On a hot summer evening in 2004, Mike Conner’s 4-year-old daughter turned on the bath water in their northeast Fresno home and let out a scream.
“Eww!” he recalls her yelling. “I thought there was a big spider in there, or something,” Conner remembers. “Well, I go in there, and the water is coming out brown ... that’s when it started, and it’s been going on, well, almost 12 years to the day.”
That was the beginning of complaints about discolored water in northeast Fresno, and over the next dozen years the number of complaints was small. Residents thought the problem was isolated to their homes. But when a northeast resident raised the issue on social media last January, the city received nearly 2,000 reports of discolored water.
Every step of the way, city water experts missed the warning signs of a bigger problem, even as they paid a company to deliver bottled water to residents like the Conners, and hired a public relations firm to persuade residents to disconnect their water softeners. An overconfident city water department promised at one point that the problem would be over in a week. That was in 2005.
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But possibly the most stunning part of the story is how many high-ranking city leaders say they didn’t know about it until this year.
Finally, just about everyone – residents, Mayor Ashley Swearengin, the Fresno City Council, the city’s public utilities department, the State Water Resources Control Board and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency – agree it’s a problem, especially since some water tests revealed the presence of elevated levels of toxic lead.
The mystery of how this happened has two common denominators: These are homes plumbed with galvanized iron pipes, and they’re all in the area served by the city’s Northeast Surface Water Treatment Facility. That plant – more than coincidentally – became operational in 2004 to provide water to an area that previously had been served solely by wells.
So what happened? Dramatic differences between groundwater and surface water proved disruptive to layers of scale and rust built up inside residents’ galvanized pipes. A month-long investigation by The Bee found that water managers either didn’t fully comprehend what they were dealing with, or failed to connect the dots as problems surfaced in multiple neighborhoods.
Until this year, complaints to the city’s water division about discoloration – perhaps 150 or more a year – went unreported to state regulators, as required by law. The city is investigating those omissions and why complaints weren’t heeded earlier. The city also recently put one employee on leave and revamped its process for handling and reporting water-quality complaints.
Fresno now faces lawsuits by residents who say the treated surface water caused corrosion to their pipes and exposed them to lead and other health hazards. And with an even larger treatment plant under construction in southeast Fresno, the city also must deal with making sure the same thing doesn’t happen all over again in neighborhoods that are likely to have more, and older, galvanized pipes in homes.
How did city get here?
In 2004, Fresno water managers thought discoloration problems associated with their new treatment plant were temporary and isolated.
This is not a widespread problem in northeast Fresno. We expect this to be resolved by the end of this week.
Lon Martin, former water system manager, in a February 2005 email to then-District 6 City Councilman Jerry Duncan and others
The plant itself sprung from another crisis. In the 1980s and into the 1990s, as residential development boomed in northeast Fresno, wells in the area were being stressed from pumping, the water table was falling precipitously, and water pressure for residents was inconsistent.
In the late 1990s, Fresno started making plans to augment wells – for decades the city’s sole source of water – with surface water from Millerton Lake and Pine Flat Lake via the Enterprise Canal. The treatment facility, built on Chestnut Avenue north of Behymer Avenue at a cost of $32 million, became operational on June 14, 2004. It was capable of producing up to 30 million gallons of water daily.
Within weeks, residents began complaining about discolored water, according to city emails provided to The Bee under the California Public Records Act.
“We have been receiving an increasing amount of 10-20 complaints in the last week,” Lon Martin, then the city’s water systems manager, wrote to others in the Public Utilities Department in September 2004. “We have identified the fact that the discoloring is not taking place in the distribution system. It is only happening inside homes constructed with galvanized pipe.”
Problems with discolored water as a result of the new treatment plant were predicted six years earlier. A water treatability study in 1998 anticipated discoloration due to water from the treatment plant destabilizing mineral and rust scales on the inside of residential galvanized pipes.
At that time, the city’s water division expressed confidence that the discoloration was temporary, a result of “very soft water” from the treatment plant “ ‘cleaning’ the iron deposits that naturally occur inside household plumbing,” according to a letter sent to one resident by Bob Little, the water system supervisor in November 2004.
