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Fresno searches for answers on discoloration, lead in water

Karen Micheli shows an example of rusting from the inside piece of plumbing, the water main shut-off, that is being replaced along with all of the interior galvanized pipes in her north Fresno home.
Karen Micheli shows an example of rusting from the inside piece of plumbing, the water main shut-off, that is being replaced along with all of the interior galvanized pipes in her north Fresno home. jwalker@fresnobee.com

A vocal and growing number of residents in northeast Fresno are convinced water from the city’s Surface Water Treatment Facility is primarily responsible for corrosion in their pipes, causing discolored water – and in several dozen instances, lead contamination – to flow from their household faucets.

“It really doesn’t matter that the water the city delivers (to the water meter) is clear and has no lead,” said Jeanette Grider, a northeast Fresno homeowner, in a letter to the State Water Resources Control Board. “The point is that the water has not been treated effectively to make it non-corrosive to our galvanized pipes.”

As the clamor continues, the city’s water division is expanding its testing in an effort to pinpoint the factors causing the problem, from water chemistry to corrosion control to the types of pipes and fixtures in affected homes. In turn, water officials hope to come up with a recommended solution – and more likely a set of solutions. They would range from incremental adjustments of pH levels and corrosion-control chemicals in the water to running faucets to flush water from the fixtures to replacing plumbing fixtures or service lines coming off the city’s water meters. The goal: to get the lead out of the water.

Solving the riddle is crucial in northeast Fresno, where the problems appear to be associated with a surface water treatment plant that opened in 2004. But it’s also important to avoid similar corrosion, discoloration and lead contamination issues when the city opens a larger treatment plant in southeast Fresno in 2018.

Residents in northeast Fresno say they first complained to the city about discolored water in the mid-2000s, after surface water from the city’s treatment plant on Chestnut Avenue near Behymer Avenue was introduced into the mains supplying the northeast. The plant, which receives water from the Fresno Irrigation District’s Enterprise Canal, treats the water to settle out solids, disinfect it and adds various chemicals to reduce its potential for corroding household plumbing.

“I believe the city knew full well about the brown water causes going back to the beginning of the new water plant coming online,” said Everglade Avenue resident Bob Papazian in an email to The Bee. Papazian said his home was built in 1978 and his family moved there in 1993 but started having brown water problems about a decade later. “I’m not happy about the city of Fresno whitewashing their role in this situation.  The city has been playing dodge ball on this issue for 10 years.”

Until earlier this year, the city acknowledged that scattered complaints about discolored water in northeast Fresno were largely seen as isolated incidents. Homeowners report that once questions about discolored water were posted to the Nextdoor social media site, they began to realize they were not alone in seeing color in their water. And that’s about when the city took notice of the volume of online chatter and launched an investigation.

There are about 15,000 homes in northeast Fresno. Since January, about 320 homeowners in the area have reported discoloration in their water, said Thomas Esqueda, the city’s public utilities director. Out of that number, about 220 have been tested at 660 separate faucets. As of last month, a total of 69 faucets in 39 homes tested positive for lead contamination at levels above 15 parts per billion, the threshold set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency at which corrective action must be taken.

As The Bee reported last week, one confounding issue is the inconsistency of the reports. One of the few common denominators is that it’s showing up in homes with galvanized pipes. Most are in the area that receives a blend of pumped groundwater and surface water from the treatment plant. Many were built in the 1990s, but some were built earlier and others built later. In some homes, only one or two faucets are showing discolored water, while in others it’s showing up throughout the house. In homes where lead has been detected, some only have it at one or two faucets and not in the entire house.

So far, however, Esqueda said the only homes to test positive for lead were also experiencing discolored water. But not all homes with discolored water have tested positive for lead.

320Homes reporting discolored water in northeast Fresno

220Homes tested for water quality to date

39Homes testing positive for lead in water above 15 parts per billion

15,000Approximate number of homes in northeast Fresno

Fresno insists its water is free of lead and meets state and federal drinking water standards as it is pumped from wells, leaves the treatment plant and runs through the city’s water mains. The city is convinced the lead and color issues are rooted in the interaction of residents’ plumbing with city water. The city is taking a deliberate pace in adjusting its treatment at the plant to seek incremental improvements in water quality at residents’ taps.

For residents and for the city, the biggest question moving forward is: Now what? And to that question, as well as to the water issue itself, there seems no simple answer.

