Two months ago, more than two dozen Tacoma Water workers gathered to solve a mystery.
When faced with questions in February about Tacoma’s water system after the lead crisis in Flint, Michigan, water bosses decided to take a closer look at the only lead components in Tacoma Water’s system.
They sought short sections of lead pipe called a gooseneck that connect a home’s water service line to the water main. To find the connectors, they convened longtime employees and others familiar with the system for a “Gooseneck Summit.”
“We definitely need to scour our records and make sure we have that problem in hand,” Tacoma Water’s deputy superintendent Chris McMeen said in February.
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At the same time, federal regulators were examining the rule governing how much lead is allowed in drinking water.
“The philosophy was to try to remove all of the lead from the system,” utility spokeswoman Chris Gleason said Wednesday.
That effort intensified last month when Tacoma Water revealed that the water leading to four homes in the Lincoln District tested with high levels of lead. Three homes had lead goosenecks, and one of those tested at nearly 400 parts per billion. The federal action level is 15 ppb.
Tacoma Public Utilities wanted to see if they could detect lead goosenecks by testing water in service lines. Tacoma Water is now awaiting test results from 12 homes, up from an original group of 10. Half of those 12 homes have had a lead gooseneck, said Tony Lindgren, Tacoma Water’s distribution engineering manager. Test results could be available within the next few weeks.
Past line replacements did not seek lead
While the utility had replaced up to 30,000 service lines in the past few decades — they aren’t sure how many included lead goosenecks — it had not done so to replace the lead connectors.
Though lead’s effects on the human body are well-known, water managers had not tried to identify and eliminate lead goosenecks before now.
“We didn’t have reason to believe that it (the gooseneck) was introducing lead into the system,” Lindgren said.
We didn’t have reason to believe that it (the gooseneck) was introducing lead into the system.
Tony Lindgren, Tacoma Water’s distribution engineering manager
A 1987 nationwide survey of water utilities asked about lead pipes. Tacoma Water said it had replaced more than 22,000 galvanized service lines since World War II. Many of them included lead goosenecks.
At the time, the utility estimated around 10,000 lead goosenecks remained. Unlike many East Coast communities, Tacoma has never had lead water service lines — just the 1- to 2-foot flexible goosenecks.
Starting in 1989 and through the late 1990s, the utility targeted brittle galvanized service lines and older water mains for replacement, Lindgren said. Some of those lines had lead goosenecks, but not all. Water lines also were sometimes replaced when neighborhoods paid the city of Tacoma to have streets repaved.
Century-old notecards scanned in quest for goosenecks
Finding lead goosenecks among more than 100,000 water service lines is like an advanced version of “Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego.”
The clues are at times written or typed on faded, century-old index cards. For instance, “Renew service — poor condition” on a card from 1952 means the service line was replaced in 1952 and there is no lead gooseneck.
Renew service — poor condition
from a card dated 1952. This clue means the service line was replaced in 1952 and there is no lead gooseneck
Other clues are in Tacoma Water’s electronic databases: the age of water mains, what the mains are made of and when they are due for replacement.
There’s a hitch: Some cards contain almost no details, hence the mystery. By matching century-old records and their electronic counterparts, Tacoma Water says up to 1,700 goosenecks could be in the system, but they don’t know for sure.
1,700Number of lead goosenecks that might remain in Tacoma Water’s system. Such connectors were installed from roughly 1900 through 1929.
They also aren’t certain when Tacoma Public Utilities stopped using the lead connectors.
They guess that the most recent instance was in 1929. Decades ago, utility workers replaced a service line they knew was originally installed in 1929. Someone on the replacement crew noted that the service line included a lead gooseneck, Lindgren said.
To be on the safe side, homes and businesses connected to the water main through 1939 are included in the 1,700 customers that might have a lead gooseneck, Lindgren said.
Lindgren said Tacoma Water is committed to replacing all lead goosenecks in the system. Voters approved two measures to repair Tacoma streets last fall. Some work to replace goosenecks in old neighborhoods could coincide with road repairs funded by those tax measures.
“We will do it in an organized and coordinated manner with other utilities,” Lindgren said.