely. When Aqua comes in, you aren't allowed to put in your own wells, and they were charging (5 years ago) 4x what I pay for the same volume of water. When we looked at the home we were thinking of buying, the average water bill was $400 a month. They were charging nearly $11 per 1000 gallons of water and a flat sewer rate of $65 a month. Homeowners need to steer clear of areas that are served by Aqua. Being in an Aqua served community can be a nightmare, as shown by this article, and even if everything is great, it will be very expensive.

  • John McCray Nov 3, 2015
    user avatar

    But I thought private industry was supposed to be the best thing out there? Why don't these people just go get a different water company and let the free market sort it out!

    Note: This is tongue in check, driven mostly by all the comments regarding government always being a hindrance and never doing anything good. Indeed coloration is considered a secondary issue that is very expensive to correct and causes little health effects, but it can ruin any thing you wash in it., and long term exposure to high levels of Manganese can cause mental problems. Finally, if this is causing corrosion problems with peoples home plumbing, there may be some Eh-pH problems that could actually be more serious than just the discoloration.

  • Mark Freeman Nov 3, 2015
    user avatar

    The area referred to is not North Raleigh. Bayleaf is North Wake County. City of Raleigh water is perfectly fine.

  • Brad Holton Nov 3, 2015
    user avatar

    Thanks Renee for bringing this to light.

    Our family has been dealing with this since bought our house in the Bayleaf area. We don't drink any of the often brownish and occasionally blackish water that comes out of the pipes. It causes rust colored stains on normally white shower grout lines within days and clogs shower heads to the point of requiring disassembly monthly. We renovated the entire property over the last year and already shower and bath faucets are failing with massive crusty build-up.

    We have contacted Aqua a dozen times and have always gotten the same two responses...

    Canned response #1 - The condition is temporary caused by routine flushing of the lines.
    Canned response #2 - Our water quality meets all federal guidelines, have a nice day.

    This article has motivated me to finally having a whole house filter and water softener system installed as it is obvious that Aqua could not care less about providing a quality product to my family.