Photo by Will Huntsberry

Over the past two years, amid growing worry about lead in drinking water, officials from the city of San Diego’s water department have said none of the city’s water lines are made of lead.

Yet new data reveals that city water officials have repeatedly misled the public about what they know and don’t know, and that the city isn’t sure what 192,000 of the department’s lines are made of.

The department can’t account for the material contained in two-thirds of 285,000 service lines that connect the city’s big water mains to customers’ homes and businesses.

“Wow, that is a lot,” said Kurt Souza, the state Water Resources Control Board’s assistant deputy director for drinking water operations in Southern California.

That means not only are there potentially unknown public health issues in San Diego, if some of the lines are made of lead, but the city is facing a massive liability that could cost ratepayers nearly $1 billion in coming decades. If the lines are made of lead, or even if the city doesn’t know what they are made of, the city must to pay to replace them under a new state law.

No other major California city has such a massive gap in recordkeeping, according to records 2,900 water agencies have submitted to the state Water Board.

“A lot of systems were able to do this,” Souza said.

The city of Los Angeles knows what 99 percent of its service lines are made of – and it has 730,000 of them to keep track of, nearly three times as many as San Diego.

The regional water agency that serves 1.4 million people in and around Oakland knows what every single one of its lines is made from.

San Jose can’t account for the make of just 6,100 lines.

A fifth of Sacramento’s lines are of unknown origin.

A 2017 law gives water agencies until summer 2020 to take stock of their lines, largely out of concern that lead may be finding its way into people’s homes without their knowledge. Lead is unsafe at any level and it is especially damaging to children’s brains.

Then, the law requires agencies to replace any lines that are made of lead or that are of unknown make. The law itself is a bit loose on when this must happen. There isn’t, for instance, a deadline for cities to finish replacing their lines, but the law requires cities to submit a timeline and gives the State Water Board the power to reject timelines that don’t pass muster.

Souza said that, roughly speaking, each service line costs between $1,000 and $5,000 to replace. That means the city could be on the hook for between $192 million and $960 million in costs to replace each line it doesn’t know anything about, if the city doesn’t take drastic steps to account for the make of those lines in the next 18 months.

The city likely won’t have to visit each home, because most homes built by the same developers at the same time are made of the same materials. So knowing what a few lines on a block are made of likely indicates what the rest are made of. Even so, it’s hard to imagine how the city will meet this deadline – the city’s water department is already overwhelmed and understaffed and has had trouble reading water meters, installing new equipment and responding to customer complaints.

The city is working on a plan to inventory all of its lines by the state’s July 1, 2020, deadline, said Arian Collins, a city spokesman.

“Until the inventory is completed, it is unknown whether there are any lead service lines in the city,” Collins said Tuesday in an email. “If there are none, there would be no need for a replacement plan and no associated costs.”

That statement shows how misleading the department has been in public over the past two years.

Starting last year, when schools began finding lead in their water, the city said on several occasions that the problem must be coming from schools, because the city didn’t have lead in its water system. Indeed, the problems at schools do seem to be coming from old plumbing in the schools themselves, but the city made claims that are simply unsupportable.

In a March 2017 interview with Voice of San Diego, water department spokesman Brent Eidson said the city had no lead service lines.

In an April 2017 email to VOSD and NBC San Diego, the department’s senior chemist, Doug Campbell, said, “We have no lead pipes in our distribution system.”

It’s possible Campbell was referring to water mains – the large pipes, none of which are made of lead. But then a reporter from NBC asked for clarification to see whether Campbell knew of any lead service lines. The city did not respond.

It’s not clear whether Campbell was attempting to mislead the public or was himself misled. Eidson, in turn, often relied on Campbell when giving public statements about water quality.

In a 2014 email, obtained through a Public Records Act request, Campbell asked other city staff if there were lead service lines in the city.

“There are a pretty good number that had lead service lines as of 1992,” he wrote that May, citing a study he had found from 1992. “Is there a way to determine if these residences still have lead service lines, and if any lead service lines still exist in our system?”

Another staffer, Rod Vigil, then looked through a city database known as SPLASH, which showed zero “active service lines made from lead.”

Campbell would later certify, in a federally mandated test for lead and copper, that “All known lead service lines have been replaced.”

The city’s water system works this way: The city gets water from nearby reservoirs filled by rain and occasional snow and from distant rivers that are diverted over hundreds of miles to the region.

Then the water is treated.

From the treatment plants, the water is put into big water mains.

Then, from those water mains, the water is sent to homes through service lines.

According to the state’s view of things, the city owns the lines and is responsible for the water’s quality until it reaches a customer’s meter. The line on the customer’s side of the meter and indoor plumbing is all the customer’s responsibility.

Cities test water before they send it out to customers, so that’s almost always safe.

But the water can become contaminated as it travels to people’s homes.

Cities also do a small sample every few years of customers’ homes to see if the water contains lead or copper.

In San Diego, it’s not clear those samples were either random or representative. Earlier this year, VOSD reported that the city water department has been asking some city employees to test their own homes.

The federally mandated lead and copper regulations are not meant to say whether a particular home has lead or not, though they also reveal that. Instead, the tests are meant to create a sample of homes across the city to see if public drinking water is corrosive or otherwise unsafe.

Corrosive water can cause pipes and fixtures to leach lead and copper into the water. Lead, in particular, is unsafe at any level and it is especially damaging to children’s brains.

San Diego’s water is generally considered “hard,” meaning it’s unlikely to be particularly corrosive.

That could change as the city plans to begin recycling large amounts of wastewater and turning it into drinkable water. The recycled water could be softer and, in turn, potentially more corrosive.

Souza said the city and state will be doing “a lot of testing” to make sure the new water is not corrosive.

A switch in water supplies is what caused the lead crisis in Flint, Michigan.

The region has some experience with this issue because the Carlsbad desalination plant also provides water to the region that is not hard. When it opened a few years ago, water officials ran a series of tests to see if that water was corrosive. It was not.

Correction: Ratepayers typically pay for water projects. An earlier version of this story said taxpayers would be on the hook.

Ry Rivard was formerly a reporter for Voice of San Diego. He wrote about water and power.

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