In early 2005, however, complaints continued to flow. Emails from the city indicate that, in March and April that year, chief water plant operator Robert Moorhead met with residents from two different northeast Fresno neighborhoods to listen to their concerns.
The working theory at that time was water softeners in residents’ homes were causing rust scales to be loosened from inside the galvanized pipes. In February 2005, Martin asked the city to hire an advertising agency to put together a public relations campaign to urge northeast Fresno residents to disconnect their water softeners. Mailers were sent out in water bills.
Also in early 2005, Martin reported to then-City Councilman Jerry Duncan and others in the city’s hierarchy that his division was dealing with about eight to 10 homes in two neighborhoods with discolored water stemming from changes in the water chemistry, and was providing bottled water to some of the residences.
“This is not a widespread problem in northeast Fresno,” Martin wrote. “We expect this to be resolved by the end of this week.”
Root of the problem
Two nationally recognized experts hired this year to help the city understand why and how discolored water complaints have continued for 12 years say the markedly different characteristics of water from the treatment plant, compared to the pumped groundwater, are the root cause of the problems with galvanized pipes.
Experts agree that while Fresno treated the water, it just wasn’t enough. The city didn’t follow through with all the steps outlined in the 1998 study, nor did operators adjust their strategies when problems continued to crop up.
The water was not treated in a way that minimized corrosion to the galvanized iron, which is different than how you treat water to minimize corrosion for lead and copper.
Marc Edwards, Virginia Tech professor of civil and environmental engineering
Kassie Chauhan, an engineer with the Drinking Water Division of the State Water Resources Control Board, said the state’s review of operations at the treatment plant showed that while the facility had always made adjustments to alkalinity and pH in the surface water, “they haven’t always injected phosphate as a corrosion control measure.”
If the state had been aware of the scope of discolored-water complaints that the city was receiving in the first few years of the plant’s operation, “we would have been saying, ‘Wait a minute, this was identified in the treatability study, we need to look at this and see whether there’s a chemistry change we need to make to address these issues,” Chauhan said.
Marc Edwards, a professor of environmental and civil engineering at Virginia Tech, is one of the experts helping Fresno. He said the 1998 study was “state of the art for the time,” but gave the plant’s operators a level of “false confidence” that they could handle whatever treatment was needed.
First complaints made
One of the first residents to complain to the city’s water division in 2004 was Conner, whose home on Sharon Avenue near Perrin Avenue is about a mile from the treatment plant. Conner and his family first saw discolored water from their taps after returning from a vacation to the Grand Canyon in August 2004.
Conner’s wife Shann said that the discolored water had already begun staining their fixtures. “Once I started scrubbing the toilets and flushed again, that gross water did not go away. So that’s when we started contacting the city.”
The Conner home was built in the early 1990s, and they bought it in 2001, three years before the treatment plant went online.
Water managers told the Conners and a few other Sharon Avenue residents that the problem was with their galvanized pipes. But as problems persisted, the residents’ complaints didn’t abate.
As Moorhead labored to adjust treatment at the plant, the water division eventually made arrangements with the Conners and four of their neighbors to receive bottled water on the city’s tab. According to a February 2005 email from Martin to recipients, including Duncan, the hierarchy within the Public Utilities Department and city management, the city was providing bottled water to a handful of residents, and the problems appeared to be limited to eight to 10 homes.
That was after Martin’s assessment in September 2004 that the department fielded as many as 20 complaints about discolored water within a two-week period.
As it turns out, the Conners’ home is, as of earlier this month, one of 104 in northeast Fresno where testing shows lead at levels above the EPA’s acceptable standard of 15 parts per billion in the water in at least one indoor fixture. The shower in the Conners’ master bathroom had 20.6 ppb; a guest bathtub registered a lead level of nearly 120 ppb.
More problem areas
The problems weren’t limited to Sharon Avenue. In March 2005, Moorhead met with a handful of homeowners who were experiencing discolored water in a cul-de-sac in the Country View Estates neighborhood in the Maple/International avenues area, about a mile northeast of the Conner home. A month later, he met with five to six other homeowners over rusty water in their neighborhood about a mile south of the Sharon Avenue neighbors.
