California Water Board makes misleading claim that only four water systems have lead lines

Tom Neltner, J.D.Chemicals Policy Director

The California Water Board posted the results of its statewide inventory of lead service lines (LSLs) in community water systems (CWSs) yesterday. They also became the first in the nation to post the results in an interactive online map. We are pleased to see the state take this important step, but are disappointed that the press release it sent out to announce the map’s launch undermines its efforts with misleading and confusing statements.

The central problem is that the press release fails to be clear that the inventory does not cover the portion of the service line between the meter and the home or building.  As a result, a CWS that removed all of the lead pipes between the main under the street and the meter but left them on private property was listed as having no LSLs. A customer would justifiably – but mistakenly – assume that LSLs were not an issue in their community.

We have raised this issue in January 2017 and July 2018 blogs since the California legislature enacted SB-427 in 2016. With the legislation, California became the first state to make an enforceable commitment to replace all LSLs, however, it set up a system that held CWSs responsible for only the portion of the service line on the public side of the meter – ignoring the private side. Instead of referencing the term “lead service line” in the Water Board’s regulations, the legislature created the term “lead user service line” and referenced the definition of “user service line” in the regulations.  While an LSL includes the entire line, a user service line covers only the portion between the main and the meter.

Responsibility for LSLs on private property can be a difficult issue, however, we think it is misleading to simply treat these lead pipes as if they do not exist.  The Water Board’s press release does just that, claiming that “The good news is that we only have four water systems that report having lead lines.” The statement goes a step further by even claiming that “many water systems are entirely lead-free.” While the Water Board is referring only to the portion of the service line between the main and the meter, this statement could easily be misconstrued by the public to mean that there are no lead pipes whatsoever, and, further, that there is no lead plumbing inside buildings or homes.

The press release goes on to forecast that, “The State Water Board doesn’t anticipate seeing much more lead found.” This assertion stands in stark contrast to the actual data where the CWSs reported that they did not know the material of the pipe or fitting for almost one in every five service lines – materials that may be lead. The law requires that CWSs must ultimately confirm that these lines are not made of lead or have them replaced.

The interactive map further aggravates the error by designating 363 CWSs (based on the downloaded data) as having “No lead/no unknown materials service lines or fittings” (grey on the map) even though they may have lead on the portion of the service line on private property.  As noted earlier, the Water Board’s rule makes clear that an LSL is the entire line from the main to the connection inside the home.

The Water Board needs to be honest with Californians and make clear that, no matter what the CWSs reported, they may actually be drinking water through a lead pipe.  And the California State Legislature should fix the law so the requirements apply to the entire service line – not just part of it.

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