Water fountains at Plessy Community School in New Orleans covered with plastic in March 2019 after an off-the-shelf test, performed by a student, came back positive for contaminants. Filters have since been installed at the school. (Marta Jewson/The Lens)

Lead and antimicrobial water filters being installed at New Orleans public school drinking fountains require higher water pressure than the city’s water agency provides, records obtained by The Lens show. Since installation began late last summer, the issue appears to have delayed the ambitious project, which had already been delayed by more than a year.

Of the 37 schools that have the filters, 20 have at least some filters that aren’t connected due to low water pressure, a district spokeswoman confirmed.

Communications between district officials and the water-filter contractor, EcoWater Systems, show that many school fountains will need booster pumps, a part installed between the filter and the water spout that increases pressure. Without them, the filters that the district has purchased can reduce pressure so much that the fountains can’t be used.

Each booster pump costs $250 to purchase and install, an added expense that the district did not anticipate before installation began in August. The price can top $400 if the district also needs to install an electrical outlet for the pump. After the discovery, a district official briefly floated the idea of installing lead-only filters — which work at lower pressure rates — rather than the lead and antimicrobial filters that had been promised.

The dilemma has delayed lead-removal filter installation and forced the district to shift its plan to first install the filters at newer and remodeled schools. Most of those already have pressure-boosting pumps in their buildings, called “domestic” booster pumps. Older schools, some of which may contain older lead fixtures and plumbing, don’t have those.

Some city schools where filters have been installed are still waiting on pumps to make their drinking fountains work with the restrictive filters.

Two drinking fountains at Bricolage Academy lack the connection hoses that most filters have in a photo taken May 2, 2019. The filters were installed months ago, but as of a February report had not been connected. Credit: Marta Jewson / The Lens

At Bricolage Academy, located in John McDonogh High School on Esplanade Avenue, 17 of the 18 water filters installed in November were not connected by February due to water pressure problems. The Lens obtained a photo — taken this week — of two Bricolage drinking fountains that still don’t appear to be hooked up.

At Esperanza Charter School, school leaders reported little to no water pressure at drinking fountains after filters went in last fall. Warren Easton Charter High School was one of the first to get filters in September, but in December contractors told the district all 15 of the 100-year-old school’s fountains needed booster pumps.

The records show the district has known about the problem for months, though officials did not publicize it until recently. After low water pressure briefly delayed filter installation at Homer Plessy Community School in the French Quarter last month, officials told The Lens that roughly 16 schools were waiting on booster pump installation.

According to a district spreadsheet that was updated this week, 49 schools don’t have domestic booster pumps. Five of those buildings are currently vacant but are slated to house schools in the future. It’s unclear how many of the 49 have low enough water pressure to need booster pumps.

The water pressure problem is one more in a series of delays that have plagued the $800,000 project since the Orleans Parish school district and the state-run Recovery School District announced they would take steps to eliminate lead in school water.

The plan at the time was to test schools for lead, likely the first large-scale lead test at the city’s school since the 1980s. That initial announcement came on July 28, 2016, the same day several Michigan officials were indicted over Flint’s lead contamination crisis.

In 2017, The Lens reported that those tests never happened and that filters would be installed instead. A contracting issue delayed the first installations to August 2018 and now, the project is expected to last through the summer.

Lead is a neurotoxin that can be especially damaging to young children, causing brain damage and developmental delays. Gail Fendley, the executive director of Lead Safe Louisiana, worries about possible exposure at the dozens of schools where the district has yet to successfully install filters.

“OPSB made a choice that could prolong students’ exposure to lead while a contract to install the filters went through the system,” she said.

“OPSB made a choice that could prolong students’ exposure to lead while a contract to install the filters went through the system.”—Gail Fendley, Lead Safe Louisiana

District officials have provided few updates on the schedule. In November, spokeswoman Dominique Ellis said that the project would be complete as soon as this summer, possibly going into the fall.

In February, when The Lens reported that the district was behind schedule, spokeswoman Ambria Washington said, “We estimate that the installing process will continue into the Fall of 2019.”

District Communications Director Tania Dall said water filters have been installed at 37 schools, less than half of city schools. Twenty of those schools’ filters have not been connected due to low water pressure. 

37Schools have water filters20Schools have some filters that remain unconnected

Fendley said she’s glad the district is installing filters, but the delay is unacceptable. She urged the district to provide bottled water to schools that have not been tested and filters not yet connected.

“In this unanticipated interim, bottled water is imperative to protect our children’s brains.”