In 2007, homeowner Jeff Harris started seeing discolored water coming from faucets at his home on Sierra Vista Avenue between Nees and Teague avenues, about two miles from the treatment plant. The water from his master bathtub was recently tested by the city with a lead content of 47 ppb, more than three times the EPA’s acceptable limit.
Harris, who works for a Fresno developer, began keeping a log of the water discoloration, and soon spotted a trend. He discovered that when the water plant or the canal was shut down for maintenance, his water wasn’t discolored. The color would return when the plant resumed operations.
He theorizes the galvanized pipes inside his home, which was built in 1997, had accumulated enough buildup of mineral scales from the city’s hard groundwater to protect from rust that affected other homes much earlier. By 2007, he believes, that coating had been dissolved away by the softer water from the treatment facility.
An estimate Harris got to replumb his house was about $30,000.
It took longer for problems to surface at the Heather Drive home of Jeanette Grider, who began noticing brownish-red water coming from one of her bathroom faucets about 2012. “It’s hard to pinpoint because it was so seldom,” Grider said. “When it started, it would be just every once in a while in that one bathroom.”
Grider is one of three homeowners who this month filed a lawsuit against the city of Fresno; attorneys for the trio are asking that the case be heard as a class action because of the large number of potential plaintiffs also experiencing discolored water and the variations in quality between the surface water and groundwater.
Grider first called the city’s water division in 2013 to complain about discolored water, and some of her neighbors on the block had similar issues.
“When we called the city, they said the water was fine, (that) if we had discolored water, it’s caused by the pipes being corroded because they were pipes from Asia,” Grider said. Because almost all of the homes on the block were built by one contractor, “we just figured, OK, that’s the situation and if it gets bad enough, we’ll just have to get new pipes.”
In January, Grider joined the social media website NextDoor, and decided to post a question to the site’s pages for 17 northeast Fresno neighborhoods: “Do any of you have a problem with rusty water from your faucets?”
Within two days, that simple one-line query had triggered a flood of responses from others who said they, too, had discolored water for years – and some who said they had believed the problem was unique to their home.
The problems are not isolated to one or two builders. City records show that more than 60 companies are named on development plans for homes where residents have reported discolored water in northeast Fresno.
Who knew what?
While the voluminous emails released by the city indicate that Moorhead, Martin and others within the water division were aware of complaints scattered across northeast Fresno going back as early as 2004, many of Fresno’s current top officials said Grider’s NextDoor post was the first they knew of anything more than a mere sprinkling of complaints.
Not even the provision of bottled water for some Sharon Avenue residents, which Martin noted in 2005, raised a red flag for Duncan. But it later prompted concern from another of Moorhead’s bosses, Martin Querin, an assistant director of public utilities from August 2009 until January 2015.
Querin said he believed bottled water for residents represented an illegal gift of public funds. In 2011 or 2012, he took his concerns to his boss, Patrick Wiemiller, who he said took the issue to city administrators but came back and told Querin to “leave it alone.” Wiemiller said he doesn’t recall knowing about it.
Grider said she always made her complaints to the city’s water division rather than Duncan or Lee Brand, who succeeded Duncan on the City Council in 2009. Nor did she ever take her complaints to Mayor Alan Autry, who was in office from 2001 to 2009, or to Swearengin, Autry’s successor.
Likewise, most of the Conners’ correspondence over the past 12 years was with Martin, except for a couple of emails to Duncan and Autry. In fact, the email records produced by the city indicate a relative dearth of messages to any of Fresno’s elected officials, save for a few notable exceptions.
One of the Conners’ neighbors, Marirose Larkins, had corresponded with Moorhead over discolored water in her home, but complained to Duncan’s office by email several times in 2005 and 2007.
“It has been a year and I am still getting yellow tinged water on and off and … I am afraid to cook with or drink the water,” she wrote in 2005. In 2007, she asked to bring a sample of her water to a City Council meeting so they could see the problem for themselves. Duncan replied that she could speak at a council meeting, “but my concern is not letting the council know,” he wrote. “We are aware of the problem but seeing if we can help find a solution.”
He later told Larkins that the Public Utilities Department would present an analysis of the problem to the City Council in the spring of 2007. But there is no indication in city records that such a workshop ever happened.
