Emory Alexander was ready for a glass of water before washing the morning dishes Monday, but the brown muck that filled his glass when he turned on the faucet made him think twice.
"This is the worst we've ever seen," Alexander said. "You don't even want to touch the water."
City water officials were also taken by surprise Monday morning when 87 people called within 20 minutes starting about 9:30 a.m. to report the muddy water. City workers shut down a large water tank on the south side of Highway 50 near the Empire Ranch area for yearly maintenance.
After calls started coming in, the city checked the system and found a well had automatically switched on during the procedure and caused water flows to mix and stir up sediment sitting at the bottom of water pipes.
"Basically, the water got reversed when the well came online and it turned the water in a different direction," said Utilities Director Tom Hoffert. "We didn't anticipate this, otherwise we would have done some notifications. It totally caught us off guard."
Workers spent the afternoon opening fire hydrants in the area to flush water from the system until the sediment thinned to a reasonable level.
"We got the water down to a light-colored tea, or yellow, tint," Hoffert said.
The fine particles left in the water that the city wasn't able to clear out would settle by Tuesday morning, Hoffert said.
Residents in the area say the muddy water appears every so often during the year. Luckily, Alexander had already finished laundry before the mud came through the pipes Monday. His neighbors were caught in the middle of washing clothes.
"It's so bad you can't even shower in it," Alexander said. "We bought bottled water and have some put aside for cases like this. It makes a mess out of your hot water heater and everything."
The well was responding to what it detected as a low water level at the holding tank. The wells are programmed to start pumping water automatically.
When the well started operating Monday, the water mains reversed flow in two directions, picking up minerals and sediment that settle at the bottom of the pipes during the year.
"The water was flowing out of the tank and we anticipated the water to stay going that way with no impacts," Hoffert said.
Hoffert said city workers will learn from Monday's problem.
"It means we need to do a better job of planning and anticipating problems," Hoffert said. "We're going to learn from this ... we hope to minimize future occurrences."
Contact Jill Lufrano at firstname.lastname@example.org or 881-1217.