Denver Water is starting to replace lead pipes, but the process could take 15 years

Problem Solvers

DENVER (KDVR) — South Grant Street resident Kyle Rudolph and his son Tam have a daily routine. 

“We are always filling up water bottles, taking them upstairs and that sort of thing,” said Rudolph, who learned a few years ago that the water in his home has elevated lead levels due to lead plumbing.

“We have to filter the water that our son uses to brush his teeth and rinse off his mouth at the end of brushing his teeth,” said Rudolph.

“It takes a while,” added Tam, a 5-year-old perched at the kitchen sink, filling bottles at the faucet through a filter. 

The family moved into their older Washington Park West home after their son was born. It was built decades before lead water pipes were banned in the United States.

“We were pretty worried about our son though and thinking about, ‘What’s really safe?'” said Rudolph. 

According to Denver Water, Denver homes built before 1951 are more likely to have lead service lines, and although the utility sends lead-free water to homes, “the primary source of lead in drinking water is customer-owned lead service lines – the pipe that brings water from the water from the water main in the street to the plumbing in the home.”

Denver Water estimates as many as 84,000 homes in the Denver area may have an issue.

In 2012, Denver Water detected a spike in lead in customers’ water when dozens of homes tested above federal health action levels of 15 parts per billion. Denver Water said 13% of water samples in 2012 contained lead levels, and one home had levels as high as 57 parts per billion. 

“The lead pipe was between the main and the water meter,” said Rudolph of the problem at his own home. “We got a couple of quotes to get it replaced, and they were really, really expensive,” said Rudolph, who regularly uses a filter for cooking and drinking water.

Denver Water received approval to start a Lead Reduction Program in December 2019 in which the organization would replace customers’ lead service lines with copper lines for free. The project started in the spring, and in August, Denver Water replaced the service lines at Rudolph’s home.

“Lead is quite toxic, particularly in young children,” said Dr. Reginald Washington, chief medical officer for the Rocky Mountain Hospital for Children. “Kids and children and babies can also ingest that lead if they ingest the water, so it is a problem if you ingest too much of it. Actually, any lead in your blood stream is actually too much – even very low levels can affect brain development.” 

Washington warned the only way to treat lead is to avoid it.

“Unfortunately, those effects are non-reversible, so we think the only real way to treat this is to prevent it,” he said.

FOX31 Problem Solver Lori Jane Gliha asked Travis Thompson, a spokesperson for Denver Water, “What happened between 2012 and 2020? Because that was a really long time ago.”

Thompson explained that Denver Water has been taking an aggressive approach to studying ways to reduce corrosion in the water supply while developing a holistic program that addresses the biggest source of the problem: the lead service lines. 

“The lead reduction is a holistic program to help the community with this issue,” he said.

Thompson said it has also taken some time to locate customer-owned lead service lines.

“To identify and find where the lines are was a challenge for us. We didn’t install them or maintain them either,” said Thompson.

In March, the utility raised Ph levels in the water to reduce the corrosivity. 

“We did an additional raise of our Ph levels to strengthen the coating that is in the pipes inside your home,” Thompson said. 

The utility’s Ph range is currently between 8.5 to 9.2 with a target of 8.8. For years, the water delivered to customers had a Ph range between 7.5 and 8.5 with a target of 7.8. 

Denver Water’s lead reduction program features a map, detailing locations where it believes confirmed lines are located and address that are likely to have service lines.

The utility is holding virtual community meetings and sending replacement filters for the 100,000 free water pitchers it sent to homes earlier this year. 

Denver Water said it is replacing 1,300 lines a year, but it could be 15 years before all old service lines are replaced. 

“We don’t know when we will get to each person. We are working on a prioritization model,” said Thompson. 

That model, according to Denver Water, includes neighborhoods with children.

However, Washington said families with children that suspect they have lead pipes should use filters.  Families can also choose to replace their pipes on their own.

“If you are in an older home and if you think or you know your pipes in your home have lead, I’d accelerate that effort because that will expose your children to lead,” said Washington. 

The Congress Park, Baker, and Cole neighborhoods are also set for pipe replacement this year.

Denver Water offers free water tests if you want to know more about the water you’re drinking. Thousands of Denver residents have had the utility check their homes for lead. Those results can be viewed here.

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