Conner emailed to Duncan in 2007 that Autry had received one of his many water samples because Autry’s son played with other children on the Sharon Avenue block. Autry forwarded the email without comment to his chief of staff, Georgeanne White, who simply took it under advisement. She later served as Swearengin’s chief of staff and is now an assistant director in the Public Utilities Department.
Running at any cost?
The early and mid-2000s were a boom time for development in Fresno, and employees in the water division were acutely aware that without the treatment plant, the city would be hard-pressed to provide enough water to serve the rapidly expanding neighborhoods in the northeast.
“We absolutely needed the plant,” said Duncan. “It was fabulous because it enabled a reliable source of water that allows not just the growth, but for people already here to have water.”
But with that awareness, Duncan said, came pressure to keep the plant going. “I think there’s a tendency, at all levels of government – and Fresno is no different – to just say, ‘If there’s a problem, it’s just better to keep quiet about it.’ … You don’t want to be the one to wave and say, ‘Hold on here, we might have a big problem.’ ”
There was another factor: A fiasco in Arizona a decade before Fresno’s plant came on line was a cautionary tale for water industry officials across the western United States. The Central Arizona Project, an $85 million effort to provide Colorado River water to Tucson, transported water that was more corrosive than local sources and damaged mains from companies with different types and ages of pipes. Treatment plant operators failed to warn residents that the water could look different, said a University of Arizona study.
Carl Carlucci, regional engineer for California’s Division of Drinking Water, said Fresno’s 1998 study was an effort to avoid similar problems for its northeast plant. “If you’re in the water industry, you knew about Tucson,” Carlucci said. “In Fresno, there’s no doubt they were very concerned and that’s why they did that study.”
Mike Prandini, president of the Building Industry Association of Fresno-Madera Counties, said the northeast plant was important to the pace of development and construction in the area.
In light of the current problems, “in hindsight they should have done a little more investigation into what was causing the discolored water,” Prandini said. “But if they had shut it down, it would have had a major effect.” A slowdown in development, he added, would have sent economic ripples through the building industry, subcontractors, material suppliers, laborers, mortgage firms, appliance and furniture dealers.
They could have turned the plant off, regrouped, retrenched and said, ‘Let’s revisit what’s going on here.’ But I don’t think they felt that was a luxury or opportunity they had.
Thomas Esqueda, Public Utilities Department director
But shutting down the plant was exactly what Public Works Director Tommy Esqueda did in January as he launched the current investigation into the water problems. The treatment plant was taken offline for more than two months, from Jan. 7 through March 14. Two more short shutdowns followed – for three weeks in April and 2 1/2 weeks in June – as the city tried to assess how homes and their pipes in northeast Fresno reacted to changes in the water supply.
Esqueda said he has little doubt that Moorhead and Martin felt pressure to keep the plant running while dealing with residents’ complaints. “I think in Lon’s case, he knew the importance of the plant and thought, ‘I can’t turn this plant off.’ It was the center hallmark of this thing we’re trying to do (for northeast growth),” Esqueda said.
Elected and unaware
Brand, who owns a rental home on Sharon Avenue a few houses away from the Conners, said he didn’t know anything about the scope of the water problems until after Grider’s NextDoor post.
But, he said, a tenant in his rental complained about discolored water in the mid-2000s, before he was elected to the council. “I called the city, they went out, did a cursory review and said, ‘It’s your problem; it’s (on your side) of the meter,’ ” Brand said in April.
“They didn’t tell me there’s 10 other houses; they just said, ‘Lee, it’s your problem. Take care of it. Have the tenant flush the water,’ ” Brand told The Bee in July. After that, Brand said he received no more complaints from his tenants. “There was a water problem in (the rental) home, and maybe two or three others in the same block, that’s all I knew,” Brand added last month.
Shann Conner said she managed to get Brand on the phone in July 2012, “and he sounded very concerned about my water problem.” But beyond that initial conversation, she never heard back from him.
Duncan recalls his office getting phone calls – “not even emails” – from several constituents shortly after the water treatment plant came online “that their water was brown.” He said he spoke to Martin and others in the water division, “and they said the difference in the pH between the surface water and the groundwater was causing some sediments to be released and they said it should go away, and then it pretty much did.”
“I mean, we stopped hearing complaints, and I honestly thought that was the extent of the problem,” he added. “We thought they’d fixed the problem.”
