SIOUX CITY | It's been hard to ignore the images of glasses full of brown and yellow water that comes out of faucets in Flint, Michigan.
The water, tainted with lead and other harmful minerals because of inadequate treatment since the city switched its supply source two years ago, has morphed into a crisis, with city residents fearing the water may ultimately lead to health and developmental problems in those who drank it.
Could what happened in Flint happen here?
No, metro public works officials said confidently.
"We use ground water rather than surface water," said Rick Mach, interim Sioux City public works director and formerly the city's water plant supervisor.
That more dependable water source, plus constant testing help ensure that local residents will continue to drink and use clean tap water, said Bob Livermore, South Sioux City public works director.
"We do an unbelievable amount of testing for a multitude of things many times a day at many locations," Livermore said.
In 2014, Michigan water officials switched Flint's water source from Lake Huron and a Detroit water treatment facility to the Flint River in order to save money. The river water was more corrosive and caused lead from older pipes and plumbing materials to leach into the city's tap water because the water wasn't adequately treated to prevent the corrosion.
It's brought criticism down onto local and state officials, including Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, a former Gateway computer executive who lived in Sioux City in the 1990s. Snyder's administration has been accused of ignoring Flint residents who complained about water quality soon after the switch.
That lead comes from old lead pipes, solder joints and faucet fixtures, commonly found in older neighborhoods.
Tim Higgins, Sioux City utilities superintendent, said cities began phasing out installation of lead pipes in the 1930s and '40s. None of Sioux City's water mains are made from lead, but some lead service lines -- pipes that run from the water mains to private homes and businesses -- remain. Higgins guessed that maybe 25 percent of service lines in the city are lead.
"That's dropping every year," he said.
Service lines are privately owned, so repairing a broken line is the home or business owner's responsibility, Higgins said. City ordinances require that when a lead service line breaks, it must be replaced, not repaired. Most service lines are replaced with copper pipes. The city uses PVC or iron pipes for its water mains, Higgins said.
Mach said that in areas of the city classified as Urban Renewal Areas, such as Rose Hill and Greenville, all lead pipes or lead-soldered pipes are replaced during renovations of older homes.
North Sioux City has no lead pipes in its water system, city administrator Ted Cherry said.
"That's something that no city really wants to mess with, so it's nice not to have any in town," Cherry said.
South Sioux City has few, if any, lead lines remaining, and those are likely service lines, Livermore said.
"For the most part, we've gone to PVC," he said.
Iowa Department of Natural Resources spokesman Kevin Baskins said it's hard to say how many lead lines remain in Iowa because almost all are private service lines, and many older communities don't have up-to-date records on where lead lines are located.
He said that during any year, fewer than 1 percent of Iowa public water supplies have lead content exceeding acceptable levels. Regulations and practices have been effective in returning those systems to compliance.
In the meantime, cities remain vigilant to make sure drinking water remains safe.
Sioux City treats water with polyorthophosphate, a blended chemical that coats pipes to prevent water from corroding them and picking up lead, iron and other minerals, Mach said.
Water is tested daily, he said, and the city is required under federal law to perform extensive lead and copper system sampling every three years and send samples to the federal Environmental Protection Agency.
"I think Sioux City does a great job, but it's always challenging," Mach said.
The key, though, is the ground water that all three cities pump from wells rather than the Missouri River itself. Mach said that on the pH scale, the area's ground water trends more to basic, rather than the acidic water found in Flint. Ground water also doesn't vary as widely in its mineral content as surface water, which can have its quality affected by runoff in the spring or after a heavy rain.
"We're really fortunate to have a really good source of water," Livermore said.
Even though local cities have a more stable water source than Flint, the situation there is a good reminder for all public works directors to remain vigilant, Higgins said.
"It helps to confirm that what steps we are taking are the correct steps," he said. "We're doing all the things we should do to keep it from happening here."