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Operators veered from 1998 NE Fresno water formula, now their tinkering is a mystery

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I went to Fresno City Hall late Thursday afternoon hoping to hear the voice of the Northeast surface water treatment plant speak to me through the years.

Instead, I learned anew just how messed up is this discolored-water issue.

I had asked for a few minutes with Public Utilities Director Tommy Esqueda and Communications Director Mark Standriff.

You see, I admit to being confused by all the talk about Bob Moorhead and his alleged failure to alert Sacramento about complaints from water customers. I understand why Moorhead should obey the law. I don’t understand why this alleged failure is of the first rank.

Moorhead was the top-ranking operator at the treatment plant from the mid-2000s to 2011 when he left city employment. It appears that customer complaints about murky water started in late 2004, a few months after the plant went live. The complaints continued over the years, though the quantity and intensity of the beefs fluctuated. Moorhead was supposed to report these complaints to state water-quality officials. City and state officials say they have no record of compliance.

Fresno used to get all its water from the aquifer. The city for many reasons began transitioning to river water in 2004. River water needs special treatment before it heads to consumers. The treated water corroded the galvanized pipes in certain Northeast homes. The treated water also reacted badly with certain fixtures in a relatively small number of homes. The result has been complaints about water quality. These complaints created a firestorm of controversy beginning in early 2016.

Fresno’s reporters in the print, TV, radio and digital worlds have done a superb job of covering just about every nuance. Events figure to unfold for months to come.

City officials wish Moorhead had followed the rules by reporting the complaints to the state for a simple reason: The state, thus alerted, would have stepped to make sure the problem was fixed. The fact that Moorhead didn’t report the customer complaints to his City Hall superiors would be irrelevant.

I got to thinking: Moorhead (if what’s said about him is true) and his successors at the treatment plant may have gotten away with keeping customer complaints from the eyes of his City Hall and Sacramento superiors. From my perspective, that part of a cover-up would have been fairly easy to accomplish.

But, as we’ve learned, there’s more to operating the treatment plant than just logging in customer complaints.

We have seen a February 2005 email from Lon Martin, a top Public Utilities Department official at the time and a water expert in his own right, that acknowledges eight to 10 customer complaints within months of the treatment plant going live. Martin wrote that the problem would be fixed by adding things to the water to change its chemistry. Martin’s email was sent to most of the top officials in Public Utilities and the administration of Mayor Alan Autry.

That established in my mind the fact that adding stuff to people’s drinking water – tweaking the chemistry – is standard operating procedure in the municipal water industry. That also established in my mind the fact that city water officials and political leaders, from the second Martin’s email hit their computer inboxes, had been alerted to the necessity of monitoring what kind of stuff is put into the treatment plant’s water and whether the stuff is doing what it’s supposed to do.

Such as stop the ugly water.

Let’s fast forward to early 2016. Customer complaints on the Internet pick up steam. City officials take note. The public is told that one of the first corrective steps will be a tweaking of the chemistry in the treatment plant’s water.

The Lon Martin solution.

I got to wondering: How does that stuff get added to the water?

Maybe Moorhead (and his successors) went to work each day as totally independent agents. He could do as he pleased with the Northeast plant’s water, free of second-guessing from his City Hall superiors. In this scenario, I saw Moorhead as the archetypical American cowboy, answerable to nothing but his own whims. Remember Slim Pickens hootin’ and hollerin’ as he rides that 20-megaton nuclear bomb down to oblivion at the end of “Dr. Strangelove”? Maybe Moorhead rode the Northeast treatment plant with the same solitary, fatalistic abandon.

Or maybe Moorhead (and his successors) added stuff to the water to accomplish strategic goals of immense interest to his City Hall superiors, and recorded everything he did.

It was this latter scenario that I pitched to Esqueda and Standriff.

I said: Let’s assume that 4,500 days have elapsed between the opening of the Northeast treatment plant in mid-2004 and the current date – Aug. 25, 2016.

And let’s assume that Moorhead wrote down every tweak to the water’s chemistry.

“It would be like this, Tommy,” I said. “Moorhead would be sitting at his desk. He would know that his daily calcium addition to the water has been at 18 – bear with me, I’m just making up a number to make a point. He notices that 18 isn’t doing the trick as to the galvanized pipes. So, on this day he raises the calcium to 19. And then ….”

Esqueda smiled and raised his hand – signaling me to pause. Standriff gave me a look that said the same thing.

Esqueda went to his computer, hit a few keys and returned to the conference table with a highly-detailed graph printed on an eight-and-a-half-by-11-inch piece of paper.

Esqueda gave me a brief review of Northeast treatment plant’s regulatory history. He grabbed several pieces of paper from his desk to serve as props.