After Larkins’ 2007 emails, Martin “kept reassuring me that they were working on it or were going to take care of it,” Duncan said. “So I trusted him. I had no reason not to.”
Duncan said the workshop he mentioned to Larkins never happened, and the issue dropped from his attention. “As a council member, you get calls constantly on things,” he said. “If calls had kept coming and coming and coming, I would have taken it to a different level. But on a scale of one to five, this was not a five or even a three. It was a one.”
We stopped hearing complaints, and I honestly thought that was the extent of the problem. We thought they’d fixed the problem.
Jerry Duncan, District 6 Fresno City c.ouncilman, 2001-2009
He added that he is confident Brand didn’t know about the the problem before January. It wasn’t even an issue that warranted a heads-up to Brand during the transition in late 2008 and early 2009 as Duncan left office and Brand took over.
Swearengin, who also lives in northeast Fresno, said the first she learned about discolored water problems was after White brought the NextDoor post to her attention in late January.
And like Brand, Swearengin said the issue never was raised during the transition from Autry’s administration to hers.
Information choke point?
Also in the dark about the extent of the problem were state regulators who oversee Fresno’s compliance with water quality laws.
An informational choke point had the effect of limiting what was reaching City Council members, and meant that potentially hundreds of water-quality complaints related to the treatment plant went unreported to the state Division of Drinking Water in either monthly plant operations reports or annual reports required by law.
Those regulations declare that the chief water treatment plant operator is responsible for signing the monthly reports, which are supposed to include a summary of any water quality complaints from customers. In August, the state sent a letter of reprimand to the city over the reporting omissions.
From the time the treatment plant opened in 2004 until he was terminated in 2011, Moorhead was the licensed chief operator at the plant. And in a September 2004 email within the water division, Martin directed that complaints about discolored water be routed to Moorhead’s phone number.
According to current city officials, Moorhead soon began forwarding those complaints to his personal phone and a personal email server, effectively making them inaccessible to others in the department.
Querin described Moorhead as “extremely well-qualified and intelligent and knows a lot about water chemistry.” But, he added, he never knew Moorhead was purportedly fielding water quality complaints at his home.
About a year after Querin came to Fresno, he fired Moorhead. Querin did not disclose why Moorhead was terminated, but said it had nothing to do with customer complaints.
Neither Moorhead nor Martin have agreed to be interviewed by the city as part of its investigation into the reporting irregularities. Martin did not return calls by The Bee to his current employer, the San Luis Water District in Los Banos.
I feel like I’m being used as some kind of scapegoat.
Robert Moorhead, Fresno’s chief water treatment plant operator, 2004-2011
In an August interview, Moorhead told The Bee that it wasn’t his job to report water complaints to the state, only treatment plant issues. Instead, it was the duty of the water quality office within the city’s water division to “document and record to the state, or that was how I always understood it,” he told The Bee.
“My jurisdiction was just at the treatment plant and the water quality when it left the property line of the plant,” Moorhead said. He added that it was his job to be available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to deal with complaints related to discolored water and adjusting the water composition. He said he received copies of emails from the city’s water quality supervisor, Bob Little, so he could address issues such as changing chemistry.
“I feel like I’m being used as some kind of scapegoat,” Moorhead said. He maintained that position in late August in email exchanges with Grider, insisting that he had been told that the water quality staff handled the complaints.
In August, the state sent a letter of reprimand to the city over the reporting omissions. “The city failed to properly report customer complaints as required by regulation on the city’s monthly report for the (treatment plant) as well as annually on the electronic annual report,” wrote Chauhan. “The city must report any customer complaint associated with the (plant) monthly.”
Esqueda, public utilities director since 2014, also cited the state regulations. “He’s the chief operator, he’s got to submit the report,” Esqueda said of Moorhead.
The Bee has tried to do follow-up interviews with Moorhead for this story, but he did not return multiple phone calls from his San Diego residence.
Even after Moorhead was terminated in 2011, however, the city’s monthly plant reports generally continued to omit color complaints. From mid-2011 through mid-2016, only six such complaints were noted.
