Complex problems require complex solutions.
The community at Creekside Elementary School has discovered just how complicated issues regarding the infrastructure of a 30-year-old building can be since testing revealed elevated lead levels in certain taps in the school. Since October, Creekside administrators have been working closely with the district's Facility Operations department, district leadership and outside experts to address the issue.
Even as Creekside students have adjusted to drinking bottled water and school staff has acclimated to using outside sources of water for everyday use, the work has continued on repairing problems that stem from the age of the building, which opened in 1986. That year, a federal law banning the use of lead in plumbing was finalized, and building standards across Colorado and the rest of the country were adjusted accordingly.
Like other homes and public buildings across the state, Creekside was constructed just as those standards were being implemented, and it's taken serious work to refit the school's infrastructure to meet the Cherry Creek School District's standard of keeping the lead levels to under 15 parts per billion (that's 5 ppb stricter than the EPA's recommended level of 20 ppb). According to Creekside Principal Kelly Sommerfeld, it hasn't been an easy or quick fix.
"It's been a problem-solving effort. We want to make sure that the water is safe for our kids and staff," Sommerfeld said, adding that there have not been health issues for any of the students, teachers or staff. "At each turn, we've tried a different solution. My main focus is to continue the focus on learning. Day-to-day, we've adapted. We've made the best of the situation."
Since the first tests conducted by outside experts came back positive for unacceptable levels of lead in the fall, the building has undergone a series of large-scale renovations. All of the domestic water lines under the building that lead to classroom sinks, drinking fountains and the kitchen have been replaced, as have the school's backflow preventer, kitchen piping, water fountains, classroom sink faucets, hot water system and gate valves. Filters have been installed on all of the kitchen sinks, and the system has been flushed multiple times.
"We only had one (sample) from Creekside that exceeded the 15 ppb minimum standard. We're continuing to flush the building," said David Henderson, director of Facility Operations for the district. "In this case, since it's been such a prolonged issue, we made the decision that we're not going to move forward with using water from the building until we're absolutely sure."
Henderson added that results from the latest rounds of tests showed levels below the minimum. Still, the district will continue to monitor the situation throughout he summer.
The Cherry Creek School District isn't alone in its effort to test and update buildings. Last year, the majority of Colorado districts tested older buildings' water sources for any traces of lead. The effort came in the wake of the crisis in Flint, Michigan, where the water source itself was contaminated. In Colorado, the source isn't the issue – rather, lead soldering used before 1986 is the culprit for the high lead results in Colorado buildings. In Cherry Creek, many of those older fixtures have been repaired and replaced over the years through successful bond projects.
Even so, there's no single solution for updating all of the district's buildings to meet current standards and ensure the safety of students and staff. The maintenance and repairs at Creekside during the past months are tied to the building's infrastructure, and thus required time and continued testing. As Henderson points out, the standard for safety is high, and an "abundance of caution" is the rule when it comes to deciding to turn the taps back on.
"Our students are focusing on what they need to do in the classrooms," she said. "We supported them with as much clean and safe water as needed."
Click here for more information about lead test results from across the district.