Required reporting

Now, the city’s water division is expanding its investigation. Rather than relying solely on word of mouth or community meetings to spur residents to report discolored water at their homes, Fresno is sending notifications to every household and business in the 93720 and 93730 ZIP codes asking them to report unusual circumstances in their water and to queue up for water testing.

Esqueda acknowledged that the city’s responses weren’t necessarily helpful when the water treatment plant came online in 2004 and residents offered early reports or complaints about discolored water. Homeowners say that at that time, the city told them the water was fine, the problems were in their household plumbing and left things at that. It’s something else that didn’t happen – reporting residents’ water quality complaints to the state – that has California’s water enforcement agency concerned.

“The city is required to report any complaints received,” said Kassy Chauhan, a senior engineer with the drinking water division of the State Water Resources Control Board. There’s an electronic report that cities submit online each year, “but if there’s an issue happening, we don’t wait until that annual report comes in; we expect the city to notify us,” Chauhan said.

“We don’t have any documentation on our end that (Fresno) reported these issues” in 2004 or 2005, she added.

I believe the city knew full well about the brown water causes going back to the beginning of the new water plant coming online.

Bob Papazian, northeast Fresno homeowner

Esqueda, who did not work for Fresno when the treatment plant became operational, said it appears that the city slipped up on its reporting duties. “We’re trying to find out where they put that stuff. Was there a spreadsheet or a chart or a document? We haven’t found it yet, and the state says they don’t have it, either. So we’re trying to find out on our side; did we do it at all? There is an expectation on our part and the state’s part that we will report when there’s a problem.”

None of the staff who worked at the treatment plant or in the water division are still with the city, limiting the effect of any penalties or repercussions the state might enforce against Fresno for the reporting lapse. “Ten or 12 years have passed, so it’s difficult for the state to go back and enforce on that kind of non-reporting,” Chauhan said. “Instead, we’re working with the city to improve tracking and reporting of customer complaints.”

“It’s on my radar for sure,” she added. At two community meetings on the northeast water issues, Chauhan said, she advised residents to contact the state water board directly if they find the city unresponsive to their concerns.

School testing

Earlier this year, the city and state collected water samples from six elementary schools, all in the Clovis Unified School District and selected because of their proximity to the northeast surface water treatment plant and because children 6 and younger are considered most susceptible to harm from lead. Five of the most frequently used faucets or drinking fountains at each campus were sampled, for a total of 30 samples.

Of those, four of the 30 faucets at three campuses show detectable levels of lead but all less than the EPA’s action level, Esqueda said. The other 26 samples showed no detectable lead.

“We as a district never had any reason or cause at the school sites to question the quality of the water,” said Kelly Avants, a Clovis Unified spokeswoman. “There was no visual indication of discoloration. Our first contact from the state water board was that they were just beginning to investigate.”

Once the test results came back, Avants said, the district immediately replaced the faucets that showed signs of lead. “We’re eager to have all of the sites re-tested,” she said, “but we believe we’ve taken appropriate steps to mitigate even the low levels of lead that popped up on the tests.”

We have said we want to test the intermediate and high schools, too. We’re a K-12 district, so we want to give all of our parents the confidence about the safety of the water.

Kelly Avants, Clovis Unified School District spokeswoman

Esqueda said the city now is planning to test the rest of the public schools in northeast Fresno – all in Clovis Unified – for lead. Esqueda, Chauhan and representatives of the Fresno County Department of Public Health met with Clovis Unified officials to schedule those tests for the early part of the coming school year. Esqueda said the testing protocol set by the EPA calls for normal use conditions, rather than the summer when water is sitting stagnant in pipes.

Clovis Unified has 13 schools, including elementary, intermediate and high schools, in the 93720 and 93730 ZIP codes. “We have said we want to test the intermediate and high schools, too,” Avants said. “We’re a K-12 district, so we want to give all of our parents the confidence about the safety of the water.”

Chemistry experiments

While the complaints about discoloration are more numerous, lead toxicity is the city’s chief concern. “There’s the color issue, and then there’s the lead issue,” Esqueda said. “Lead is job No. 1, and secondarily will be the color. If we get the lead under control, we think we’ll knock the color down as well.”