Moorhead’s successor as chief plant operator was placed on paid administrative leave in July as the city launched its investigation into the reporting failures. City records indicate that the chief operator is Ken Heard, who has worked in the water division since at least 2003, but the city has not officially identified the individual put on leave.
Esqueda said the employee, in interviews with the state and the city, said “an interpretation was made that, ‘Unless I could absolutely, positively say it was the water plant, I don’t put it in the report.’ ”
“But that’s not how the system works,” Esqueda said. “The system works as, ‘This is the service area for the plant. You get a call, you put it in your report.’ ”
A review of documents produced by the city under a California Public Records Act request suggests, however, that until July the city had no formal directives or policies that detailed who bore the responsibility for reporting discoloration complaints to the state.
In July, Esqueda issued a new procedure on how the city receives, records and reports water quality complaints. Any customer complaints about water color, taste or odor from the 93710, 93720 or 93730 ZIP codes must be attributed to the treatment plant and be counted in the monthly reports to the state. It also requires that any complaint from any other area of the city will be chalked up to the groundwater supply system and included in annual reports to the state.
For other water suppliers around the Valley, the reporting duties of the certified chief water plant operator are generally written into the job description, even as the state licensing regulations already say that’s their responsibility.
Clovis doesn’t have a written job description detailing who files complaints to the state, said Lisa Koehn, assistant public utilities director. She said she ultimately signs documents to the state after the water plant operator forwards his signed portion to her office. Koehn said Clovis is fortunate to have continuity, since she and the water plant operator have worked together for 10 years and the process is well understood.
By contrast, Fresno’s public utilities department has experienced considerable turnover in its administrative and mid-level positions over the years, including at least three department directors in 10 years before Esqueda took over in 2014.
There is another difference between how Fresno and Clovis launched their respective treatment plants. Fresno started its northeast plant from scratch with its own employees in 2004. When Clovis opened its plant – which uses a different filtration technology – at about the same time, the city hired a contractor to operate it initially because Clovis lacked the staff expertise.
A similar plant already had been operating in Bakersfield to supply drinking water from the Kern River through California Water Service Co. To help Clovis city employees learn how to operate its plant, Clovis entered a $373,000 contract with Cal Water to oversee the plant’s start-up, operations and management from July 2004 through June 2006.
In contrast, Fresno has so far spent about $800,000 to investigate its water problems, and Esqueda estimates that the cost may ultimately run to $1.5 million. But the city seems reluctant to hire a contractor to run the northeast plant to deal with the discoloration issues. Swearengin dismissed the idea at a news conference in August. “We had a little bit of conversation about privatizing utilities; it didn’t go too well,” she said, referring to her failed push several years ago to privatize residential trash collection services in Fresno.
Legally on the hook?
As the controversy blossomed, it was inevitable that the situation eventually would make its way into the court system.
At least two high-profile teams of attorneys are working with potential clients in northeast Fresno. Ray Boucher and Brian Kabateck were involved in a 2001 case in Southern California’s Santa Clarita Valley, where more than 4,600 home and condo owners sued developers and pipe manufacturers over defective galvanized pipes. The case eventually led to a $41 million settlement in which each plaintiff received up to $9,000 to cover the cost of repairs to their homes for damage caused by the faulty plumbing.
Boucher, whose practice is based in Woodland Hills, and fellow attorneys Esther Berezofsky of New Jersey and Gregory Owen of Valencia, filed a lawsuit this month in Fresno County Superior Court, seeking class-action status for the case on behalf of Grider and two other northeast Fresno homeowners. That lawsuit claims that residents “have suffered harm and incurred damages and losses related to the contaminated water supplied by Fresno’s public water system.”
Boucher said the city knew there could be a problem even before it changed its water source from groundwater to surface water from the treatment plant. He said residents weren’t warned of the potential changes to the water coming into their home, despite the 1998 study.
Kabateck and co-counsels Frank Pitre of Burlingame and Michael Gatto of Pleasant Hill also met with residents earlier this month. Kabateck, whose practice is in Los Angeles, said he is still investigating the issues that caused the discolored water and hasn’t filed suit yet. Kabateck said his team will take “a deliberate approach” in its investigation.
The Conners, potential Kabateck clients, say they want a speedy resolution to the legal process. In the end, they want the pipes in their home, which were allegedly damaged by the city’s treatment plant water, to be fixed.