An EcoWater filter at a water fountain at Warren Easton High School. Credit: Marta Jewson / The Lens

District discovered problem months ago

Emails and communications obtained through the Louisiana Public Records Act show that in September, less than a month after the filters started going in, Orleans Parish schools Executive Director of Facilities Tiffany Delcour asked EcoWater to stop installation.

“I want to delay the install of additional filters until we better understand our issues with water pressure,” she wrote

The problem lies with the antimicrobial filters the district tacked on to the filtration system, according to documents. Though the initial idea was to eliminate lead, district officials said adding the antibacterial element would allow schools to operate as usual during citywide boil-water advisories, which have led to school cancellations in the past.

But the microbe-removing filter requires a higher water pressure to operate, between 60 and 80 pounds per square inch of pressure, according to documents obtained by The Lens.

The Louisiana Department of Health requires water pressure of at least 20 psi. New Orleans Sewerage and Water Board spokesman Richard Rainey said water leaves the Carrollton Water Plant at a pressure of about 70 psi. It lowers as it’s distributed throughout the city. On an average day, he said, it can hover at about 40 psi in areas far from the plant. (“To be clear,” Rainey added, “there is no lead in the water leaving SWBNO’s treatment plant.” Some water passes through lead plumbing, especially in older homes and buildings, he said.)

Records appear to show the district has struggled with the contractor, EcoWater, throughout the process. At times Delcour has waited weeks for updates, quotes and a plan with how to proceed in the face of lower-than-needed water pressure.

‘Very little or no water pressure’

Three weeks after Esperanza Charter School received water filters last August, the Choice Foundation charter school network’s associate director of finance and operations contacted the district with a problem.

“Several of the water fountains with the new filtration systems have either very little or no water pressure,” Kendrick Miller wrote in an email to Delcour.

That appears to be the first in a long list of complaints reported over the fall as some schools acclimated to the filters, which brought some fountains to a trickle.

The day after Esperanza reported an issue, Delcour wrote to EcoWater telling them that KIPP Morial school in eastern New Orleans had a leaking fountain.

Delcour asked the contractor to delay installations until they could solve the problem.

“The problem is that our city water utility does not supply 50 (or as in your visual aid 60) PSI to facilities it’s somewhere between 35-45psi,” Delcour wrote to EcoWater. “New facilities have booster pumps to increase pressure but older schools do not. I need something that works at a lower PSI.”

Delcour considered switching to lead-only filters — which function at lower pressure — but another district facilities employee, Sue Robertson, questioned that idea.

“I understand that the antimicrobial filter is the problem with the flow rate, but since we specifically asked for that feature in the [contracting process], won’t we have a problem with removing it?” she wrote. “Since we had so many protests and questions about the bid award, I am concerned.”

Delcour responded: “I’m talking with multiple lawyers about it and using their guidance. Happy to talk about it offline.”

Soon after, EcoWater employee Jim Larson came down from the company’s Minnesota-based headquarters to meet with school district staff and set a plan to continue installing the three-part filter. Delcour recapped the “next steps” in an October 4 email, including the shift to install water filters “in schools with domestic booster pumps or high residual pressure.”

New and remodeled schools

To keep the project moving, the district selected 20 schools with higher pressure in early October for EcoWater subcontractor KSK Mechanical to work on while the company worked on a proposal for booster pump installations.

“I am limiting the install to 2 per week given the struggles we had with the initial pilot install,” Delcour wrote when she sent the schedule.

It took EcoWater nearly a week and several emails from Delcour to respond and set up a conference call. It appears their contract was on the line. Delcour told a senior vice president with the company that she’d like to discuss the district’s “needs to ensure this contract can continue to move forward.”

Meanwhile, KSK Mechanical had started taking pressure readings before installing filters. At Kenilworth school, they measured between 70 and 80 PSI, KSK owner Kerry Dixon told Delcour.

But even at some newer and remodeled schools with higher water pressure — some of which already had their own booster pumps — the installation strategy didn’t go as planned. The filters were significantly reducing fountain water pressure.

“We need to have the filters disconnected at Lake Forest [Elementary School],” a new building constructed in 2014 and 2015, Delcour wrote in late October. “There is an issue with the domestic water pumps that needs to be investigated. Again we do not want filters installed if there are issues with pressure until we can resolve the issue.”

By mid-December, the filters had become such an issue that Delcour told EcoWater it would stop scheduling installations.

“It was my understanding that if a filtration system was installed but greatly reduced pressure the install would be disconnected and OPSB would be informed for troubleshooting,” Delcour wrote. “OPSB has received zero communication of systems that needed to be disconnected for pressure issues since the Lake Forest install on Oct 19.”

