Must be something in the water


If you pay attention a little too closely, you can choose to terrorize yourself with a laundry list of items these days. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, turn on the local TV news or read a local newspaper, and you’ll figure it out pretty quick. Candles and grassfires threaten to burn our houses down inside and out, genetic and environmental diseases are just waiting for nature or nurture to reveal themselves, and ex-cons and aspiring teenage criminals-in-training are casing our houses as we speak (the houses that aren’t already on fire).

Plastic is leaching out of packaging and into our food and lead paint is leaching out of our walls. There’s ozone and particulate and sulfur dioxide in the air outdoors. There’s asbestos, mold, radon and carbon monoxide wafting around indoors. Global warming, noise pollution, light pollution, without solutions. If the pesticides in our food don’t get us, the bugs will get our food. I could go on about terrorism and the renewed nuclear threat in the world, but I don’t think it’ll make me feel better.

I have a tendency to notice these things. As a kid, I was a genuine bona fide hypochondriac. My mom probably taught me that word early, because being in constant fear of getting sick is hard enough for a kid without self-identifying with the term “germ freak.” A garter snake once nipped me on the hand and I convinced myself I had rabies, which in those days meant getting many shots with a long needle in the stomach. I did not end up developing rabies (you can’t get rabies from cold-blooded animals like snakes), but that didn’t make me worry any less.

Driving, girls and sports eventually distracted and cured me for a time. In my teens and twenties, I was about as happy go lucky as a guy like me gets. But I think I’m regressing lately, and it’s all because of city water. The city of Minneapolis gets its water from the Mississippi River, and in the springtime, the water stinks. As a bonus, it’s got a slight brownish tinge to it, which is especially noticeable when you see it in large quantities, let’s say, when you run a bath for your kids.

In past years, I think it was there but I didn’t notice it as much. I may have just ignored it while showering, or ran the tap a little longer before filling my glass. But nothing re-activates a former hypochondriac like bathing kids in stinky brown water. Needless to say, I’ve added city water in the springtime to the above list of things that must be avoided (plus car accidents and pit bulls and frostbite and heatstroke while we’re adding things…). If my hypochondria has indeed returned, it has now morphed into hypochondria-by-proxy, which is my made-up term for worrying about all these things on behalf of my family. And things were going so well.

City officials say that the smell and color of the water are due to the snow melt, and that there are harmless little bits of “organic matter” in the water. They describe organic matter as “mostly” leaves, which is disconcerting because that means it’s “partially” something else. Melting snow results in tiny bits of leaves? I haven’t figured this out, but I have my conspiracy theories.

I called and asked about it, and they told that even if there is “discoloration” and “odor,” there’s really nothing to worry about. Evidently the river is higher this year, and there is more sediment (which is a little bit more forthcoming than saying “leaves”) in the river now than at other times of the year. I wanted to shout into the phone, “but it stinks and its brown!” I wanted to ask how stinky and chunky the water had to be before they considered it a problem, but I held back.

I wasn’t even talking to anyone in the water department; they had their general information operators handling my complaint. They even assigned me a case number. But what I wanted was to talk to the guy in the lab coat who looks at water samples under his high-powered microscope. I wanted to ask that guy what he saw under his microscope that made him so sure the water wasn’t a danger. Instead I have to put my trust in that respected scientific professional, the operator.

I don’t get it – Minneapolis is supposed to have one of the most advanced water treatment facilities in North America. I remember reading about it and all it benefits a few years ago. They talked about fractions of microns and implied that the new filters might even be able to catch some viruses. Wow, I thought at the time. Now we have little itty bitty leaves in the water, floating next to my kids, and frankly, I’m less impressed than I was.

What’s ironic is that it won’t be stinky water or any other real or perceived threat that gets me. It will be worrying about stinky water that gets me. I might be better served by not worrying, instead of not bathing, right? Maybe it will all become crystal clear when my water clarity improves. Until then, my nerves and my Brita filter will continue to get a workout at bath time.

The Head Fake is featured every week on, and every month in the print edition of The Bridge. You can email Jay Kelly at, or visit his web site at