Conner said he is not eager to sue the city, but added that by paying for bottled water to be delivered to his home and several of his neighbors, the city essentially bought the problem. “That’s an admission of guilt,” said Conner.
Conner said he appreciates that Kabateck is less interested in the class-action approach. “We never wanted to get lawyers involved. … We want everyone who comes in our direction to be made whole,” Conner said. “Just get the water right so that when we take a drink or a bath, we’re OK.”
City officials believe defective, Asian-manufactured galvanized pipes like those used in Santa Clarita are a critical factor to what residents are experiencing in northeast Fresno. But because of the gentle nature of Fresno’s historic groundwater supply before 2004, experts say the problems took longer to manifest here – pushing the problem beyond the statute of limitations for lawsuits against contractors or pipe manufacturers based on construction or material defects, unlike the Santa Clarita case.
Defective pipes also were a factor in a product defect/personal injury lawsuit filed in 2011 by seven homeowners in Clovis against developer Wilson Homes. The homeowners’ attorney, David Weiland of Fresno, is consulting with the city of Fresno to help assess its potential liability.
Wilson Homes quickly recognized it had defective pipe and worked with the families in the neighborhood, urging them to file suit to trigger its insurance policies, Weiland said. The case was settled in 2014 for $578,000 from Wilson Homes, its plumbing supplier, plumbing installer and a company that coated the pipes.
The water in that case was from wells, not the city’s treatment plant.
In northeast Fresno, Brand believes the city has some culpability. “I believe there’s no coincidence in the fact that when the surface water (plant) came online, the problem started developing,” Brand told The Bee in July. “It appears to me ... that the city played a contributory role in what happened.”
Preventing a repeat
Beyond the prospect of costly litigation over water in the northeast, Fresno faces the potential of the same thing happening again on an even larger scale in a few years. The city is building a $159 million surface water treatment plant in southeast Fresno with an initial production capacity of 54 million gallons a day, expandable to 80 million gallons daily. That plant is expected to open in late 2018, providing water to a broader area of the city where even more – and older – galvanized plumbing exists in homes.
“It’s perfectly clear that we have to do the best we can to optimize corrosion control for all these materials before that (southeast) plant comes online,” said Edwards, the Virginia Tech professor. “It’s not going to be good enough to think there won’t be a problem.”
The city is hiring Snoeyink and Edwards to conduct experiments with pipe samples from throughout Fresno and surface water from the Enterprise Canal to provide the foundation of a treatability study for the southeast plant. The problem in the northeast part of town is providing real-world conditions for the study.
Chauhan, the state engineer, said the problems in the northeast are an unfortunate but timely opportunity. “Every lesson we’re learning in this northeast investigation is being considered and reviewed as part of the southeast corrosion control strategy (that will be) implemented,” she said.
Edwards said it will be important to brace southeast Fresno residents for the possibility of discoloration as the new water source makes its way through their pipes.
“You have to manage expectations, which in reality with galvanized iron is that you’re always going to have some level of problems,” he said. “The only question is how much, and we’re going to do everything we can to minimize those problems. But there’s no expectation or likelihood that we’re going to (completely) get rid of these problems.”
Associated developers / builders
More than 60 companies are named on subdivision development plans in northeast Fresno from 1989 to 1999 in which homeowners have reported problems with discolored water from the galvanized plumbing in their homes. The city cannot confirm that these companies actually built the homes; some may have sold individual lots to other builders after subdivision plans were approved.
Assemi & Sons
Fresno Supreme Inc.
R.L. Adolph Associates
Grantland Avenue LLC
Regency Service Corp.
Benart-Nees Park Place
Bethany Mennonite Brethren
Robert A. McCaffrey
Heritage Co. Inc.
Copper River 74
Copper River Development
Country Side Homes
Kaufman & Broad
Leo Wilson Co. Inc.
Dale & Larry Mesple
McLaughlin Construction Co.
West Bullard Court Assoc.
E. Gibbs & Sons
Pacific Land Group
First Savings and Loan
Patriot Homes Inc.
Fred N. Rabe Engineering
Fresno Miramar Inc.
Woodward Commons Inc.
Source: City of Fresno