News of dangerously high levels of lead in Flint, Michigan’s water supply made an entire nation pause before filling a glass of water from the tap. The crisis has put the city’s 100,000 residents at risk, but particularly its children whose bodies are more likely to absorb the lead. Adults exposed to lead face cardiovascular, reproductive and kidney problems. Kids can face a lifetime of behavioral issues, lower IQs and hyperactivity.
The good news is, in El Paso, enjoying a cool glass from the tap is purer and safer than is required.
“We have an extremely high quality of drinking water here in El Paso,” said El Paso Water Utilities president and CEO John Balliew. “If you look at the lead standard in particular, we have a far better standard then the standard established in law.”
Two factors contributed to Flint’s crisis: corrosive water and service lines made with lead. Corrosive water will dissolve brass or bronze faucets and pipes soldered with lead, which many homes in Flint have, liberating lead into the water. Balliew said these plumbing fixtures and lines stopped being used in 1980s. The Environmental Protection Agency has found that nationally, most of the time when lead is found in drinking water, it’s coming from a home’s plumbing. From the meter to the faucet in the house, it is picking up lead.
“But as far as we know in El Paso, we’ve never seen anything like that,” Balliew said.
There is no lead in the water taken from the Rio Grande. But even so, the utility says it goes an extra step to ensure plumbing isn’t putting people at risk. EPWU has a list of customers they monitor for lead, concentrating on homes built primarily in the 1970s and 1980s, and schools. EPWU doesn’t test for lead in newer homes built after 1988, because plumbing standards have changed, not allowing for any lead-soldered plumbing or bronze or brass finish. The utility also doesn’t test for lead in really old homes either, since theoretically, if there was any lead there, it would have leeched out already. The water in homes or schools being monitored is tested annually by measuring the first water that comes out of the tap after it has sat overnight, typically from the kitchen sink. Balliew calls these the “worst-case scenarios.”
“Even so, with that being the worst case scenario, the majority of those samples do not have any lead detected at all,” Balliew said. “And the highest one is still 80 percent below the regulatory limit.”
Most of the groundwater EPWU extracts in El Paso already has a high amount of alkalinity in it, so it’s not going to attack any metals. But to protect public health, EPWU adds a corrosion inhibitor to the water, a substance akin to Calgon, a phosphate mixture. El Paso taps several sources for drinking water, fresh and salty water from two underground aquifers, and river water. Water from the aquifers is alkaline, so corrosion inhibitors are not required.
EPWU spokesperson Christina Montoya says the utility is constantly testing the water when it switches its source, ensuring it’s not going to corrode pipes. This standard applies across the county since EPWU serves the majority of it, either directly or through wholesale purchasors like the Lower Valley Water District.
For those who live in rural areas and rely on private wells, or if you’re concerned about your home’s water quality, Balliew recommends testing the water yourself with a home testing kit. You can find them online on websites like Amazon. But be sure to apply the worst-case scenario approach and let the water sit in the pipes overnight before you test it.
EPWU invested $7 million into a state-of-the-art water quality lab, where technicians work six days a week. Regardless of where they’re working with water, whether in the lab, at a treatment plant or operating wells and reservoirs, all are trained and certified by the state. And as a member of the American Water Works Association’s Partnership for Safe Water, EPWU agrees to achieve a better quality of water than is required by law.
“I think we go above and beyond the minimum standards because we take this extremely seriously,” Balliew said. “We are a group of dedicated professionals that make sure that our water is safe to drink.”
Ashlie Rodriguez can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.