Inverness water under scrutiny after tests show high lead levels

10/25/2018

Inverness residents are advised to let the tap run for a while first thing in the morning—to flush out the lead. 

Last month, the State Water Resources Control Board notified the Inverness Public Utility District about problematically high levels of lead in several water samples taken from residential taps in April. The board mandated that the district both notify the public of the dangers of lead and how to mitigate them, and to undertake further testing. 

It wasn’t the first notice given to IPUD. A year and half ago, the board asked the district to increase its testing—from 10 samples every three years to 20 samples every six months—due to signs that the new nanofiltration system might have been increasing the corrosivity of Inverness water. 

IPUD’s general manager, Ken Eichsteadt, said the state water board asked the district to undertake another sequence of lead and copper testing, one next month and another early next year before taking further action. The results will help determine if the higher levels are isolated to a few homes with aging infrastructure or instead point to a larger issue, and will guide next steps.  

The nanofiltration system, which avoids using disinfecting agents by employing a very fine filter, came online in 2015. At the time, the district was seeing an increase in the amount of disinfection byproducts—known as DBPs—that at times surpassed Environmental Protection Agency limits. 

DBPs result from the interaction of a disinfecting agent required by law—in IPUD’s case, chlorine—and dissolved material that passes through filtration systems.

Scott McMorrow, the water district’s general manager between 2010 and 2016, said he knew that increased corrosivity was a possibility when he helped the district install the system—and that the problem would not have shown up for a number of years. 

“I have three young kids that are drinking this water, and that is my motivation for being concerned now as well,” he said. “This should be a priority.”

According to documents provided to Mr. McMorrow through a public records request, the state issued a citation to IPUD in December 2017 over a failure to meet the May 2017 directive for more testing. A month later, the state rescinded its citation due to IPUD’s renewed efforts to comply. 

IPUD testing includes a total of 25 homes with infrastructure from a range of construction and remodel ages so that test results show the quality and composition of water after it passes through pipes and faucets. The district also tests water at its sources.

The district reports that three of 20 samples submitted in April came in above the federal lead limit of 15 parts per billion. The samples had levels of 21 ppb, 44 ppb and 45 ppb. The state allows two samples to be over the federal limit, 

The state’s letter denied an argument IPUD had put forth that the third test result was invalid because the resident who had taken the sample had been out of the house, and the water had sat for longer than 12 hours before it was collected. Typically, samples are taken after water sits between six and 12 hours. 

The state gave IPUD six months to conduct additional water-quality tests at the entry point to the distribution system. It also asked the district to inform customers of the elevated levels. 

On Oct. 5, IPUD sent out an educational notice, explaining a host of mitigation steps for residents to take. The district advised residents to run their taps for 15 to 30 seconds after six hours or more of non-use; to use cold water for cooking and drinking, as hot water dissolves lead more quickly; to hire a professional to check plumbing and fixtures to make sure it complies with the most recent lead regulations; and to purchase home treatment devices, such as reverse osmosis systems or distillers. 

 “Your family doctor or pediatrician can perform a blood test for lead and provide you with the information about the health effects of lead,” the notice stated.

Mr. Eichstaedt said tests taken at the district’s sources last week came back clean. He also opined that faucets and solder at testing sites might be contributing to the problem. IPUD will help residents living at sample sites to purchase lead-free faucets for future testing, he added. 

Since 1986, the Safe Water Drinking Act has prohibited the use of any solder, pipe, plumbing fitting or fixture in all water systems and facilities providing water for human consumption that is not “lead free.” As amended in 2014 in response to the Flint, Mich. water crisis, the EPA redefined “lead free” fixtures from having a maximum lead content of 8 percent to a maximum content of 0.25 percent. 

If the nanofiltration system proves to be the root cause, Mr. Eichstaedt said the district will consider introducing corrosion inhibitors, such as orthophosphates, to the water. Those act as buffering solutions, controlling the pH and helping to lower the rate of corrosion.

In the meantime, he said the district will work with any customer to help take a sample in a correct way from their homes, which they can send to a lab in Sonoma County. 

Considering the matter at their monthly meeting on Wednesday, board members emphasized the importance of identifying the root cause as soon as possible, and of district staff keeping the public more informed. The next test results can be expected in December.