The West Virginia chemical spill brings attention to a broader national problem.
By Tim Friend
(02/17/2014) A chemical spill that left 300,000 residents of Charleston, West Virginia, without tap water last month is raising new concerns about the ability of the United States to maintain its high quality of drinking water.
While the U.S. has one of the safest water supplies in the world, experts say the Charleston contamination with a coal-washing chemical shows how quickly the trust that most Americans place in their drinking water can be shattered.
“We often don’t think about where our water comes from,” said Steve Fleischli, director and senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) Water Program in Los Angeles. “Does it come from a nearby river or a lake, intermittent streams, isolated wetlands, or an aquifer? Yes, you may have a water treatment plant, but if your water source is not protected, people face a real risk.”
In Charleston on January 9, about 10,000 gallons of a little-known and unregulated chemical called 4-methylcyclohexane methanol (MCHM) leaked from an aboveground storage tank into the Elk River. The amount of the chemical overwhelmed the carbon filtration system in the West Virginia American Water treatment plant about a mile downstream. Within a week, more than 400 people were treated at hospitals for rashes, nausea, vomiting, and other symptoms.
West Virginia American Water decided by January 13 that the water was again safe to drink, because the concentration of MCHM had fallen below one part per million. But it soon emerged that there was little scientific information backing up that safety threshold, and this past week many West Virginians were still not drinking tap water. “I wouldn’t drink it if you paid me,” West Virginia Senator Jay Rockefeller told National Public Radio last Monday.
Leaky Ponds of Coal Ash
While Congress was holding hearings on the West Virginia incident, the next one happened. On February 2, up to 82,000 tons of toxic coal ash spilled into the Dan River, near the border of North Carolina and Virginia, from a pond at a closed Duke Energy power plant. This week state health officials warned people not to swim in the river or eat fish from it.
The Associated Press reported February 13 that the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Raleigh has launched a criminal investigation into the spill, seeking records from Duke Energy and the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources—which had sued Duke last August for unpermitted discharges at Dan River and five other power plants.
“When you burn coal you leave behind metals and radioactivity,” said Robert B. Jackson, an environmental scientist at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. “The ash is quite toxic. The waste products we create to produce energy, the waste we generate every day, are a threat to drinking water quality.”
Coal ash contains arsenic, mercury, lead, thallium, and other dangerous contaminants. At power plants it is mixed with water, forming a slurry that is stored in large ponds. According to the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, 40 percent of the country’s coal ash ponds are located in the southeast and contain 118 billion gallons of toxic material. Most of these impoundments, like the one on the Dan River, are located near major waterways.
In 2008, the dike at an impoundment in eastern Tennessee failed at the Tennessee Valley Authority Kingston Fossil Plant. More than 5.4 million cubic yards of coal ash spilled from the site and spread across more than 300 acres of land and water. Tests of nearby river water showed levels of lead and thallium exceeded safety limits for drinking water, but the TVA said at the time that the toxic metals were filtered out by water treatment processes. The TVA spent a year and a half cleaning up the sludge.
In 2000, the bottom of a coal ash pond in Kentucky crumbled and released an estimated 306 million gallons of slurry. Water supplies for 27,000 people were contaminated.
Following the Tennessee spill, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency identified 676 coal ash impoundments at 240 facilities, assigning a “high hazard” rating to 45 ponds. The rating indicates that a failure would probably cause loss of human life.
Droughts, Floods, and Hogs
Another threat, Jackson said, is severe weather. Research suggests that dry regions will become drier and wet regions wetter as a result of climate change. Both extremes pose significant challenges for maintaining safe drinking water.
Jackson pointed to a 1999 hurricane that flooded hog farms in North Carolina. “Hurricane Floyd came through and flushed the contents of the hog waste lagoons out into the streams and rivers,” he said. The result was widespread fecal contamination of drinking water. More than decade after Floyd, North Carolina still has more than 4,000 hog waste lagoons.
At the other extreme of the weather spectrum is drought. Laurel Firestone, founder of the Community Water Center, a nonprofit advocacy group based in Visalia, California, said the most severe drought in California history may have a dramatic effect on water quality.
