Dangerously high levels of copper have been detected in the plumbing systems of three upscale condominium complexes in downtown Santa Barbara, prompting city officials to caution some residents against drinking and cooking with their tap water, and triggering a dizzying blame game over who is responsible for causing and solving the health hazard.
Through interviews and public records requests, The Santa Barbara Independent has identified the properties as Sevilla (formerly Chapala One, located at 401 Chapala St.), Paseo Chapala (105 W. De la Guerra St.), and One Twenty One (121 W. De la Guerra St.). City officials confirmed a fourth affected property sits somewhere along Chapala Street, but said they could not reveal its exact address as doing so would mean unlawfully disclosing private water user information.
The three known complexes are all mixed-used developments constructed within the last decade by different builders working with varying teams of contractors and subcontractors. The residential units — situated within three blocks of one another — are among the choicest in town, many selling for well above $1 million and renting for $4,000-$5,000 a month. The commercial spaces are occupied by restaurants, hair and nail salons, and an outpatient surgery center, among other businesses.
Water-quality tests performed by both city analysts and private consultants found copper levels in the private residences well in excess of what would be considered safe for a public distribution system. The federal Lead and Copper Rule, which California uses as its own regulatory standard, dictates that if more than 10 percent of samples taken from a public system exceed the “Action Level” (AL) of 1.3 milligrams of copper per liter of water (mg/L), steps must be taken to enhance water monitoring and treatment, improve corrosion control, and notify the public. California’s Environmental Protection Agency has set a state Public Health Goal (PHG) for copper at 0.3 mg/L, the concentration “below which there is no known or expected risk to health.”
Hot and cold water samples taken from condos’ kitchen sinks and outside faucets revealed copper levels in some cases of nearly 3.0 mg/L, more than twice the federal action level limit and almost 10 times higher than the state’s health goal. The tests began in August 2015 for one of the affected Chapala Street buildings, though it’s not known which. The last to be tested appears to be One Twenty One, which received its results last week.
Multiple residents spread among the three different properties, who were shocked to only recently learn of the high concentration of the heavy metal in their water, spoke to The Independent about warning signs they’d noticed but never connected to copper — toilet tanks stained blue and blonde hair turning green. They also described health effects consistent with prolonged exposure — nausea, rashes, blurry vision, and ringing in the ears. Some voiced anxiety over long-term impacts on their kidneys and livers.
Fearing legal and social reprisal, the residents granted interviews on the condition of anonymity. They worried going public would open them to lawsuits by homeowner associations concerned over diminished property values, and they didn’t want to be labeled “trouble tenants” as they apply for new places to live.
Meanwhile, recent testing of the City of Santa Barbara’s water distribution system revealed copper levels in public supplies are far below the 1.3 mg/L action level. In fact, the highest reading taken February 1 in the area of Santa Barbara and Micheltorena streets registered 0.29 mg/L. Regulators with the State Water Resources Control Board reviewed the data and concurred drinking water in the city system meets all state and federal standards. “It’s well within compliance,” said Kurt Souza, the state board’s principal engineer in its Division of Drinking Water. Souza said short-term exposure to even moderate amounts of copper doesn’t pose much of a health risk. “But if it stays up at [2.7] or [3.0] for years, you obviously wouldn’t want that.”
The data proves the problem lies in the plumbing of the buildings, not in the city’s pipes, said Water System Manager Cathy Taylor. And that makes it an issue for the private property owners, not the public agency. “This is not a Flint, Michigan,” Taylor emphatically declared. “The city is only responsible for the drinking water up to people’s water meters.”
Nevertheless, Taylor explained, the city has made efforts to help property owners and managers deal with their copper conundrum, including multiple face-to-face conversations, email correspondence, and phone calls with residents. “We’ve gone pretty darn far,” said Taylor. “Unfortunately, the city is unable to use public funds to address private property issues, but we remain concerned.”
Tom Luria, developer of the One Twenty One property, interprets the situation very differently. “There’s no question in my mind that it’s a city issue,” he said. “Someone needs to press the city to figure this out.” He emphasized One Twenty One was built to code and wouldn’t be experiencing the copper piping corrosion that can plague older buildings.
Paseo Chapala developer Jeff Bermant also refused to accept blame. “The city doesn’t want to take responsibility for the fact that what they’re pumping is causing our pipes to do odd things,” he said. He suggested speaking with lead contractor Andy Trabucco for better perspective. Trabucco recommended talking to the head of Paseo Chapala’s homeowners association, John Campanella, a city planning commissioner, who did not return an email seeking comment.
It’s not clear how long each property owner and his management company have been aware of the elevated copper levels in the buildings, and if or how they notified their residents. Doug Fell, attorney for Sevilla owner Michael Rosenfeld, said neither he nor his client had any knowledge of the issue. Multiple emails and phone calls made to property management companies Bartlein & Company Inc. and Lynx Management, Inc., which oversee Paseo Chapala’s residential and commercial spaces, respectively, were not returned. Questions to One Twenty One were referred to the property’s homeowners association and never answered.
Also, no one can agree on the source of the problem itself. Theories are numerous: cheap pipe from China, water conditioning systems, microbially induced corrosion (MIC), improper installation, bad grounding, the use of metal-heavy well water during the drought, electrolysis, and so on. Charged water left sitting in pipes for months, even years, as individual units were sold might also have caused corrosion. None of the plumbers, pipe suppliers, contractors, test labs, and water quality experts consulted for this story had previously heard of such a systemic copper leaching phenomenon. It’s a big mystery, they said.
While Bartlein — the largest property management firm in the tri counties — did not comment for this story, communications between it and Paseo Chapala residents suggest that the company is at a similar loss. In an August 19 email, James T.V. Nguyen, vice president for Bartlein, explained, “one residential unit was having bluish water (with a rainbow sheen) in his toilet tank” and reported the discovery to the city, which recommended that he not drink or cook with his water. “The Association thought you might want to be informed,” Nguyen wrote, intimating Santa Barbara’s increased use of well water may be a contributing factor. He was not able to provide any further explanation or solution.
Then in a September 10 newsletter item, Nguyen stated several more units had reported “a bluish / purple film floating at the top of their toilet bowls and tanks.” Bartlein had consulted with water vendors, hydrogeologists, and the other affected complexes, Nguyen said, but a fix remained elusive. “In the meantime, it is up to each unit to figure out how to handle your water consumption.”
Steve Nipper, owner and operator of Sol Wave Water, is a go-to Santa Barbara expert on water treatment. He’s consulted with some of the affected homeowners. Even he’s scratching his head. “In general, it’s a very isolated situation,” he said. “This one is different. No one has figured out if it’s in fact MIC or aliens blasting radio waves.”
Nipper said he’s tried a few different strategies, including polyphosphate injections and installing devices to block electrical signals, all to no avail. At the very least, he said, residents can invest in reverse osmosis systems to pull copper from their drinking water — regular filtration won’t do it — or sign up for bottled-water delivery. Nipper said he was unsure if copper could be absorbed through the skin during baths or showers. While the dangers of lead are well documented, the health effects of copper exposure are much less understood.
Super-chlorinating a building’s entire plumbing system has been considered as a last-resort nuclear option, but Nipper said he wouldn’t be the one to do it. Given the super potent compounds involved, the risk of accident is too great. “I don’t want to be responsible for melting someone’s home,” he said.