City expands investigation into lead, discoloration in northeast Fresno water

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.

Fresno leaders will be sending direct-mail fliers this week to every water customer in the northeastern area of the city, substantially expanding the scope of an investigation into discolored water coming from faucets in hundreds of homes as well as lead contamination in about 40 homes.

City Manager Bruce Rudd and Public Utilities Director Thomas Esqueda announced the measure on Tuesday, about an hour after mayoral candidate Henry Perea complained that the city’s investigation has been too narrow because it has thus far focused only on residents who have complained about discolored water and requested testing.

The mailers will be sent to homes and businesses in the 93720 and 93730 ZIP codes. It includes a phone number, email address and website where residents can report discoloration in the water and get in the queue for having their water tested.

The two ZIP codes include about 15,000 homes and roughly correspond to the area of the city served by a plant that treats surface water from the Enterprise Canal to distribute into Fresno’s drinking water system since about 2004. The plant was built to augment groundwater wells that were inadequate to meet the growing water demand of residential development growth in the area.

“Fresno’s water supply is clean, safe and reliable,” Rudd said Tuesday. “The city’s groundwater and surface water supply meets all federal and state drinking water standards and is safe to drink.”

As The Bee reported Tuesday, the concerns appear to be related to corrosion of galvanized pipe or fixtures containing lead within homes in the area receiving the treated surface water, or a blend of surface water and pumped groundwater. Since January, about 320 homes have reported discoloration in their water. Of that, 220 homes have had their water tested by the city. In 39 of those homes, water from 69 faucets has tested positive for lead contamination greater than 15 parts per billion, the federal level at which corrective action is required.

Perea, in his news conference in front of Laurel Hager’s home, had no quarrel with the city’s assertions that “the water coming from the (surface water treatment) plant is safe, but there is definitely an issue once that water crosses that meter and hits people’s homes.” Hager showed reporters rust-tinged water flowing from several faucets in her home, which is among those with lead contamination.

“The issue we have before us today is one that is growing, and one that we do not have all of the answers to,” Perea said, “but it certainly requires a lot more action than what is occurring today.” Perea called for the city to “immediately notify all 15,000 homes and all 13 schools in the service area of a potential issue that may be occurring in their water supply, and provide every resident with an opportunity to have their water tested.”

Those two steps, however, are already in the works.

Water has also been tested at six elementary schools located nearest the surface water plant at Chestnut and Behymer avenues. Five faucets were tested at each school, typically those receiving the heaviest use such as cafeterias and drinking fountains. Out of 30 fixtures, four faucets at three schools tested positive for lead, but at levels below the federal action level of contamination.

Perea said the city should quickly move to test the other schools, including middle and high school campuses, in northeast Fresno. “There’s not a lot of activity, so we have the perfect time to make sure that all schools are tested and safe,” he said.

The city is already planning to coordinate with the Clovis Unified School District, which operates the schools in the area, for testing the other schools, Rudd and Esqueda said. But they and Kassy Chauhan, a senior engineer with the drinking water division of the State Water Resources Control Board, said the school water needs to be tested under normal conditions, which means waiting until school resumes to test the water.

Rudd and Chauhan reiterated that because of the inconsistent nature of the complaints by residents – discoloration in some homes from only one seldom-used faucet, in other homes from multiple faucets, or lead detected in one faucet but not another within a home, and no discoloration or lead issues at all in other homes – the city is moving deliberately in its investigation rather than rushing to make changes to the water supply.

“We are working to make adjustments to the ground water and the surface water chemistry in order to accommodate more than 14,000 homes,” Rudd said. “We’re dealing with a very small universe, and trying to adjust the chemistry to correct a problem in 300-plus homes could also result in making the problem worse for other residents in northeast Fresno.”

“It’s not as simple as just flipping a switch and making a correction,” Rudd added.