In a 2012 report prepared for the California State Water Control Board, scientists from the University of California at Davis found that about 254,000 people in the Tulare Lake Basin and Salinas Valley are currently at risk for nitrate contamination of their drinking water. In one of the nation’s most productive farming regions, nitrates from heavily fertilized fields leach into the groundwater. “Many small communities cannot afford safe drinking water treatment,” the report said.
As a result of the current drought, farmers are having to rely on groundwater to irrigate their fields—which inevitably raises the concentration of nitrates in the water left in the ground. “The California drought is exacerbating problems that already existed,” Firestone said. “Those being affected first are people who depend on the shallow wells. They are canaries in the coal mine.” Exposures to high levels of nitrates can cause death, miscarriages, and blue baby syndrome, she said.
In general, Jackson said, and not just in California, “the most vulnerable group of people are those who get their water from a private water source. People who have private drinking water wells are far less protected than anyone else in the country. No one tests your water unless you pay for a test.”
Polluters ‘R Us
What worries Jackson and some other experts more than headline-making spills and weather is chronic pollution of a more insidious kind—from pharmaceuticals and personal care products, or PPCPs. Studies have shown that pharmaceuticals, especially antibiotics and steroids, are widely present in the nation’s water supply. We excrete them in our urine; our livestock do as well. Other chemicals from soaps, shampoos, and lotions get washed down the drains of our tubs and showers. Sewage treatment plants are not equipped to remove them. Some have been shown to disrupt the hormone system in fish.
The EPA states there are no known human health effects from low-level exposure to PPCPs in drinking water, “but special scenarios (one example being fetal exposure to low levels of medications that a mother would ordinarily be avoiding) require more investigation.”
“What we don’t know are the interactions of thousands of different compounds that are taking place in our lakes, streams, and aquifers,” said Jackson, who is studying the effects of some of the compounds on fish and mice. “When you have a spill like in West Virginia it’s terrible, but at least you know about it. The cases that may be more dangerous are the slow and steady spills and chemical reactions that we don’t know about.”
For municipal utilities, such new worries come at a very bad time. In the American Society of Civil Engineers 2013 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure, the nation’s drinking water infrastructure was given a D grade for aging pipes, some of which date back to the Civil War. “At the dawn of the 21st century, much of our drinking water infrastructure is nearing the end of its useful life,” the report stated. The American Water Works Association estimates there are 240,000 water-main breaks per year in the U.S. The investment needed to bring the nation’s waterworks up to speed has been estimated in the trillions of dollars.
Money that might be devoted to such investments is instead being spent by a worried public on buying the stuff in plastic bottles. It made sense in West Virginia in recent weeks, but in general, according to Jackson, in spite of all the good reasons to be concerned about drinking water safety, resorting to bottles is not a sensible reflex. “People think bottled water is safer, but there is zero evidence that is true,” he said. “The quality of water in city tap water is regulated far more closely than bottled water.”
Less snowmelt from Sierra Nevada leads to more pumping of Central Valley’s contaminated groundwater.
By Jeremy Miller
Circle of Blue
(01/2014) FRESNO COUNTY, CA — In the early morning between Los Angeles and Sacramento on Interstate 5 – before unbroken streams of semis crowd the highway, and tractors begin clawing the dry earth, the world is calm.
The dawn interlude, a quiet medley of things seemingly natural, is deceiving. The telling clue is a winding canal that meanders, without a riffle, past sprawling farms and small towns, feedlots and processing plants that mark the plain of California’s Central Valley. The canal’s concrete banks are bounded by chain-link fences and occasionally punctuated by large pumping stations that push the manmade river uphill, not down.
For almost a century, water providers and food producers in California have engaged in one of history’s most ambitious industrial enterprises focused on one objective – moving water where it won’t go on its own. California’s 80-year-old system of canals – the State Water Project and the federally-financed Central Valley Water Project — stitch together an audacious hydrological network comprising 1,200 miles of aqueducts, canals and pipelines. Collectively, both systems are capable of annually delivering from distant Sierra Nevada snowfields and streams about 11 million acre feet – 3.6 trillion gallons – of water for agricultural, municipal and industrial use.
