Fresno, CA’s Water Problem

“If I ran a bath in the bathtub,” reports Karen Micheli, “It would just be orange.”

Karen Micheli lives with her husband Michael on Heather Drive in Fresno California. The Micheli couple thought the strange color was connected to a home water glitch, never dreaming that it might involve a city water supply switch from pumped groundwater to surface water.


The Michelis became suspicious when a neighbor posted a question for an online community bulletin board about discolored water. Did anyone else have the problem?

Complaints soon reached bulletin overload, 12 years after the surface-water plant began to function.

Lead content

Water testing was the first step. Discolored water from 260 residents revealed unsafe positive levels for lead in 40 homes. Federal standards require less than 15 parts per billion lead levels to be safe.

The homes with unsafe water could be a lot higher, but Thomas Esqueda, director of the town’s Public Utilities Department says “this is who’s calling us,” referring to the reports on hand.

California Renovations

The Michelis, alarmed and tired of the long investigation, tore up walls and floors in their home and replaced galvanized piping with PVC. The cost was nearly $6000, not counting the construction remodeling that had to occur with the plumbing. They feel that if lead had leached into their former galvanized piping, replacement of pipes was the only safe solution.

Karen Micheli expressed concern for young people who can not afford such renovations. Many of these people depend upon a short-term California car title loan to cover expenses, or simply do without needed items.

“I don’t know what they’re going to do,” she says. “There are a lot of young families out there with young children who can’t afford it.”

Effects on water pipes

Pipes react to new water supplies, such as the surface water pumping, in various ways. Water chemistry can weaken or dissolve previously hardened scale of mineral or lead into the drinking water.

A Report from the city’s water division by HDR Engineering Inc. states that “Metal release on copper and lead bearing surfaces will likely be higher when exposed to the more poorly mineralized blends of Enterprise Canal and groundwater.”

Fresno’s search for solutions to the water problem has been fraught with complications. The city has tweaked water chemistry formulas at the surface water plant, blended water before it enters the mains, and changed the composition of corrosion-control additives. Each time one step is completed, the city performs water tests in homes.

Home Plumbing

The situation is complicated by the kind of pipe used in the original plumbing of many homes in Fresno. For example, galvanized pipe has often been replaced by cheaper PVC or plastic pipe.

The plastic pipe does not corrode or rust, but Esqueda commented, “It’s not very good pipe.”

He states that the pipe lining is deficient, so there is no protection against soil corrosion or deterioration from water flow.

He noted that galvanized pipe has been used in most homes built prior to 1998. Building codes then did not specify any standard for the bonded zinc within the pipes.


Kassy Chauhan, senior engineer for the drinking water division reports that there is still no clear-cut solution to the water fiasco.

“It is a multifaceted problem that has multiple causes and solutions. We are continuing to investigate.”

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