As more northeast homeowners report concerns about discolored water, the city gains more data points to fine-tune the corrosion-control chemistry applied to water from its wells and at its surface water treatment plant. For years, Esqueda said, corrosion-control measures were based on a 1998 treatability study conducted in anticipation of introducing surface water into the city’s distribution system.

The potential for corrosion of pipes and fixtures to leach lead and other metals into drinking water is well-documented, as is the use of corrosion-inhibiting chemicals including inorganic phosphates or sodium silicates. They work by causing a protective coating to form on the inside of the pipes, according to a technical brief from the National Drinking Water Clearinghouse. “Although they reduce corrosion, they may not totally arrest it,” the report states.

Higher levels of dissolved oxygen tend to make water more corrosive, and Fresno’s surface water carries more dissolved oxygen than water pumped from the ground, Esqueda said. That, as well as variations in pH levels, mineral hardness and alkalinity, change seasonally, requiring the city to constantly adjust its dosing of corrosion-control chemicals.

 

Fresno’s treatment program “was based on theoretical chemistry, theoretical pipe quality” from the 1998 report, Esqueda said. As more complaints of discoloration come in, one of the expert consultants now advising the city said to “go ahead and look at your real-life system, and based on what you’re seeing now in the system, figure out what the chemistry needs to look like,” Esqueda said. “We’ve got real pipe, so now we can see: what do the pipes do when we do this, or this, or this?”

Esqueda added that prior to this year, corrosion-control chemicals were never applied to the city’s pumped groundwater except when the Enterprise Canal was shut down by the Fresno Irrigation District for maintenance two to three months out of the year. During those times when no surface water flowed, the city would take measures to change the pH levels and add corrosion-control chemicals at the wellheads. In March, Esqueda said, the city began treating its groundwater on a continuous basis.

“We’re still trying to understand how that’s working,” Esqueda said. “I’m not saying that’s the issue, but when we made that change, changing pH and adding corrosion control at the wellheads, blending groundwater and adding calcium at the treatment plant, it seems to be achieving the outcomes we want but not universally.”

So the city continues to tinker with the water chemistry, keeping tabs on homes where lead has turned up in the water, to see how the plumbing reacts to each incremental change. Over the past month, new rounds of testing show lead levels have dropped below action levels at four of the 39 homes where it had been present, Esqueda said. “The most recent data shows that those homes are responding well to what we’re doing,” he said.

“But there may still be some homes, after we do everything, where lead’s good, but we’re still seeing color,” Esqueda said. “That will be another set of things for us to work on.”

Assistance for residents?

Since about 2006 or 2007, Esqueda said, five households that registered chronic complaints about discolored water on Sharon Avenue near Liberty Elementary School have received bottled water at the city’s expense.

Ronda Rafidi said she first noticed discoloration of her water in late 2004 or early 2005 but didn’t complain to the city until 2006. In 2007, she said, the city’s water division arranged for her water deliveries, which continue now. She still has discolored water throughout her house, she said in an email to The Bee. “Some faucets are worse than others,” she said. “It used to be worse, but ever since a few months ago when the city began treating the water   the discoloration in my home has gotten less and less. It still does occur, but not as bad.”

Rafidi added that hers is one of the homes where lead levels have tested above the EPA’s action level.

Esqueda said the city doesn’t have a clear idea from its records about why those five households were set up with water delivery, or for how long it was supposed to be. “We’re just not at the point where we understand what representations were made,” Esqueda said. The city’s focus now is working through the water and lead issues for those homes.

“At some point we will discontinue the service,” he said, adding that the city won’t be providing bottled water to any additional households.

Other homeowners worry about the worst-case scenario: having to pay thousands of dollars to have the galvanized pipes in their home completely replumbed. From the city’s perspective, having the city pay for that work is pretty much out of the question because the water division is funded almost exclusively by its ratepayers across Fresno, and the city cannot legally use ratepayer-generated money to subsidize the replacement of plumbing.

Last month, during Fresno City Council hearings on the 2016-17 budget, Councilman Lee Brand – whose district encompasses northeast Fresno – won approval for setting up two different pots of money totaling $750,000 to provide at least some relief for homeowners affected by galvanized pipe corrosion.

One portion is a $250,000 rebate program for residents to replace corroded water fixtures found to be leaching lead into the water in homes built between 1989 and 1999 – the time frame in which many of the homes reporting discolored water were built. The second piece is a $500,000 fund for low-interest loans to homeowners who face more extensive plumbing repairs as a result of corrosion. Both programs would be citywide, rather than available only for residents in northeast Fresno.

