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Water Woes In NE Fresno Could Be The 'Canary In A Coal Mine'

Marc Edwards

The problem with the water in some homes in northeast Fresno might seem isolated but it could actually be the proverbial ‘canary in the coal mine’ of problems to come for the rest of the valley or perhaps the entire state.

That’s the assessment of experts and state officials who are trying to get a handle on the discolored or lead contaminated water. 

Virginia Tech University researcher Marc Edwards came to national fame as one of the lead investigators who uncovered the extreme lead contamination in Flint, Michigan.

Now, he is on the case in Fresno.

"More and more cities across California who have large infrastructure bases, with galvanized, are going to be seeing this problem," Marc Edwards

His initial assessment agrees with the city. The water getting to the homes is clean, the problem is with sub-standard galvanized pipes in the homes and a failure to properly adjust the chemicals in the surface water to prevent corrosion.

In short: “At present, there really is no indication at all that there is a lead problem in Fresno,”

After that, Edwards has a warning. This might be just the beginning of the struggle against discolored water statewide caused by bad pipes in homes and the transition from groundwater to surface water.

“That’s why this is so important. As you said, a canary in a coal mine. More and more cities across California who have large infrastructure bases, with galvanized, are going to be seeing this problem. This is the most difficult corrosion problem to control,” Edwards says.

The reason more cities are going to be seeing this problem?

"And again, you are talking about old Pittsburgh steel back in the 1950's and 60's. We had United States steel. It was very high standard," Plumber Chris Kirk

Edwards says the groundwater, which has long provided drinking water, is unusually kind to galvanized pipe. But now, state regulation via the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act is pushing communities to use more sustainable surface water which is not nearly as kind to the unreliable pipes. Especially if the water is not treated with the appropriate chemicals designed to protect the pipes.

Ever the researcher, Edwards says the discolored water is actually an opportunity to study what to do to minimize the impact of the switch from groundwater to surface water.

That’s important because construction is already underway on a new surface water treatment plant in southeast Fresno which could be the next place the discolored water strikes.

“We have a unique opportunity here in Fresno that is almost unprecedented. You know you have to fix the exact same problem in a small part of your system. And it creates an ideal way to make sure that when the new plant comes online you have minimized those problems to the extent possible,” Edwards says.

And those lessons and best practices, Edwards says, can be taken statewide as more towns switch to treated surface water.

"It could be a sign of potential problems for other communities that have similar situation to what we see in Northeast Fresno," Kassy Chuhan

Still, he says the reality is that it is impossible to completely prevent discolored water from coming out of homes with galvanized pipes when the switch happens.

It is up to homeowners, in his opinion, to decide if they want to replace the pipes or just accept the ugly water because, at this time, there doesn’t appear to be any inherent health risks.

In reaction to the problem, the Fresno City Council approved a ban on using galvanized pipe in the city last week.

Complicating the matter is the fact that there is no tracking of how much and where galvanized pipe has been used in California homes and whether or not the pipe is up to par or substandard.

“It could be a sign of potential problems for other communities that have a similar situation to what we see in Northeast Fresno,” says Kassy Chauhan is a senior sanitary engineer with the State Water Resources Control Board.

Chauhan says it’s true that the city failed to properly report problems with the water to the state.

But now that it has been uncovered she says it’s time to determine what this means for other communities around the state who have also relied on galvanized pipe.

“So the question really is: in other communities was this substandard galvanized pipe used? And if it was, have they done the investigation like the city of Fresno has done,” Chuahan says.

Credit Jeffrey Hess/KVPR
Plumber Chris Kirk

  At his warehouse in an industrial district in central Fresno, Plumber Chris Kirk with Fresno Plumbing and Heating shows off a variety of different plumbing fixtures.

Kirk says his company gave up using galvanized pipe more than a decade ago. Instead, switching to materials like copper, brass, and plastic.

Among the chief reasons, according to Kirk, was a dramatic decline in quality and a change in the rule regarding how much protective zinc is required to be on the pipe.

In other words, just like the experts and state officials, Kirk says the product simply became inferior.

“And again, you are talking about old Pittsburgh steel back in the 1950’s and 60’s. We had United States steel. It was very high standard. Very good quality. And just like many things, we are importing a lot of the stuff from Indonesia and Vietnam. And the standards for that protective zinc coating have lowered,” Kirk says.

So Fresno, and potentially many other towns, are now going through the growing pains of moving away from the galvanized pipe that other places have already experienced. For example, California homeowners along the coast won a class action lawsuit against substandard galvanized pipe in 2001, and builders there largely abandoned using it.

But if the experts are right, residents in other communities in the Central Valley, and beyond, could be in for a long fight for clean, clear water.