The skyline of Tucson, Ariz. Following the water crisis in Flint, Mich., Tucson launched its Get The Lead Out program to identify and replace lead pipes throughout the city, which includes a map of known lead service lines. PHOTO: WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

The City of Calgary recently published an interactive map, showing residents what material their public water service line is made from — particularly if it is a lead service line on the city’s side.

Calgary’s map is public and accessible to all, but it does not go as far as similar maps for other jurisdictions that give additional information about lead and its health effects. 

Comparable examples include Montreal’s lead service entry map, or the Get The Lead Out map for Tucson, Arizona — where there is a single colour-coding method for identification of lead lines. 

Calgary’s public water service line map uses several colours to denote the service line materials mentioned in the legend of the map, and includes all possible materials that a public service line could be made from, without singling out lead. 

Oki. We are grateful to live and work in the traditional territories of the Niitsita’pi and the people of the Treaty 7 region in Southern Alberta, which includes the Siksika, Piikani, Kainai, Tsuut’ina and the Iyarhe Nakoda. The Blackfoot name of this place where the Bow River meets the Elbow River is Moh’kins’tsis, which we now call Calgary. The city is also home to the Métis Nation of Alberta, Region 3.

Another key difference between these two cities is that they provide additional information for their maps compared to that of Calgary, for which there is no explanation on how to use it.

Whereas the Montreal map provides a warning message noting that “it is provided for informational purposes only and without any guarantee as to its accuracy,” Tucson Water gives its own explanation of what to look for on its map.

“Once a lead service line is discovered, the parcel which it serves will be shaded in green,” reads this explanation in part.

“The devil is usually in knowing who has the lead pipes, and if you do not, you have to warn many homeowners who might have them.”

MARC EDWARDS, VIRGINIA TECH

However, the Calgary map provides more detail per property when compared to Tucson. “I have to say that [the City of Calgary] map provides a lot of detail on your distribution system connections,” said Fernando Molina, public information officer for Tucson Water, in an email. 

Molina said the map Tucson set up for its Get the Lead Out program was designed to focus on the areas of the city that have a higher probability of having lead service lines, based on previous building codes that allowed lead to be used. 

Tucson — Arizona’s second largest city with a population of just under 550,000 — identified more than 1,200 lead service lines through the program. There are more than 50,000 lead service lines in Montreal, which has a population of 1.78 million. 

Saskatoon also has a dedicated lead map for communities that highlights areas of the city where concentrations of lead are higher. Saskatoon’s website has also posted ways to mitigate lead exposure and notes that, “boiling water does not remove lead.”

A Montreal address with a possible lead service entrance, as noted by the city’s map identifying lead lines. Health information and recommendations to decrease exposure to lead are included on the map. PHOTO: NOEL HARPER/CITY OF MONTREAL

Diana Cohen, a Calgary resident who lives in a 1943 Crescent Heights home that had a public lead service line, was unaware that a Calgary map of water line material existed.

“That’s just sort of surprising to me, because when [the City of Calgary] first reached out to us, they made it sound like they weren’t sure if the lead pipes were on the city side, or on our side, or both,” she says.

She would like to see the city further promote this resource for residents because it is important for them to know where lead pipes are in Calgary. 

Montreal’s map provides tips for what to do if a water line is made of lead to minimize exposure.

“To decrease exposure to lead in tap water and minimize the risk, use a filter pitcher, a filter attached to the faucet, or a filter installed under the sink that is NSF [National Sanitation Foundation] certified for lead reduction,” reads a message that appears when an address with a lead service entrance is selected.

For Calgary, ways to mitigate lead exposure can be found on the city’s lead and water service lines webpage. Montreal’s map also provides a link for background on the health risks posed by lead consumption.

“Lead is considered to be a non-threshold contaminant, meaning that there is no level of exposure without possible health effects,” reads the background site linked.

Marc Edwards, a water treatment expert from Virginia Tech who helped raise red flags about the water crisis in Flint, Mich., highlights one aspect that is missing from the information provided by Calgary.

“The public education does not mention lead solder, which is often the major source of lead in water, and elevated blood lead in children,” Edwards said in an email sent in November.

Virginia Tech professor Marc Edwards. Edwards, a MacArthur fellow. Edwards says Calgary’s water services line map should include information about lead solder, which is a major contributor to elevated lead levels in children . PHOTO: VIRGINIA TECH

According to the City of Calgary, there has been minimal feedback about the map, but its use is believed to have resulted in fewer calls to 311, and “based on the view count,” the map is being used as expected. Any future updates to the map will reflect the city’s accelerated lead replacement program. 

While the update frequency of the comparable maps is not stated, Calgary’s is updated monthly.  

With all of the information on the city’s website taken together, Edwards is still cautious about what is known and what isn’t.

“Overall it does not look that bad to me, but the devil is usually in knowing who has the lead pipes, and if you do not, you have to warn many homeowners who might have them.”

About Watered Down

Watered Down, produced by the Calgary Journal, is a follow-up series to 2019’s Tainted Water investigation, which coordinated reporting at universities and media companies from across the country. The investigation found that many Canadian municipalities — including Calgary — were not tackling the issue of lead aggressively.

In Calgary, the Mount Royal University Journalism and Broadcast Media Studies department teamed up with reporters from Global News and the Star Network. Their investigation showed that the drinking water of some Calgary residents exceeded national guidelines for lead. It also found that the City of Calgary did not have complete records of the materials used to construct public water service lines and that the city had not adequately communicated with residents about the risks of lead consumption.

The Tainted Water investigation is nominated for the Michener Award, Canada’s top journalism prize dedicated to “meritorious public service journalism,” which will be awarded on Dec. 10.

MRU investigative reporters: Noel Harper, Christian Kindrachuk
Faculty advisor/reporter: Janice Paskey
Calgary Journal managing editor: Archie McLean