In both instances, the money is anticipated to come not from funds paid by ratepayers on their water bills but collected through late fees that don’t face the same subsidization issue. It may be some time before the city figures out just how the rebate or loan programs will work. “The money is there, but there’s no process or program set up yet,” Esqueda said. Since the true scope of the corrosion problems are still to be determined, it’s unclear just how far that money will go.

Construction changes

The 1998 water treatability study estimated well over half the homes in Fresno at that time were plumbed with galvanized pipe, creating a huge potential for corrosion headaches if the proper measures weren’t taken. The only options homebuilders were allowed to use for plumbing were either galvanized iron pipe or more expensive copper pipe.

In subsequent years, non-metal substitutes such as PVC or PEX plumbing – which don’t corrode – have been allowed. By and large, builders are taking advantage of those options in northeast Fresno and elsewhere.

Darius Assemi, whose Granville Homes is one of many companies that built homes in northeast Fresno, explained his firm changed its preferred plumbing materials several times over the years. “Everybody was using galvanized pipe under the slab, but in 1993 we switched from galvanized to copper,” Assemi said. “In the late 1990s, we went to above-ground plumbing with copper, and in the 2000s we went to PEX.”

Assemi said Granville’s switch from galvanized to copper was driven not by corrosion issues, but taste. “In brand-new homes, galvanized has an odor and taste associated with the glue used at the joints and fittings,” he said, “so we switched to try to get rid of that for new-home buyers.”

Many other local builders have taken the same route, said Mike Prandini, CEO of the Building Industry Association of Fresno and Madera Counties.

“PEX was not allowed in California until 2002,” Prandini said. “Up until then it was either galvanized or copper and copper was too expensive.” Once PEX was approved, it gained popularity rapidly among contractors for two big reasons. “It eliminated corroding pipes inside of the house, and it’s also less expensive to install,” Prandini said.

New treatment plant

The seemingly potent combination of surface water, groundwater and aging or inferior galvanized pipe raises the specter of more widespread problems in two years, when Fresno anticipates opening a larger surface water treatment plant in the southeast area of the city. That $159 million project, expected to be operational in late 2018, will open with a capacity of 54 million gallons a day and ultimately expand to 80 million gallons a day.

The northeast plant, by contrast, produces about 24 million gallons a day.

Even treated surface water has different chemical and mineral characteristics from the groundwater that has flowed through the city’s water mains and household plumbing for decades. Mineral scales and corrosion that accumulates on the interior of pipes becomes chemically “accustomed” to a consistent quality of groundwater, and those scales can be disrupted and dissolved when surface water is introduced to the system. That may be what’s happened in northeast Fresno, and the city is eager to avoid similar and more widespread problems from the new surface water plant in southeast Fresno.

Esqueda said the city plans to collect about 50 samples of galvanized pipe from homes across southeast Fresno and hook them up to pumps to circulate water through them. “We’re going to run different water chemistries through them and see what it takes to keep it (the interior coating) stable and not move it,” he said. “We’ll watch the chemistry change and see if we’re picking up some iron, or some zinc or some lead. We can make the chemistry work; we just need to figure out what that chemistry is.”

Reducing exposure to lead

The Fresno County Department of Public Health has issued a set of recommendations for Fresno residents to follow to reduce their exposure to lead in their household water:

▪ Allow water to run from the faucet for one to five minutes prior to drinking.

▪ Use only cold water from the tap and heat cold water when hot water is needed for cooking or drinking.

▪ Use an EPA-registered water filter as needed. A list of filters is available at http://bit.ly/1IqBe3c.

▪ Remove faucet strainers and let water run for three to five minutes to flush any buildup of solid debris and remove loose solder that may be in the line, then replace the screen.

▪ Do not use lead solder when completing plumbing work.

▪ Consider replacing older brass faucets installed prior to 2010.

▪ If lead is detected at a faucet you use for water for drinking and cooking, consider using bottled water, especially for households with infants or pregnant women.

▪ Lead exposure from showering and washing clothes or dishes is considered negligible.

Requesting testing

Northeast Fresno residents can report discolored water and request testing of their water by:

▪ Filling out a short survey online at www.fresno.gov/water

▪ Calling 559-621-8826

▪ Sending an email to RequestWaterTest@fresno.gov

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