The consequences of tapping, piping and pumping water from one end of the state, where it originates, to the other end, where it is used principally to irrigate the planet’s most valuable harvest, have been studied for decades. But as climate change alters California’s moisture trends, and older challenges like groundwater pollution go unaddressed, the need to better understand the state’s intersecting trends in water use have never been more urgent.
On Friday, prompted by a severe and lingering drought that made 2013 the driest calendar year ever, and nearly three weeks of equally severe drought this month, California Governor Jerry Brown formally declared a public drought emergency. He called the dire dry conditions “perhaps the worst drought that California has ever seen.”
State water supply authorities anticipate that actual water deliveries will be far less than the maximum, as they have been in other droughts. For example, in 2008, another exceedingly dry year, both systems only managed to deliver about 4.5 million acre feet to water users, or 41 percent of the system’s capacity.
The 2014 drought portends big trouble for California. Water delivered by the two transport networks irrigates roughly 3.75 million acres and just over 40 percent of the state’s nearly 82,000 farms. In addition, the supply network satisfies the thirst of other industries, notably the oil industry of the southwest San Joaquin Valley, as well as 24 million of California’s 38 million residents, most of whom live in southern California.
The list of challenges is growing:
• According to the state Department of Water Resources, California has experienced nine bouts of large-scale, multi-year drought since the beginning of the 20th century. But even for California, the depth of the current drought is exceptional. In 2013, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Sacramento, and several other major cities across the state shattered previous records for lowest precipitation since record keeping began 164 years ago.
• The snowpack of the High Sierra that supplies the system is declining because of the warming, and drying climate. This year has proven to be especially dry. As of January 1, the state’s snowpack stood at a meager 20 percent of average. According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, nearly the entire state is in a state of “severe” or “extreme” drought.
• Under current warming and drying trends, the state Department of Water Resources has predicted that the snowpack will be reduced by a quarter by the end of the century. That, in turn, could lead to a 17 percent increase in groundwater pumping from the Central Valley. If that scenario occurs, 2.12 million more acre-feet of water, or 690.8 billion gallons, will be pumped to the surface, prompting an increase in energy use (and water consumption) to run the pumps. (An acre-foot, the amount of water it takes to flood an acre of land in a foot of water, is approximately 326,000 gallons or 1,234 cubic meters.)
• The Water Resources Department predicts disruptions as often in one in every three years as water levels in the northern California reservoirs fall to “dead pool,” in which water is too low to be released into the canal network.
• West and south, out of the mountains and onto the plains, wasteful farm practices and lower water supplies are draining the life from fisheries in California’s San Joaquin Delta, east of San Francisco.
• Further south, the state’s Central Valley has become a great dumping ground for industrial and agricultural toxins – pesticides, fertilizers and other forms of industrial waste contaminate municipal and private wells with nitrates. Today, tens of thousands of people across the valley — most of them living in poor and politically disconnected towns — rely on groundwater that contains contaminants that exceed state limits and is dangerous to use for drinking and bathing. The agriculture sector, though, is reluctant to limit its use of pesticides and fertilizers, viewing them as a mainstay in California’s $44 billion farm economy.
• The threats to drinking water extend beyond the state’s agricultural regions. A February report from the State Water Resources Control Board identified 31 principal contaminants, including arsenic, uranium, perchlorate and pesticide residues in groundwater serving 21 million Californians.
• A new project meant to ensure a more stable supply of water to farmers and to wildlife, the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, is in the proposal stage. But its cost, complexity, and environmental risks in an era of economic austerity pose serious political challenge to its construction.
• California’s state Water Plan, which is updated every five years, calls for water conservation to anticipate and respond to shortages, though the cumulative effect is not reducing demand sufficiently to secure the state’s water supply.
California, in sum, is being buffeted by cross-cutting trends in water supply and demand that are growing more complex, more expensive, and much harder to resolve.