A few days later, Dixon sent a list of schools with filters that hadn’t been connected.

“The only reason we didn’t connect them is because of [Louisiana Department of Health] and  standards,” Dixon wrote, clarifying that the fountains had a water arch of less than four inches before the filters were installed.

It’s not clear what Dixon was referring to. Reached by phone, he referred The Lens to the school district. EcoWater also did not respond to multiple requests for comment. EcoWater’s contract forbids the company from speaking with the press unless it has district approval.

A spokesman from the Louisiana Department of Health said the agency’s only requirement for drinking fountains is that new fixtures not contain lead. He said they have no control over plumbing code.

State public health code states drinking fountains must have “an ample supply of potable water under pressure.”

That same day in December, staff at Warren Easton — an older school where filters had been installed before the district realized there was a problem — contacted Delcour because they lacked keys to the stainless steel water-filter boxes. Delcour said the keys were supposed to be transferred when filters were installed and inquired about the school’s water fountains.

The school’s Facility Manager Edward Swan told Delcour that three water fountains were not working. Two fountains on the second floor had no water pressure and, on the third floor, another’s “water pressure is at a trickle.”

“Janitorial has indicated that the fountains have been out for several weeks,” Swan wrote.

A contractor came out the next morning and gave Swan keys to the boxes, he wrote. “All of our fountains are currently working. Majority of our fountains, especially on the higher floors, only provide a 1-2 inch arc of water. Is it possible to get water pressure boosting equipment at each fountain?”

Delcour responded. “Yes, but we will not begin installing booster pumps until mid-January.”

The Lens contacted Swan last week, and he said all drinking fountains were working and hooked up to the filters. 

“OPSB has us on the list to install the needed booster pumps in the upcoming weeks,” he wrote. “They currently have a team that is visiting all schools that need the fountain booster pumps.”

Back in December, Delcour issued a list of immediate needs to EcoWater, as well as “project management expectations,” such as sending weekly updates on the number of installations, a “recovery schedule” for missed installations and timely information on water filters that could not be connected due to pressure concerns.

“OPSB will not schedule additional installations past the previously scheduled installations the week of Jan 7-11th,” she wrote. “Once all needed information is provided we will begin to install booster pumps at the schools where [sic] filter systems were not connected due to low pressure.”

One month later, EcoWater’s Business Development Manager Rick Farrell promised action.

“We’ll get you the updates asap! I can assure you that we’re all over this project,” Farrell wrote on Jan. 14.

In advance of a late-January meeting, Farrell wrote, “We will be able to answer all your questions and have a better process moving forward.”

The next day, Delcour wrote, “I’m excited to move forward with you guys on this contract and appreciate today’s reset.” Her notes directed EcoWater to provide a “turnkey solution” to the booster pump problem and noted there may be additional electrical costs associated with the pumps.

She also wanted the company to create a standard for the water arch on a drinking fountain after a booster pump is installed “no less than 3 inches,” she wrote.

Six weeks later, Delcour emailed the contractor and asked him to confirm which schools had unconnected filters.

“We intend to communicate to our school that have filters installed but not connected due to low water pressure issues.”

For example, Delcour had told William Frantz Elementary School that its filters were connected, but the school had photographs showing otherwise.

A kid and a water test

The largely behind-the-scenes process was thrust into the spotlight March 27 when a 13-year-old Homer A. Plessy Community School student tested a third floor drinking fountain for lead.

The off-the-shelf test Bernard Voss-Potts performed tested positive for “lead and/or pesticides.” School officials said the test wasn’t up to lab standards — but they still shut off drinking fountains and the district shipped in bottled water.

Plessy is located in the McDonogh 15 building in the French Quarter, surrounded by some of the city’s oldest infrastructure. Buildings constructed before 1987 may have lead water supply lines.

The district agreed to install water filters immediately, but Plessy had the same problem many other schools were facing — its water pressure was too low to support the filters. That prompted the district to place an emergency order for booster pumps.

On March 25, the district told The Lens about 16 schools need the booster pumps. None had received them at that time.

Fendley said she hopes the booster pumps and filters go in as quickly as possible.

“This latest revelation that some schools still don’t have filters is another unnecessary and possibly dangerous delay.”

Marta Jewson

Marta Jewson covers education in New Orleans for The Lens. She began her reporting career covering charter schools for The Lens and helped found the hyperlocal news site Mid-City Messenger. Jewson returned...