San Antonio Water System is taking steps to make sure San Antonio isn’t the next Flint, Michigan.

The San Antonio Water System’s board of trustees recently approved a $2.6 million contract with a contractor to help confirm the water utility is in compliance with recently revised federal rules regarding lead and copper service lines. A service line is a pipe that connects tap-water service between a water main and a house or building.

The new regulations require water systems to identify and make public the locations of lead service lines, to test water in schools and child care facilities and to set in motion plans to replace lead service lines.

These new regulations went into effect this past December, prompted by the 2014 water crisis in Flint, Michigan, where a switch to a new water source resulted in introducing lead-tainted water into homes. It’s estimated tens of thousands of Flint residents were exposed to dangerous levels of lead, and an outbreak of Legionnaire disease that killed at least 12 people can be traced back to the crisis.

Scott Halty, SAWS’ director of resource protection and compliance, told board members Tuesday he and other SAWS employees expect minimal numbers of lead lines to be found in San Antonio.

Using their complex mapping system, SAWS said they are not currently aware of any lead service pipes, Halty said. Additionally, SAWS conservation department works with local plumbing companies and asks them to report any lead pipes found in the field, Halty said. In the 20 years SAWS has done so, the water utility hasn’t been contacted about any lead pipes being discovered, he added.

SAWS hired contractor Arcadis U.S. Inc. to launch a system-wide search for lead or copper pipes by taking and testing water both on the public side and private side of pipes. Arcadis will do so over the next three years in what SAWS is calling phase one of the search. During this time Arcadis will also come up with a line replacement plan to replace any lead or copper service line pipes that are found.

Phase two, scheduled to begin in October 2024, will include sampling 20% of San Antonio’s licensed daycare facilities, elementary schools and secondary schools for lead or copper once a year for five years. Young children are particularly vulnerable to lead poisoning. Copper also is harmful if consumed above certain levels; too much copper can cause the drinker to experience short-term nausea, while long-term exposure can affect the liver and kidneys.

If lead or copper are found, those lines will be replaced. SAWS’ goal is to complete all replacements by 2039.

“We’re hoping as of Oct. 16, 2024, that we will be [found to be] lead-free,” Halty said. “If we happen to find an area where we would have lead, if it were very little we would try to remove it before that date, but if we do find some lead out there then we have to [implement our] action plan.”

Lindsey Carnett

Lindsey Carnett is the Science & Utilities reporter for the San Antonio Report.