Northeast Fresno water issues confound city, state investigators

What's happening to residential water in northeast Fresno?

Karen and Michael Micheli describe the corrosion found in their galvanized plumbing, which they replaced in June 2016 because of lead contamination in their water.
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Karen and Michael Micheli describe the corrosion found in their galvanized plumbing, which they replaced in June 2016 because of lead contamination in their water.

Hundreds of homes in northeast Fresno have discolored water – and, in some cases, excessive levels of toxic lead – coming from their faucets.

And while homeowners clamor for answers about why and what to do about it, those answers are in painfully short supply.

There are a couple of common denominators to the cases: Homes that are plumbed with galvanized iron pipe and which also receive drinking water from the city’s northeast surface water treatment plant.

But there is a maddening inconsistency to the complaints that is confounding not only Fresno’s public utilities department but state investigators as well. The uncertainty is adding to the frustration of homeowners who are anxious about using the water for drinking, cooking and bathing.

“We’re seeing some homes where it’s just one fixture in the home – the front hose bib shows non-detectable for anything, the kitchen sink shows non-detectable for anything, but there’s a back bathroom that just doesn’t want to cooperate, and we’re not sure why,” said Thomas Esqueda, director of the city’s Public Utilities Department. In other homes, however, the problems are showing up throughout the house.

“Water doesn’t know one house from another, or one room from another,” Esqueda added. “If it was just the water, we would expect it to be reacting in a more uniform, consistent pattern. Because it’s not, it forces us to be more hesitant from saying, ‘OK, this is the solution.”

While answers or solutions are thus far elusive, the questions involve the complex characteristics of water being distributed to residents throughout northeast Fresno. While city and state water officials said the water coming to homes from Fresno’s mains is safe and meets state water quality standards, the issue seems to be what happens when the water interacts with the galvanized household plumbing.

Until 2004, the water supply for the parts of the city roughly encompassed by the 93720 and 93730 ZIP codes was provided by wells from which the city pumped groundwater. But as development blossomed in the northeast, the wells were unable to keep up with demand. That led to the city establishing a plant to treat surface water from the Enterprise Canal.


That facility, which produces 24 million gallons of water daily, was activated in 2004. And that’s about when the first scattered complaints about discolored water began to flow from residents.

“We moved here in 1995, and we started seeing discolored water in about 2004,” said Karen Micheli, who with her husband Michael lives on Heather Drive in the Fort Washington neighborhood.

“If I ran a bath in the bathtub, it would just be orange.  We never saw it out of the kitchen sink that we noticed, but I was finding orange residue in the dog’s water dish, which was filled from the kitchen sink.”

“We just thought it was our home,” she added. “We never connected the dots” that it might involve the city’s switch from pumped groundwater to surface water.

For Larry England, who lives south of Herndon Avenue and east of Cedar Avenue, the problems didn’t start showing up until about two years ago, a decade after the water plant came online. “This is what I started to get out of my bathtub,” English said, holding up his phone to show a photo of reddish-orange water that he had collected in a bucket.

The Michelis – and plenty of other northeast residents – began connecting those dots earlier this year, after a neighbor posted a message to the Nextdoor online community bulletin board asking if anyone else was having problems with discolored water. It didn’t take long for complaints to reach a fever pitch, finally capturing serious notice from the city a dozen years after the surface-water plant came online.

“What we were seeing before was, in our mind, isolated incidents here and there, so there was never a connecting factor to us,” said Mark Standriff, a spokesman for the city. “But when the (online) conversation started going toward discolored water, and we saw the number was beyond comfortable ...”

“That’s when we saw a critical mass and understood it looks like something we should be looking at,” Esqueda said, completing Standriff’s sentence.

There are about 15,000 homes in the northeast area being served by the surface water plant. As of mid-June, the city had received complaints about discolored water from 260 homeowners and a couple dozen more residents who had heard about the problems and wanted their water tested as a precaution. Among homes that have been tested so far, about 40 have come back showing positive results for lead at levels that exceed the federal standard of 15 parts per billion to require corrective action.

