Fresno Homeowners Take Drastic Steps To Fix Discolored Water

Oct 4, 2016

While the City of Fresno tries to figure out what to do about discolored water at some homes in Northeast Fresno, some residents there are already taking drastic steps, including repiping their homes.

On a normal day, the first thing you notice when you enter the home of Faith and Buzz Nitschke is the dozens of antique clocks quietly ticking away.

But that is not the case on this day.

“They will pull this bathtub. They will come over to here. And as you can see, we have cut holes here, and they will rip this out and then the lines will come in here. This will give them access to the new lines,” Nitschke says pointing to his currently under construction bathroom.

Three plumbers at work
Credit Jeffrey Hess/KVPR

On this day, the otherwise calm home of the retirees is beset by three plumbers doing their best to walk on the cardboard path laid down to protect the carpet.

“And there are times when it sounds like a total construction zone. Because you can see there are three or four of them. And they are pounding in the attic. And they are in the walls. And they are in another room. And they are all over and they are all going at the same time. And then there are two other guys that show up,” Nitschke says.

Nitschke and his wife live in one of the Northeast Fresno homes that has been experiencing discolored water.

The problems all began when the city switched from groundwater to treated surface water in 2004. The switch triggered corrosion in galvanized pipes in many homes that released built up minerals leading to water with a yellowish-red tint.

For a decade, the couple just lived with the water until they saw news reports that some of that water might test positive for lead. They had their water tested. Every tap had at least some level of lead and multiple tests of a bathroom tub faucet found levels above what the EPA considers safe.

“We said you know the pipes and everything you are taking out, they don’t look that bad. And they really don’t. I have a couple outside. You can look and they look pretty good. The bottom line is, he says it’s not there it’s the pipes that are under your slab that are throwing off the rust and everything and you just abandon all that stuff,” Nitschke says.

By ‘abandon all that stuff’ Buzz means opening holes in the walls and dragging new plastic plumbing pipe through the ceiling then to every faucet, toilet, and shower in the house.

In this case, that’s the job of brothers Floyd and Justin Powell.

“Hey, Floyd! You are going to have to give me a piece of that down. We are going to have to crimp a 90 on it,” says Justin.

In between yelling at his brother, who is crawling around in the attic, Justin says dragging colorful blue and red pipes through the ceiling and in the walls is time-consuming and destructive but not particularly difficult.

He says using plastic pipes and running the system through the ceiling has become common practice.

“Most of all the houses and everything all the water is overhead now rather than underneath the foundation,” Powell says as he feeds a long white pipe into the ceiling.

A number of other plumbers have also told Valley Public Radio that using galvanized pipe has fallen out of favor. The City of Fresno has since banned it.

It’s impossible to tell how many homeowners are following in the Nitschke’s footsteps since they are not required to file permits with the city.

Buzz says repiping his home will cost thousands.

Justin Powell feeds new pipe into the ceiling
Credit Jeffrey Hess/KVPR

“Twelve to eighteen. I think we are going to be a little bit higher on the eighteen (thousand dollar) end, only because of some of the complications,” Nitschke says.

The condition of the water has become the central issue in Fresno’s mayoral campaign. Both candidates have tussled over who is responsible for the discolored - and on a few occasions - lead-contaminated water.

More than 700 homes have been tested, but just over 100 had lead above the federal safety standards and, of that, just 10 were kitchen sinks where most people get their drinking water.

They are also fighting over how far the city should go to assist homeowners like Buzz and Faith Nitschke.

Experts hired by the city attest that the water is getting to the homes clean meaning the problem is in the pipes in the home. They say they are adjusting the chemicals in the water in an effort to address the issue.

Still, Buzz believes the city should be paying for at least part of this work saying while he is able to afford the repairs others, like young newlyweds, cannot.

Buzz shows the thin film of dust that covers the entire house
Credit Jeffrey Hess/KVPR

He also argues that paying for the fix could be an investment against future problems when the currently under construction Southeast Surface Water Treatment Plant opens.

“I mean if you would spend $3-to-4-million to re-pipe this end. And then get the pipes and study them and see if you can figure out what to do. I think for them it would have been a lot smarter. Money well spent,” Nitschke says.

But that is the catch for city leaders, offering to repipe homes wouldn’t be a few million dollars.

If even just half of the roughly 15,000 homeowners who receive water from the Northeast Surface Water Treatment Plant asked for the city to pay for their re-piping, the total would by more in the neighborhood of $100 million.

Correction: the original version of this story incorrectly stated that the water the Nitschke's home had not been tested.