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City to provide free water testing kits to more households

Three Rivers Department of Public Services Director Amy Roth (left) and Three Rivers City Manager Joe Bippus (right) discuss the potential for the city paying for free water testing kits for households who have unknown water service line material during Tuesday’s Three Rivers City Commission meeting. The measure was approved unanimously by the city commission. (COMMERCIAL-NEWS | ROBERT TOMLINSON)

By Robert Tomlinson
News Director

THREE RIVERS — The City of Three Rivers Tuesday expanded who is eligible for free water testing kits through the city, giving more households the chance to test their water for lead.

City commissioners unanimously approved purchasing 150 water testing kits per year at nearly $9,700 in total from their fund balance, to be available for households whose water service line material is unknown to the city. The vote was 6-0, with At-Large Commissioner Torrey Brown absent.

The decision will now allow the city to offer free test kits through the Department of Public Services to those households with unknown service line material, in addition to what the city is already doing, offering free tests to those who the city knows has lead service lines. The city will not pay for water testing for residences where the city knows they do not have a lead service line.

“This is to try to find out more properties that have a lead service line. It does not address the issue of the houses that have lead lines in it; that is a completely different matter and that would be property owners’ obligation,” Mayor Tom Lowry said. “This is just for lateral, lines from the water main to the house.”

Test kits are available now as of press time. City officials ask residents to call DPS at (269) 273-1845 to find out if they have a known or unknown material in their service line and are eligible for a free test kit, and request one if they are. Test kits are first come, first serve.

City officials estimate around 1,100 service lines in the city have unknown material. Commissioners said if the 150 new free tests do run out, given the number of unknown-material service lines in the city, they may consider purchasing more tests at a future meeting.

How the tests would work, according to DPS Director Amy Roth, is that a water sample would be taken at a kitchen or bathroom faucet, not both, ensuring the water bypasses all filters or softening systems, and making sure your water is untouched for six hours and no more than eight hours.

During discussion prior to the vote, At-Large Commissioner Lucas Allen said he would like to see all homes be tested, but that “we have to be practical” and recommended the purchase of the 150 tests.

“I believe the testing should be free, fair and without pressure for all citizens of the city by prioritizing which of the houses have lead lines,” Allen said. “This will leave no doubt about the city’s recognizing and taking responsibility by holding ourselves accountable for trying its best by utilizing and accepting all means that are practical, viable and evidence-based.”

Allen estimated that for all 1,100 households to receive free tests, at $52 plus $12.60 shipping for each test, it would cost the city just a shade over $71,000.

A look at the water testing kit that residents whose water service material is unknown will be eligible to get. (Photo courtesy of the Three Rivers Department of Public Services)

“I see, if a lot of people use this, we should obviously expand it. I don’t want this to be dead in the water at all,” Allen said.

Lowry reminded commissioners that water rates were increased in order to start building a pool of money to address lead service lines, “once we knew where they were.” He said he was unsure of how much is in the pool at the moment after more than a year, but said doing these kinds of tests is something that money could be used for.

Later on, Roth discussed the tests that led to the action-level alert by the state about high levels of lead in sampling. Roth said each of the 47 service lines tested were known lead service lines in the city, with six coming back with over 15 parts per billion (ppb) of lead, with the rest coming back either non-detectable or at one or two parts per billion.

Lowry advocated for testing at the meter instead of the lateral service line, saying older houses were more likely to have lead pipes inside the house, however because the city is “not touching that issue,” he said they would need to do testing at the beginning or end of the lateral. Roth then explained the water testing procedure from the state, saying the 15-ppb action level can be triggered at either the first liter or fifth liter being tested.

“They’re not tying the lead results to what we have to replace. They’re tying the lead results to what we’re doing with our system,” Roth said. She added the city is in another testing round right now as mandated by the state under the action level policy.

Overall, Roth said offering the tests to those who have unknown service line material is a way to give residents “peace of mind” about their water.

“You’re offering peace of mind to the citizen who doesn’t know what their service line material is,” Roth said. “That’s what you’re doing.” Lowry said that is “worth a lot.”

When it comes to testing those with known lead service lines, of which there are estimated to be around 100 confirmed lines as of Tuesday, Roth said the city has been struggling to get participation in the testing, even though they offer a small credit on their water bill for doing so.

“We mail to those known, we’ve made phone calls, and to date we have only around 40 of the samples come back to us, and we’ve been communicating with them since the end of September to try and get these tests in by the end of December,” Roth said. “They’re receiving an incentive; the ones on our lead and copper list receive a $25 credit off their bill once they participate and get the results back, and we’re still not getting that state-required participation.”

Bippus said instead of spending “a whole bunch of money the water fund doesn’t have,” they offer something “per year” for folks to have peace of mind.

“If it takes off, we could come back and say, ‘hey, we spent all that money in two weeks, you want to do another round?’ kind of thing,” Bippus said, adding that the initial $9,600 is “just a start.”

In other business…

  • Commissioners approved the first reading of the proposed rules for the new downtown dog park at Memory Isle Park. A public hearing will be scheduled in January 2024 prior to the second reading and possible adoption of the rules.
  • Commissioners accepted the donation of the historic popcorn stand at Scidmore Park from Three Rivers Area Mentoring. TRAM has not used the stand for several years, while the city along with Pivotal (formerly Community Mental Health/CMH) have been repairing it in order to utilize it during the summer months for Pivotal clients. Lowry said Pivotal is interested in continuing to operate it or expand it in order to make it more usable, with a grant to accomplish the work. A final plan has not yet been developed.
  • Commissioners approved a budget adjustment reallocating $50,000 from the general fund for a match for the MI Hope grant the city won in 2022. Lowry said the reallocation was due to the $50,000 being inadvertently left off the Fiscal Year 2024 budget.
  • Commissioners approved a $6,200 change order to Prudential Nursery for additional tree plantings throughout the city.

Robert Tomlinson can be reached at 279-7488 or robert@threeriversnews.com.

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