The number of homes that could be affected, however, could be significantly higher. “We’re not saying, ‘This is the universe of people affected,’ but this is who’s calling us,” Esqueda said of reports received to date.

The situation also has captured the attention of the State Water Resources Control Board. “We have regulatory authority across the state to make sure water meets state drinking water standards,” said Kassy Chauhan, a senior engineer with the drinking water division. “Part of that is lead and copper.  We’re very concerned about lead above the action level.”

Under federal and state lead and copper rules, the city is required every three years to test its supply from the taps of selected customer homes that fit conditions set by the state and are scattered across the city. Since 1993, Chauhan said, the city has taken 734 such individual samples, and only eight have returned results with lead exceeding the action level.

Complicated chemistry

A report drafted for the city’s water division by HDR Engineering Inc. in 1998 – as Fresno contemplated using surface water to boost the water supply in the northeast – describes in laborious detail the kinds of problems that could be expected from introducing a new water supply to pipes that had, in effect, “gotten used to” the characteristics of a particular water source over decades.

“Fresno has historically relied on its more than 250 distributed wells tapping a relatively high mineral content groundwater to service its expanding population base,” the report stated.

Water from the Enterprise Canal, however, has significantly different characteristics – a much lower mineral content, lower overall hardness, and lower content of sulfides and chlorides. The canal water also has a lower pH level and lower alkalinity than the city’s groundwater.

Those differences created concerns over the potential for changes in how the water would interact with corrosion and mineral scales that had built up for years on the inside of galvanized pipes, as well as fixtures containing lead or copper, in homes.

How pipes react to new water supplies is a process called “re-equilibration.” Differences in water chemistry can destabilize the material that has built up inside pipe, weakening or even dissolving the mineral and corrosion scales into the water.

“It has been determined that iron release from old, small-diameter galvanized iron service lines and household plumbing in the Fresno system has the potential to cause some degradation in the aesthetic quality,” or red, rusty water coming from faucets as rust comes loose from inside the pipes, according to the 1998 HDR report.

Additionally, the report suggested that the differences in pH and alkalinity between groundwater and surface water could affect the corrosion of plumbing fixtures containing copper and lead. “Metal release on copper and lead bearing surfaces will likely be higher when exposed to the more poorly mineralized blends of Enterprise Canal and groundwater,” it stated.

There is another layer of complexity to consider as well. At times when water demand is low, surface water coming from the treatment plant flows farther in the water mains to more distant reaches of northeast Fresno. When demand is high, the groundwater pumps kick in to maintain water pressure, and the surface water tends to retreat back toward the plant.

That means the built-up mineral and corrosion scales inside the pipes have a harder time maintaining a chemical equilibrium with the water because the water characteristics are constantly in flux. And, Esqueda added, water coming from the canal changes seasonally in temperature, oxygen levels and other characteristics.

Karen Micheli, who obtained the report from the State Water Resources Control Board, said the 60-page document was an eye-opener for her. “That’s when it all came together for me,” she said. “The dots literally connected because the first five or six pages of this thing has all of these concerns and warnings. And as I read it, (it looked like) everything this report was concerned about has happened.”

But as TV advertising pitchmen like to declare: Wait, there’s more.

Part of the problem, city officials say, is the quality of the galvanized pipe used when the homes were built in the first place. Over the past several decades, supplies of galvanized iron pipe used for construction have steadily transitioned from a largely American-made product to one increasingly – and now almost exclusively – imported from Asian manufacturers, typically featuring a thinner layer of the zinc coating inside and out that is designed to protect the iron, Esqueda said.

Galvanized pipe is believed to have been used to plumb well over half of the homes built in the city before the 1998 report. And during the late 1980s and 1990s when many northeast neighborhoods were built, the plumbing options allowed in building codes were either galvanized iron pipe – much of which was coming from Asia – or more expensive copper. Building codes, however, did not specify a minimum thickness or standard for the zinc layer bonded to the iron pipes, Esqueda said.

In more recent years, plastic piping such as PVC or PEX, both of which are less expensive than metal pipe – and which don’t rust or corrode like metal pipe – have been allowed for residential construction.