“We’ve built a massive set of water infrastructure in the state and that has brought benefits to many, many different water users,” says Peter Gleick, president of the Oakland-based Pacific Institute, a premier water research group. (Circle of Blue is a Pacific Institute affiliate.) “But relying on infrastructure and engineering solutions is not going to solve California’s 21st century water problems. There are few places to build big, new projects. We have a better understanding now of their true, economic, environmental and social costs. And frankly, there’s just no more unspoken for water in the state.”
The First Drops Start In North?
If there is a starting point for California’s water supply challenge it begins in the erratic snowfall of the Sierra Nevada, which form a high wall 150 miles east of the Pacific. A decade ago, the canal network routinely transported 12.3 million acre-feet from north to south annually. But that volume has dwindled by 12 percent, according to state figures.
From the Sierras, the diminishing supplies of water reach the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, east of San Francisco, the great tidal estuary formed at the place the state’s two longest rivers, the Sacramento and San Joaquin, end – and where the state’s two largest manmade rivers, the California Aqueduct and Delta Mendota Canal, begin.
Once a vast expanse of tidal marshlands covering 1,600 square miles, the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta has been reduced to a highly engineered and straitjacketed system. As the intensity of agriculture and industry in the Central Valley ratcheted up, the sinuous meanders of natural rivers were straightened to ease the passage of large cargo ships, which today haul fruits, vegetables and other raw materials out of the Central Valley to San Francisco Bay and points around the globe.
Levees were built to encourage the conversion of the wetlands to cropland. They also prevented spring flooding. A century of re-engineering and heavy farming has taken its toll. Without the spring flooding from the Sacramento and San Joaquin to replenish organic material in the southern Delta’s characteristic peat soils, the ground dries, disintegrates and collapses; in some places in the Delta the ground has sunk to 15 feet below sea level.
As the Delta subsides, the levees holding back the ocean also sink. And with rising sea level, the threat of saltwater intrusion from San Francisco Bay increases. The worry is that the sea could overtop the levees, saturating the Delta farmland in salt, and overwhelming the pumps that pull water from the Delta and transfer it into the great concrete arteries that deliver water to points south. And because the Delta is the source of the bulk of the state’s exported water to southern California, what happens here has repercussions far outside the region.
To reduce the risks posed to this tremendously complex and vulnerable system, the state has proposed a massive new engineering scheme called the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, or BDCP. Backed enthusiastically by Gov. Brown, the centerpieces of the $23 billion plan are massive tunnels capable of shunting as much as 9,000 cubic feet (67,000 gallons) of fresh water per second toward the aqueducts from further up the Sacramento River rather from the pumps in the Delta.
This, state officials say, would not only improve water quality for downstream users but help to achieve the “co-equal” goal of restoring the Delta’s ailing aquatic ecosystems. “I think any biologist familiar with the Delta would tell you that more freshwater through the Delta won’t be enough in and of itself to ‘restore’ the ecosystem, though it could have ecological benefits,” wrote Nancy Vogel, a spokesperson for the Department of Water Resources. ”[But] changing how water is diverted from the Delta also may have environmental benefits.”
Many residents in the northern part of the state, however, see the project as an appeasement of wealthy and politically powerful interests in the southern part of the state. They also call it a plan for ruination of the Delta, and for damaging the communities and farms scattered across the low-lying pastoral landscape.
Meanwhile, the semi-arid reaches of the Central Valley south of the Delta, dry landscapes remade with northern water, are also suffering.
Pumps That Drive Water Uphill
One of the big engines of California’s elaborate water delivery system is the Banks Pumping Plant. Found on a winding back road under the wind turbine-stippled hills of Altamont Pass, 249 feet above sea level, the rectangular building is tucked into a ravine under the triangular summit of Mt. Diablo.
Jim Odom oversees the plant. A stout man with a jovial laugh and sleek sunglasses perched on his baseball hat, Odom began as a maintenance worker at the pumping plant in the 1980s and worked his way up to his current job as the plant’s supervisor.
