The city of Fresno is banning the use of galvanized pipe for plumbing in new construction and remodeling projects as signs point to the venerable material as a prime culprit in concerns over discoloration and lead contamination of water in homes across northeast Fresno.
The Fresno City Council voted 6-0 on Thursday to approve the first reading of the ordinance proposed by Councilman Lee Brand – one of three measures the council considered in response to a growing number of complaints from residents in his district since January. The ban will return to the council for a final vote next month.
The council also adopted a tougher set of rules governing how its water division reports complaints from residents to the State Water Resources Control Board. That comes after revelations last week that the city failed for years to properly document complaints and report them to the state. The chief of Fresno’s water operations is on paid administrative leave as the city investigates why and how the reporting system broke down.
A third proposal, to establish a $250,000 program for rebates to help affected homeowners replace faucets and fixtures and a $500,000 system of low-interest loans to ease the burden of more extensive household plumbing repairs, was introduced by Brand only as a draft measure. The council took no action on the measure, which Brand expects to be modified as the city learns more about what’s causing the water pipe problems.
Galvanized pipe was a standard material for plumbing water lines in homes and businesses for much of the 20th century, and it is estimated to have been used in more than half of the homes in the city. But over time it is subject to rust and corrosion. In northeast Fresno, the city believes that the use of lower-quality pipe imported from Asian manufacturers in the late 1980s and through the 1990s was even more susceptible to corrosion, particularly after the city began introducing treated surface water into its distribution system in 2004 in addition to pumped groundwater.
Until you make it official, that’s the only way to absolutely know you’re not going to repeat the same problem.
City Councilman Lee Brand, on the galvanized pipe ban
Councilman Steve Brandau pointed out that California still allows galvanized pipe but described the ban as “a (better) safe than sorry approach after the problems we’ve had” in northeast Fresno.
Nearly all builders in the Fresno area shifted from using galvanized pipe to other materials, including cheaper PVC and PEX pipe, in new homes during the 2000s. Fresno, Brand said, is following San Diego, Santa Clara and other communities that have outlawed galvanized pipe. “As time goes by, we’ve seen other cities do this,” he added. “We’ve received no objection from the building industry on this proposed change.”
Given that the pipe is legal in the state but has fallen out of favor with contractors, Councilman Clint Olivier questioned the need for a ban: “Are we allowed to ban something that’s no longer used?”
Brand said he believes the ban will ensure builders and plumbing contractors in the future won’t be tempted to use it should material costs change to make galvanized pipe a less expensive option. “Until you make it official, that’s the only way to absolutely know you’re not going to repeat the same problem.”
The new rules for reporting water quality issues emerge as the city comes to terms with a serious lapse in notifying the state of complaints received by residents. Thomas Esqueda, Fresno’s public utilities director, acknowledged in recent weeks that some residents’ complaints about discolored water in their northeast Fresno homes date back to at least 2004, when the Northeast Surface Water Treatment Facility became operational. The city is required to report those issues to the State Water Resources Control Board.
But Esqueda and water board engineer Kassy Chauhan have both told The Bee they could find no indication that those concerns about water quality were ever forwarded to the state board. Esqueda added the city is supposed to be the official keeper of records for water treatment plant reports, but copies of those reports to the state were not kept.
“The records for 2007 to 2015 literally disappeared. … Somebody at (the water division) lost these reports, and that’s what really disturbs me,” Brand said during a break before his proposed rule was discussed by the council.
“If the city had done in 2004 what we’re doing this time around, when they had those complaints … I believe a lot of the problem would have been solved,” he said. “There’s no coincidence in the fact that when the surface water plant came online, the problems started developing.”
The measure asserts that city employees and officials “have an affirmative legal obligation” to document all water quality complaints and report them to state and federal regulatory agencies. It also requires the public utilities director to provide those reports to the council and city manager within 14 days after they’re submitted to the state. They will also be posted to the city’s website after customer names and addresses are excised.