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Water Authority Rejects ‘Sexy’ Proposal to Test Schools' Water for Lead

The San Diego County Water Authority isn’t opposed to testing water in schools for lead – it’s just opposed to paying for it. One official said recent proposals are just attempts at “sexy legislation” intended to make a splash with the public.

The San Diego County Water Authority isn’t opposed to testing water in schools for lead – it’s just opposed to paying for it.

The agency voted Thursday to oppose a bill written by L.A.-area Assemblywoman Blanca Rubio that would require water agencies to test schools each year to ensure they are lead-free.

Christy Guerin, chairwoman of the Water Authority’s legislation and public outreach committee, dismissed Rubio’s bill and others like it as unfunded mandates trying to capture the public spotlight.

“Without a better word, it’s ‘sexy legislation,’” Guerin, who represents the Olivenhain Municipal Water District, said during Thursday’s meeting. “I mean Flint was a big story. It was national, you know. Everybody got involved. And, so, with the State Water Board putting this on their radar, legislators have grabbed it and they are running with it – some understand it better than others.”

She was referring the public health crisis in Flint, Mich., that involved leaded water across the city. While such a widespread crisis is unlikely to repeat itself here, it did raise national awareness about leaded water, which can damage children’s brains.

To avoid anything resembling Flint, California’s Water Resources Control Board recently told water agencies that they need to pay to test public schools for leaded water, if schools ask to be tested. But that program is only temporary. Some California lawmakers want to make school lead tests an annual thing, and they want water agencies to pay for the tests.

Some water districts complain they didn’t budget for the tests and that they don’t have the staff to handle the job. Now that several schools in San Diego have found lead in their water, demand for voluntary tests is running high.

Frank Hilliker, who represents Lakeside Water District, said his district has to pay $2,000 for tests requested by schools this year – a cost that would repeat itself every year if lead tests become mandatory. That’s relatively small compared with the city of San Diego, which is going to test about 200 schools for lead this year as part of the State Water Board’s temporary testing program.

“If the schools have bad infrastructure, I can’t see how that’s our problem,” Hilliker said during Thursday’s board meeting. “But yet we have to pay for all of the tests.”

Indeed, while several schools in the San Diego County have discovered lead in their water, the source of that lead appears to be aging school buildings themselves, not the public water supply.

At Emerson-Bandini Elementary School in Mountain View, for instance, officials determined that the lead likely came from fixtures on sinks, faucets or fountains: Water entered the school building clean but came out of the tap dirty.

Emerson-Bandini’s aging plumbing has been a problem for years but money from repeated tax hikes meant to pay for school repairs has not be used to fix its plumbing.

Hilliker said if more schools find problems with lead, school officials will ask taxpayers for even more money because they have “pretty much pissed all their money away” already.

Keith Lewinger, a Water Authority board member who represents Carlsbad’s water district, said water agencies should start an outreach campaign to educate the public about how safe their water is and how any problems are coming from inside schools.

“The water is what is carrying the lead, but it’s not what caused the lead problem,” Lewinger said.

There are several bills in Sacramento designed to find and eliminate lead in drinking water, particularly in school drinking water, including one from San Diego Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher. But the Water Authority on Thursday noted particular concern with Rubio’s bill. The Water Authority voted to take an “oppose unless amended” position on Rubio’s plan, which means the Water Authority wanted the bill to die, unless the parts it didn’t like were removed.

Guerin said the water agencies might support such a bill, if the state didn’t make water districts pick up the entire tab for testing schools.

In what was apparently the last systematic attempt to sample schools for lead until recently, a 1998 report estimated that 18 percent of California schools had leaded water that exceed current federal drinking water standards. The same report also estimated that more than half the schools had some measurable amount of lead in their water.

Public water systems constantly test to see if the water that comes out of their treatment plants is safe. So far, there is no reason to believe there is a lead problem with San Diego’s regional water supply.

Current water-quality regulations, however, were not designed to detect problems with water inside people’s homes, offices or public gathering places, like schools.

There is only minimal testing of water once it gets to a customer. The city of San Diego, for instance, only must test 50 homes every three years for lead.

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