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Fresno Residents Raise Concerns About Lead In Their Water

Michael Conner
Water from Shann Conner's home

The water crisis in Flint Michigan has led a lot of people across the country to ask what’s in their water.  Residents of Northeast Fresno are growing increasingly frustrated with their own water problem that’s been a decade in the making, one that they say is threatening their health.

When you walk into Mari Rose’s modest northeast Fresno home, you are greeted several friendly cats and given a warning ‘don’t drink the tap water’.

“There it is. Like a yellow…looks like pee,” Rose says.

Rose says for more than a decade the water in her house has periodically run a strange shade of yellowish-brown.

Pipes residents say were corroded by Fresno water.

Some of the 14,000 homes in her neighborhood are having a similar problem and are even testing positive for high levels of lead and other minerals in the water. The city says the issue is not in the water they are sending out but somewhere in the pipes and fixtures within the homes.

When Rose took her concerns to the city she was told the water is safe but still they began providing bottled water for her to drink and cook with.

She thought that was the end of it and went about her business, until this year when she found out she is not the only one.

“And now in ’16, a lot of people are on social media. And with the lead in Flint, Michigan people are paying attention to us,” Rose says.

Her neighbor Shann Conner is in a similar position, saying about a decade ago suddenly her water went from clear to yellowish-brown.

Shann Conner reviews her records of her reports on bad water.

  She has out a large binder with documents and emails going back to the beginning tracking her interactions with the city.

Connor is not alone in keeping track. Mari Rose has several labeled water samples in her garage. Both women say that when they could get a response from the city, officials said they weren’t responsible for the problem.

“Everybody else has the blame but them. But suddenly they are delivering bottled water to my home every single month since 2005. Now in 2005, I had four small children in this house. And they keep telling me ‘your water is fine but not for pregnant women or children. And here is some bottled water, forever, for you and your family,” Conner says.

Both women live in homes that all rely on the Northeast Fresno Surface Water Treatment Plant. And both women blame that plant for sending what they consider to be potentially dangerous water to their homes.

Former Fresno City Council Member Jerry Duncan represented the area on city council shortly after the plant opened. He says he heard about issues early on but then reports went quiet and now he is suspicious that the city has a bigger problem on its hands than it is admitting.

“Frankly, I am very concerned. And whether they didn’t tell me on purpose or they didn’t know, the issue of lead levels is startling to me,” Duncan says.

There is now wellspring of mistrust among residents who are worried that the city has not done its part to tell them about the quality of the water they have been paying for the last decade.

Tommy Esqueda is the Public Utilities Director for the City of Fresno.

A map in Tommy Esqueda's office showing homes with negative water tests

“What we don’t want to do, I can tell you, is make an adjustment that then pushes other homes that haven’t had an issue, into having an issue. So we are trying to work our way through it incrementally,” Esqueda says.

He says they are aware of the issue with the water, as well as the lack of trust in the city. They have been adjusting the chemicals added to the water and including ground water at the plant to try and see if it fixes the reported problems.

But the main issue the city is struggling with is that the problem is so scattershot. Not every home, or even every facet in every home, has discolored water. So it is taking time to determine exactly what to tell residents to do.

“There are data points that point to the water plant and data points that don’t point to the water plant. That is what we are trying to understand is how do we connect them. There has got to be a pattern that we are not seeing just yet,” Esqueda says.

Esqueda says they have not completely ruled out problems at the plant. If that were the case, it could potentially be a much more expensive fix.

The problem is now so well known that some neighbors are pricing out re-piping their entire house. That costs several thousand dollars.

Letter from the city to Mari Rose about water delivery

  Brian Oram is a professional geologist that works with home water. He says determining exactly where the problem is is a difficult process.

“It could be a corrosion issue in the pipes. It could be an issue with old piping in the house. It could be an issue with the ground water itself. But you need to test all those first before you decide to spend some money,” Oram says.

The city has set aside $250,000 dollars for a fixture replacement rebate program.

But that might just be a Band-Aid.

The long run of delays and lack of clear answers from the city have left some of the neighbors skeptical of the city’s motives behind such a program.

They say they just want to know if their water is safe to drink or not.

Jeffrey Hess is a reporter and Morning Edition news host for Valley Public Radio. Jeffrey was born and raised in a small town in rural southeast Ohio. After graduating from Otterbein University in Columbus, Ohio with a communications degree, Jeffrey embarked on a radio career. After brief stops at stations in Ohio and Texas, and not so brief stops in Florida and Mississippi, Jeffrey and his new wife Shivon are happy to be part Valley Public Radio.