The 61-year-old Hughes recites a litany of problems that he believes have been caused by poor-quality water at his home near Drexel Road and Campbell Avenue. These include needing to replace a two-year-old water heater in 1996, periodically experiencing brownish water that smells like an unflushed toilet, and having to constantly repair breaks in his home's water pipes. Bursting pipes aren't a problem only at his house, Hughes says. His neighbors recently had a major break in their water line, resulting in a $300 bill.
Holding a piece of pipe that is corroded on the outside and deteriorated on the inside, Hughes says, "Galvanized pipe like this should have a life of 30 to 50 years, but I've had to replace mine after less than 10."
Hughes' problems became extreme earlier this year. First the water line near his meter broke, then later he had to replace the line under his home with plastic pipe, costing him $750 in repairs. At the same time, Hughes says, "I started breaking out in rashes after taking a shower while receiving ridiculous answers to my questions from representatives of Tucson Water. Every time I talked to them, they made me madder."
To try to find out what was causing his problems, Hughes began a daily testing program to determine what was in the water coming from his tap. Using commercially available testing equipment, he found a wide range of pH readings and very low levels of chlorine in his water.
Hughes believes that either the fluctuating levels of pH or the almost total lack of chlorine are causing his pipes to break. He thinks the pH level should be about 7, and chlorine in the 1 to 3 parts per million range. But in his tests, including one taken for this article, Hughes usually found pH levels of 8.0 to 8.5 and little or no chlorine in his water. His conclusion: "Tucson Water isn't regulating chlorine and pH, or they're not adjusting the levels properly. The levels shouldn't fluctuate like they do. That's what is causing my pipes to break."
Dave Schodroski, customer satisfaction advocate for Tucson Water, says the utility doesn't regulate for pH levels and that readings can shift within the standard range of 7.3 to 8.3 depending upon where the water is coming from. In Hughes' case, that would almost always be from the Martin Reservoir near Park and Valencia.
Schodroski adds that Tucson Water's standard for chlorine is 0.3 to 1.2 parts per million. He says when utility employees took chlorine tests at Hughes' home, they found readings of 0.77 and 0.82 and that Hughes' own tests aren't being done with the types of sophisticated equipment the utility uses. "Swimming-pool test kits aren't designed to look below 2 ppm," the Tucson Water spokesman says.
The Safe Drinking Water Hotline operated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency suggests a range of 6.5 to 8.5 for pH. As for chlorine, there is now no standard in effect. However, by the end of next year, a maximum of 4 ppm is expected to be adopted.
Dave Schodroski of Tucson Water is skeptical about raising chlorine to such high amounts. "People wouldn't drink it if chlorine was at that level," he says. "It would taste like bleach." Mel Hughes scoffs at that opinion.
So what is causing Hughes' water pipes to break? One possibility, according to Schodroski, is the lack of a de-electric union between his galvanized and distribution water pipes. Another cause, according to Tucson Water, is that galvanized pipe in this community has a life expectancy of only 20 to 30 years, depending on soil conditions.
Hughes isn't buying those explanations. "It's impossible to make an electrical contact because I have plastic pipe from the meter," Hughes says. Instead, he believes, "Tucson Water doesn't know what it is doing in the treatment of water. The responses the Weekly got from them are exactly what I've been getting for years: the run-around. Tucson Water has people snowed about water quality," Hughes insists.
Then the frustrated southside resident concludes, "I'm not looking for anything for myself. I just believe people should expect to get the high-quality water they pay for. I can guarantee you that where our City Council members live, they are getting better quality water than I am."