Widespread concern in northeast Fresno about rusty water that can contain elevated levels of lead is the latest issue in the Fresno mayor's race, while the city continues to maintain that its water is safe to drink.
Speaking in separate events within minutes of each other, mayoral candidates Lee Brand and Henry Perea exchanged comments today about the city's response to the problem, both past and present.
Brand, who represents much of the area affected by the discolored water on the Fresno City Council said the issue dates back to the early 2000's, which the city's Northeast Surface Water Treatment Facility went online, and when Perea was on the city council.
Brand: "He [Perea] is an opportunist trying to capitalize on the misfortune of others, a person with 24 years of failed leadership, who did nothing during his time on the city council to address this water capital program, that was one of several councils that kicked the can down the road, failed to act, who has his own problems in his own districts as far as contaminated water, [he] has failed to act.
Brand said he first realized the scope of the problem in northeast Fresno early this year, when the city began receiving a number of complaints about brown water from residents, spurred on by social media. However, Brand says he had first-hand experience with the rusty water problem years ago.
Brand: "I had a house out there myself, a rental house, with the same problem, I was told
'the problem is your problem, it's from the meter [to] inside, simply run the water for a couple of minutes, you solve it.' I was never told to test, never told it was a bigger problem. I think at that point in time, it was a smaller problem. But the city in my opinion failed to act back in 2004, 2005."
Moments later, Perea held a press conference outside a home with discolored water to call on the city to take more action to fix the issue.
Perea says the city has ignored reported problems with the water for too long.
Perea: “The number one job of an elected public official is to ensure the safety and health of his community. And I believe that level of certainty rises when you are talking about the health of our children."
Perea is calling for greater action from the city to reach out to homeowners and forming a community team to consider possible solutions.
Perea: “And that is probably the toughest question to answer at this point but I happen to believe the city may not have a legal responsibility, we don’t know what the answer on that is yet, but I certainly believe the city has a moral obligation to help the residents of this community."
The city maintains that the water it supplies to residents meets state standards, and that the problem is in rusty galvanized pipes on private property. The homes in question were originally supplied with groundwater by the city, but the water supply and characteristics changed when the surface water plant came online in the last decade. While the ultimate cause of the discolored water and contamination is still unknown, Brand and others believe it has something to do with the plant.
Brand also singled out Perea for opposing the city's $429 million water infrastructure project. Perea has criticized the deal for raising water rates by 30 percent. The project is intended to reduce reliance on a groundwater supply that itself faces contamination problems in portions of the city.
Brand: "I did the right thing, I took a lead in terms of the water capital program two years ago when it wasn't unpopular to say gee I'm going to raise your water rates because we have a major problem in our aquifer, we have a major problem with contaminated wells in southeast Fresno which is his supervisor district. He opposed it until the end."
City of Fresno Responds
While the issue has become the city's newest political football, city administrators are working to convince residents that the water in northeast Fresno is safe to drink.
In order to get a handle on just how many homes are experiencing problems with their water, the city is now sending out a flyer offering free water testing to every ratepayer in the two zip codes that rely on the Northeast Surface Water Treatment Plant.
Officials with the city continue to insist that the problems are within a few homes and not endemic to the water they are supplying.
At a press conference today intended to calm lingering rumors and concerns, City Manager Bruce Rudd says of the nearly 700 fixtures they have tested, 10% had elevated levels of lead and not even every faucet in a home tested positive.
Rudd: “Fresno’s water supply is clean, safe, and reliable. Let me reiterate: safe, clean and reliable. The city’s groundwater and surface water supply meet all state and federal standards."
Of those, Rudd says only four faucets were in kitchens.
While also saying replacing pipes and fixtures is the owner’s problem, Rudd says the city is working on low-interest loans and rebate programs to help with the cost.