The first paper, he said, represents the city’s 1998 report on the proposed Northeast surface water treatment plant. City officials nearly two decades ago knew the plant was necessary. They also knew treated surface water could do funny things to galvanized pipe. This 1998 report, written by water experts, came up with a formula for properly tweaking the chemistry of the plant’s treated water.

Esqueda then set the second piece of paper on his conference table. This, he said, represents the treatment plant’s operational plan under live conditions. You know, stuff like “unlock front door, turn switch from ‘off’ to ‘on.’”

I exaggerate to emphasize that this operational plan told operator’s like Moorhead the proper and mandated way to do everything from A through Z. The 1998 report on water chemistry was part of this operational plan when the treatment plant went live in 2004.

The third and final piece of paper in Esqueda’s lesson was the paper with the highly-detailed graph I’ve already mentioned. This particular graph showed what the plant did to surface water during the month of July 2016. In other words, the highly-detailed graph represented the 2004 operational plan in action.

Esqueda circled for my benefit a specific piece of graph.

This piece of the graph had eight columns, each column representing a chemical that is added to the treated water. Each column was divided into 31 boxes – for the 31 days in July. Each box had a number representing the amount of that particular chemical added to the water on that day.

I’m sure my explanation is a poor simplification of what was on the paper. But I hope it makes my point. The city has been doing exactly what I guessed. From the day the Northeast treatment plant opened in 2004, city officials have been adding chemicals (in no way harming the water’s safety) to achieve certain strategic goals. One of those goals, as outlined in the 1998 report, is to prevent (or retard) the water’s corrosive nature.

Then Esqueda added the kicker. If anyone changes the formula for the eight chemicals as proposed in the 1998 report and codified in the 2004 operational plan, that change has to memorialized by an amendment to the 2004 operational plan and reported to state water authorities.

I thought: Now we’re getting somewhere. We’re getting close to the treatment plant “speaking” through history.

“Look at these boxes with their chemical numbers,” I said to Esqueda. “The plant operators have been filling these boxes with numbers every month since the plant opened. Let’s say the plant has been open for 150 months. That’s 4,500 days. Multiply 4,500 by eight – eight chemicals going into the water – and you get 36,000.”

Esqueda nodded. He knew where I was going because he’s already been there. But he let me rattle on.

“In theory,” I said, “a review of those 36,000 chemical boxes might show that the numbers in them have never changed since the plant opened in 2004. The chemical formula as proposed in the 1998 report and codified in the 2004 operational plan was perfect for all time.”

No reaction from poker-faced Esqueda.

“But,” I continued, “we know from Lon Martin’s February 2005 email that Water Division officials were already tweaking the chemical formula at the plant. And we know from news conferences in the first part of 2016 that Water Division officials were tweaking the formula yet again in an effort to resolve customer complaints.”

Carry on, Esqueda said with his eyes.

“So,” I said, “it’s likely that the Bob Moorheads of this world were tweaking the chemical formula throughout the intervening 11 years. All you’ve got to do, Tommy, is input those 150 months of chemical reports – those 36,000 chemical boxes – into a computer. The computer will instantly tell you how many times over 12-plus years someone at the Northeast treatment plant turned a dial and changed the amount of a particular chemical that went into the water on a particular day. Maybe there were only two changes in 12-plus years. Maybe there were hundreds.”

Your point being, Esqueda said.

“Patterns,” I said. “People say Moorhead never contacted the state with news of customer complaints. But he was consistently producing these monthly chemical formula reports for in-house consumption. The patterns that might emerge from these chemical formula reports could reveal what Moorhead was thinking. You might sense his panic. Or his ignorance of water chemistry.”

Esqueda let me down gently. He’d already been over this ground. He said he and his team would love to have 150 monthly reports showing how the treatment plant’s eight chemicals had been administered day by day. But, he added, all 150 reports no longer exist. The more recent reports still exist. But it appears that Moorhead and others did not keep copies of reports from long ago.

The original copies of many reports were sent to Sacramento. Esqueda said he’s been told by state officials that many of Fresno’s oldest monthly reports were destroyed during periodic purges of records.

I guess my basic point was confirmed. City officials for 12 years have known that water chemistry is important to properly running a surface water treatment plant. And those officials diligently recorded every tweak to that chemistry.

But until very recently, those officials apparently didn’t know how to translate all that data into an effective system of internal oversight.

We don’t want Major Kong (Slim Pickens) to land in Fresno. But it would be nice to start over.

George Hostetter
George Hostetter is The Sun’s Fresno Civic contributor – covering the City of Fresno, County of Fresno, and Fresno Council of Governments.

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