Fresno places water chief on administrative leave; probes reporting discrepancies

A chunk of the main water service line between the water meter and the home which was dug up and removed from Ronda Rafidi’s Sharon Avenue home in Fresno on Monday, July 18, 2016. Rafidi says she started noticing discoloration of her water back in 2004.
A chunk of the main water service line between the water meter and the home which was dug up and removed from Ronda Rafidi’s Sharon Avenue home in Fresno on Monday, July 18, 2016. Rafidi says she started noticing discoloration of her water back in 2004. sflores@fresnobee.com

The chief of Fresno’s water operations has been placed on administrative leave over discrepancies in the reporting of water quality issues.

In its announcement Friday afternoon, the city did not identify the employee because of confidentiality of personnel actions. But other documentation indicates that the post is held by Kenneth Heard, who according to his LinkedIn profile is a 16-year veteran with the water division of Fresno’s Public Utilities Department.

Thomas Esqueda, the city’s public utilities director, said the employee has been the chief of water operations, overseeing production of water from the city’s wells and a surface water treatment plant since 2011.

The action is related to an ongoing controversy over problems with discolored water in several hundred homes in northeast Fresno and issues of lead contamination in water coming from residents’ faucets in several dozen homes.

Residents’ concerns gained notoriety early this year on social media, prompting the city to undertake an investigation into what may be causing corrosion in galvanized pipes in that area.

Since 2004, much of northeast Fresno has received most of its drinking water from the city’s northeast surface water treatment plant, in combination with water pumped from wells throughout the area.

“In light of evidence regarding discrepancies in reporting water issues, the chief of water operations for the city of Fresno has been placed on administrative leave pending the completion of a full investigation,” the city’s announcement states.

“We’re not saying anyone did anything wrong,” Esqueda said, “but the system broke down.  This was a system failure, not an individual failure.”

Heard, reached by The Bee at his home Friday, said he did not wish to comment on the situation until after he is interviewed by city officials next week.

Esqueda, who is Heard’s boss, acknowledged in recent weeks that residents’ complaints about discolored water date back to 2004, when the surface water treatment plant became operational, and beyond apparently never were reported to the State Water Resources Control Board. Esqueda and water board engineer Kassy Chauhan both reported they could find no indication that those concerns about water quality – which were required to be reported to the state – were ever forwarded to the water board.

On Friday, Esqueda said that even since January, as a growing number of complaints came in about discolored water and attracted the city’s attention, monthly water quality reports submitted to the state water board by the water operations chief failed to note those concerns.

“As we were getting all these calls from residents, those were not being submitted on our reports to the state,” Esqueda said. “We’ve submitted supplemental reports now for January through June to note those people who have reported discolored water.”

Esqueda added the city is supposed to be the official keeper of records for the water treatment plant reports, but copies of those reports to the state were not kept.

“It was finding that there were incomplete elements to our reporting that caused me to have some concern,” Esqueda said. “The accumulation was such that we decided we needed to investigate.”

The investigation began Wednesday and is expected to take at least two weeks, Esqueda said. Current and past employees of the water division will be interviewed.

“We want to identify what should have been the workflow when a person calls in (a complaint) – who receives it, who all deals with it, all the people who should have touched that, and how it did not get to the (department) director level, both me and the previous director,” Esqueda said. “Since 2004, these never got to the director level; if it had, we could have started these investigations (into the water quality issues) much earlier.”

The investigation into the apparent omissions from the city’s water quality reports to the state is related to, but separate from, Fresno’s examination of what is causing the discoloration and lead concerns. “This is a reporting investigation,” Esqueda said. “But of all the things we’re working on, the No. 1 thing is to get after the red water in people’s homes.”

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.

The city and the state water board have both declared that water running through Fresno’s distribution system is safe to drink and free of lead and discoloration when it reaches residents’ homes.

The city is working under the presumption that the problems arise when the treated water interacts with homeowners’ galvanized pipes, and that corrosion of those pipes and fixtures is the source of the discoloration and lead being found in some homes.

So far, the only homes where discoloration and lead have been reported are those that are plumbed with galvanized iron pipe.

In addition to several hundred homes in northeast Fresno where at least some faucets are producing discolored water, testing by the city also has revealed dissolved lead in excess of 15 parts per billion – the level at which the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency requires corrective action – coming from some faucets in 45 homes in that part of the city.

In addition to lead being part of the process of galvanizing iron pipe with a protective layer of zinc inside and out, lead also was used in the manufacture of metal water faucets and fixtures until several years ago. As a result, lead also can be released through the corrosion of pipes and fixtures by water flowing through them.

In recent months, the city has tinkered with its water chemistry, adjusting pH and alkalinity levels and the amount of corrosion control additives in both pumped groundwater and surface water from the treatment plant, hoping to stabilize the mineral and corrosion scales that build up over time inside galvanized pipes in residents’ homes.

One of the theories is that the differences in characteristics between well water, which was the city’s sole source of water for years, and treated surface water may have disrupted those scale layers, causing them to dissolve into rust in water from the faucets.

Esqueda said the changes in water chemistry at the treatment plant have reduced the number of homes exceeding the EPA’s lead standard from 45 to 37 as of last week