“One of the exacerbating problems is that this pipe is not very good pipe,” Esqueda said. “It didn’t have the ability to protect itself because it had a deficient zinc coating and liner. So it can’t protect itself against soil corrosion. It can’t protect itself against the water.”

And it also means the greater potential for corrosion reactions at joints where fixtures or pipes made from other types of metal – brass, copper or zinc, and sometimes the lead-containing solder connecting them – can leach chemical traces of metal into the water.

The chemistry lessons are of little comfort to homeowners who are dealing with the problems, however. They want clean water, and they want it sooner than later. The city wants to provide clean water. And the State Water Resources Control Board expects the city to provide clean water.

The search for solutions

Since the discoloration and lead issues came to light earlier this year, the city has tinkered with water chemistry at the surface water plant, making incremental adjustments to pH levels, corrosion-control additives, mineral levels and pumping groundwater into the treatment plant to blend the water before it goes into the water mains.

With each step, Esqueda said, the city is testing water at homes to see how the faucets and fixtures respond to the changes. Some are moving in the right direction; others are proving more stubborn.

“We don’t want to move the chemistry so much that the homes that are doing good suddenly aren’t doing good,” Esqueda said. “This is why we’re trying to move slowly.”

Chauhan, the state water board engineer, said her agency is keeping close tabs and working with the city on its investigation. She praised Fresno for its deliberate efforts to adjust the water supply.

“They’re doing treatment changes in corrosion control at the northeast surface water plant and at wellheads,” she said. “The city is doing everything at their end to make sure the water delivered to residents through the system is safe.  That might not necessarily solve all the problems because of the soil corrosion and galvanized pipe issues that are coming out of the investigation.”

There is no clear understanding yet, Chauhan added. “Even prior to 2004, some people had discolored water. It’s a very complicated, very multifaceted problem that has multiple causes and solutions.  It makes it extremely challenging, which is why we are continuing to investigate.

“If we had some specific criteria that applied every time, we would be able to go after a solution much quicker,” she said. “Inconsistent and multifaceted is the way I describe it.”

The Michelis got tired of waiting for a solution. After four different rounds of tests, each continuing to show lead coming through various fixtures in their home, they recently hired a plumbing contractor to replumb the entire home, removing the galvanized pipe and replacing it with PEX tubing at a cost of nearly $6,000 – probably more by the time walls that had to be torn up to get to the pipes are repaired and repainted.

That’s a more extreme measure than what the city is suggesting. Because in many – but not all – cases the discolored water is coming from seldom-used fixtures where water has settled in pipes for hours or days to increase the accumulation of rust or lead, Esqueda said his office recommends opening the tap and letting the water run to flush the contaminants out.

“The (Environmental Protection Agency’s) recommendation is flush to clear; the county health department’s recommendation is flush to clear, and the state water board’s recommendation is flush to clear,” Esqueda said. “So we’re telling people two minutes.”

“But if it’s got color and you can’t flush it to clear the water, don’t use that faucet,” he added.

The Michelis and others fear that if corrosion already has happened to leach lead into their water lines, replacing their plumbing may be the only solution, even if the city isn’t yet recommending that.

“But it’s expensive, and there’s going to be a lot of people who just can’t afford it,” Karen Micheli said. “I don’t know what they’re going to do. There are a lot of young families out there with young children who can’t afford it.”

“I agree with the city that they’re delivering clean water,” Karen Micheli added. “But the stuff they were injecting into the water that was supposed to protect our pipes – was that causing the corrosion?”

Water concerns

If you have concerns about discoloration or lead in your home’s water in northeast Fresno, contact the water division of the city’s Public Utilities Department at (559) 621-5300 to ask about having your water tested.

The city of Fresno has posted a list of frequently asked questions about water in the northeast at http://fblinks.com/waterfaq

The latest version of the city of Fresno’s annual water quality report, from 2015, is available online at http://webapp.fresno.gov/dpu/water/CCR2015.pdf

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control’s information page on lead in drinking water is available online at https://www.cdc.gov/nceh/lead/tips/water.htm

A list of filter devices available to filter lead and other contaminants from drinking water is available online at http://fblinks.com/filters

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