The pounding of a jackhammer rattled through an otherwise quiet northeast Fresno neighborhood Monday morning as plumbers dug up one resident’s water line.
The work, contracted by the city’s water division, replaced the galvanized iron service line leading from the water meter to the Sharon Avenue home of Ronda Rafidi.
It’s part of the city’s investigation into discoloration and lead contamination in the water coming from faucets in Rafidi’s home. Rafidi is one of several hundred residents in northeast Fresno who since January have reported discolored water at their homes – and several dozen where testing has also revealed levels of lead above the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s threshold of 15 parts per billion requiring corrective action.
Rafidi is also among dozens of residents who reportedly complained to the city 12 years ago when they first began seeing discolored water and one of a handful on Sharon Avenue for whom the city began paying for bottled water in about 2007.
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The city is trying to figure out what is causing the contamination, which largely appears to be related to corrosion of galvanized pipes or fixtures containing lead within homes in the area served by a plant that treats surface water from the Enterprise Canal. That plant, built to augment groundwater wells that were inadequate to meet growing residential water demand in northeast Fresno, became operational in 2004.
Fresno’s water division, as well as the State Water Resources Control Board, maintains that the water flowing though the city’s distribution system is safe, meeting all state and federal standards for drinkability.
But the canal water has different characteristics – different levels of pH, alkalinity, dissolved oxygen, temperature and corrosive properties – than groundwater from wells that serve most of Fresno. And it’s the blending of groundwater and canal water in the northeast, and what happens when the water interacts with the galvanized household plumbing in the affected homes, that seems to be at the root of the problem with corrosion of pipes or of faucets and fixtures that contain lead within their metallic parts.
Earlier this month, the city expanded its investigation, moving from one based largely responding to complaints from residents to sending mailed notices to every water customer soliciting reports from homes and businesses experiencing discolored water.
Initially, the mailers were going out to about 15,000 homes and businesses in the 93720 and 93730 ZIP codes in northeast Fresno. City spokesman Mark Standriff said this week that the city has added the 93650, 93710, 93711 and 93722 ZIP codes to the notification list, bringing the number of notices to more than 45,000.
Other efforts the city is undertaking include tinkering incrementally with the chemical treatment of water for pH and anti-corrosive materials at the Northeast Surface Water Treatment Facility to see how the affected northeast Fresno homes respond.
“All of this could have been avoided years ago if (the city) did a thorough inspection after receiving our complaints” from the mid-2000s, Rafidi said Monday as a technician collected water samples from faucets throughout her home and plumbers prepared to start digging up the service line in her front yard.
“I believe that if that would have happened, and they started doing then what they’re doing now, adjusting anti-corrosives and so on in the water, we wouldn’t have all the damage and buildup going through the pipes.”
“But since we can’t change the past, I’m glad (the city) is being proactive now,” Rafidi added.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, lead exposure in children can increase risk for damage to the brain and nervous system, delayed growth, problems with behavior and learning and hearing and speech deficiencies.
When Jennifer Powell, a water system operator for the city, drained and flushed Rafidi’s water heater through a hose onto the driveway, a white mineral sediment with the consistency of sand settled in the gutter. And the galvanized pipe dug up by plumbers leading from the water meter was coated inside with a red layer of rust and corrosion, even as the wrapped exterior of the pipe was almost spotless. Plumbers replaced the galvanized line with plastic PVC pipe.
The city hopes replacing the corroded galvanized service line will remedy the discoloration and lead issues at Rafidi’s home. More water samples will be collected in about two weeks and compared to samples taken Monday to determine what effect, if any, the change has, said Thomas Esqueda, Fresno’s public utilities director.
Rafidi’s home is the second one to have the service line from the water meter replaced as the city tries a variety of solutions to reduce or eliminate the water problems, Esqueda said. The city is awaiting test results on the first home. “Visual reports are good on the first replacement,” Esqueda said, “but I want to see the data” from the confirmation testing.
As the city has adjusted its water chemistry and taken other steps, Rafidi said the discoloration evident at her home has been reduced but not eliminated; levels of lead have also come down, but are not gone completely.
She is hopeful, but not necessarily optimistic, that replacing the service line – at a cost to the city of a couple thousand dollars – will solve the problems at her home.
“We’ll see,” she said. “I’m sure replacing this service line is going to help, but I don’t see it changing what’s inside my walls, the galvanized pipes are still going to have all that buildup and damage.”
Rafidi showed a photo of two galvanized pipe segments taken from a bathroom when she replaced a faucet, and both showed a thick buildup of corrosion inside. “I can only imagine what the pipes inside my walls look like because water has been running through those for years,” she said.