By Kimberly Beltran
June 6, 2016
(Calif.) Drinking fountains at some schools in Fresno Unified have been shut off for nearly two years due to lead and uranium contamination in the water.
El Camino Real Elementary School in Arvin, an agricultural community near Bakersfield, has given students durable water bottles and installed state-of-the-art filling stations that filter out harmful levels of arsenic found in the water supply there.
And, just last February, Healdsburg officials announced that they had begun providing bottled water to students last fall after detecting lead contamination at the elementary school’s drinking fountains.
These are but a few of the estimated 980 to 1,690 California schools possibly impacted by unsafe drinking water between 2003 and 2014, according to a new report state lawmakers are using to push for funding to help districts provide clean water.
Last week, the Assembly Budget Committee included in its 2016-17 funding plan $10 million for a grant program to provide filtered water filling stations at more than 100 of the most severely impacted schools – most of which, according to the analysis, are in the state’s Central Valley.
“We see this as something that is a vital need for the state to be addressing,” said Jenny Rempel, spokeswoman for the Community Water Center and lead coordinator of the report that was the subject of a legislative briefing in Sacramento last week. “While the additional funding we are seeking from the general fund is not enough to solve the problem, it would really help to make a dent.”
Multiple legislative attempts over the years to mandate a statewide school water testing system have failed to overcome the barrier of costs, ostensibly hundreds of millions of dollars that would be needed not only implement a new program but to upgrade or replace decades-old infrastructure likely contributing to the contamination.
The 2014 Flint, Michigan water crisis, however, has bolstered efforts both in Congress and in individual states to pass school water quality testing laws. No states require schools to test their water for lead, according to a recent story from the Associated Press about schools in Washington state.
Flint residents – including some 6,000 to 12,000 children – were exposed to dangerous levels of lead when the city in 2014 switched to a new municipal utility that used a different source – the Flint River – to supply water. Water officials failed to add an anti-corrosive material and the improperly treated water supply caused lead to leach from aging pipes into homes, schools and businesses.
Experts agree there is no safe level of lead. In children, the highly-toxic metal can cause lasting problems with growth and development that can affect behavior, hearing and learning as well as slow their growth. In adults, lead poisoning can damage the brain and nervous system, the stomach and the kidneys, according to medical experts. It can also cause high blood pressure and other health problems.
The Environmental Protection Agency sets legal limits on over 90 contaminants in drinking water. The legal limit for a contaminant reflects the level that protects human health and that water systems can achieve using the best available technology. EPA rules also set water-testing schedules and methods that public water systems must follow.
According to the Community Water Center’s Rempel, findings from the group’s new analysis should serve as a wake-up call for state officials.
The 979 to 1,688 schools identified as having possibly been impacted by unsafe drinking water represent up to 24 percent of the schools reviewed in the study, researchers point out. “That means these schools were correlated with a water system that served water that violated a primary safe drinking water standard,” authors wrote.
Half-a-million to more than one million students attended schools whose water systems did not always meet primary safe drinking water standards, according to the report. Bacterial and arsenic violations were the most common types of violations impacting schools, followed by the pesticide DBCP, disinfectant byproducts, and nitrates.
Neither the state nor local jurisdictions maintain a record of school water system providers, so the study matches 6,974 California schools with public water systems through both available public information and spatial correlation. “It then uses spatial analysis to overlay water quality violations to assess the magnitude of water quality violations on schools,” researchers said.
Legislation by Assemblyman Eduardo Garcia, D-Coachella, would authorize a General Fund expenditure of $10 million – money that schools could use install filtered water bottle-filling stations, new drinking water infrastructure, point-of-use or point-of-entry treatment devices or plumbing and repairs.
The investment, supporters note, could provide funding for roughly 1,000 filtered water bottle-filling stations, enough for each of the 103 to 144 schools impacted in 2014 to install seven to nine safe water access points.
The analysts also pointed out that school water-quality problems could actually be worse than the report indicates depending upon the amount of lead and copper previously used in pipes and drinking fountains. These contaminants were not included in the study because there are no state-wide monitoring or tracking programs for these distribution system hazards in schools.
Some of the other findings in the report included:
Six to 9 percent of schools were impacted in multiple years, some for a decade or more. The number of schools impacted by recurring bacterial violations (i.e., the water systems serving them experienced bacterial violations in more than one year) was between 254 and 332; 177 to 207 schools were impacted by recurring arsenic violations.
While the problem exists statewide, the Central Valley had both the greatest number and highest percentage of schools in the region impacted by unsafe drinking water. One in four schools in the Central Valley and one in three schools in the Tulare Lake region were impacted. Many of these students also suffer from other forms of pollution including some of the worst air quality in America and other environmental health hazards.
The 320 schools that still operate their own water systems (e.g., a single well run by the school) were more likely to have a water quality violation and to have recurring violations than schools receiving water from larger community water systems.
Schools impacted by unsafe drinking water had higher percentages of Hispanic and Latino students and socioeconomically disadvantaged students.
State agencies do not currently have access to sufficient information to assess the magnitude of the problem and ensure that children have safe drinking water at school.
In addition to recommending that the legislature appropriate funding for water filtration systems, authors of the study also call on the State Water Resources Control Board and the California Department of Education to work together to develop a monitoring and tracking system that includes testing for lead and copper.
They also say decision-makers should target resources to schools and small water systems to help them consolidate into larger regional systems that can more reliably provide safe water.
The Community Water Center, a nonprofit advocacy group based in Visalia, produced the school water survey in partnership with the Environmental Justice Coalition for Water, which is based in Sacramento.