The Banks plant, he explains, lifts water 250 vertical feet, by way of the plant’s powerful pumps, from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta into the California Aqueduct. Within this 450-mile long concrete artery, water is delivered to farms, industries and cities to the south. When the aqueduct hits the Tehachapi Mountains at the southern end of the San Joaquin Valley, the water is again lifted, this time nearly 2,000 feet by the Edmonston Pumping Plant, up and over the hills and into the Los Angeles basin.
“The State Water Project has enhanced California,” Odom says. “There’s some debate about how it needs to be managed. But the state wouldn’t be the same with out it.”
Powerful as it is, the Banks Pumping Plant is just one of the hydrological engines that transports water south. Another is the Tracy Pumping Plant, operated next door by the federal Bureau of Reclamation and the starting point of the Delta-Mendota Canal, which runs parallel to the California Aqueduct. The two plants and the water they pump supply millions of acres of irrigated farmland and 24 million Californians with drinking water.
But that water supply engine is faltering. In the time since Banks came online in the early 1960s, the state’s population has grown dramatically, from 15 million to 38 million. The amount of irrigated cropland statewide has nearly doubled, from 4.7 million acres in 1929, three years before construction began on the Central Valley Project, to over 11 million acres in 2007.
Because of climate variations, reductions in water supply and pumping have changed the nature of Odom’s job significantly, he says, forcing the plant to respond rapidly to changing water availability. The ups and downs in water deliveries mean that the pumps must be started up and shut down frequently. “It’s a little harder on equipment because it’s not made to stop and start all the time,” he says. “But if they say start up three or four units, we do it. If they say, stop one, or two, we do it, too. We do what the folks in Sacramento tell us.”
Of Subsidence and Salt
Tracing the aqueduct and its water supply south, from the Banks plant into the great dry sweeps of the Central Valley, is to enter an industrial agricultural landscape utterly transformed.
Westlands Water District, west of Fresno, is the poster child of California’s remaking through brute-force water engineering. Home to some of the state’s wealthiest and most politically connected farmers, Westlands has used its pull to compensate for its dearth of natural rainfall.
Today the district commands more imported water than any single agricultural district in the U.S., with farmers holding contracts for about 1.2 million acre-feet of water from the Central Valley Project – a volume large enough to inundate Delaware in a foot of water.
But Westlands is showing signs of strain under several years of severe statewide drought. Over the last three years, the district’s allocations have been cut by 40, 60, and 90 percent respectively.
Dan Errotabere’s family has farmed here, in the arid western reaches of Westlands, since leaving the Basque region of Spain in the 1920s. Before the Central Valley Project came online in the 1930s, most of the farms in this dry area were small, no more than 160 acres, and completely reliant on groundwater, he says. But the Central Valley Project changed all that.
The rectilinear rows of Errotabere’s farm – 6000 acres of garlic, chickpeas, onions, cotton, lettuce and almonds – are well beyond the dimensions most Americans associate with a family farm. The scale of the enterprise is one of necessity, he says. “This is not a cheap investment out here. You can’t be a forty acre guy or a mom and pop cattle outfit,” he says. “The farms out here work on economies of scale.”
The bone-dry farm has been plowed into arrow-straight rows by huge tillers. The only hints of green that are visible are shoots of “volunteer” chickpeas along the road’s edge. He explains that he obsessively keeps the soil free of weeds in order to conserve small but important volumes of water.
Errotabere bends down and scrapes a little dirt from one of the rows, revealing a bulb of garlic underneath. Between the seed rows, thin strips of black drip tape run through shallow furrows. The tape is part of the elaborate water-saving technology being employed across the farm, which he says has cut the water demands for this particular parcel in half.
In spite of efforts toward greater efficiency, water is still in dangerously short supply. Water reductions, he says, force him to heavily tap groundwater and take roughly one-fifth of his land out of production.
Gayle Holman, a spokesperson for Westlands Water District, says this proportion is below average for the district. So far this year, about one third of the district’s 600,000 acres have been fallowed (though a sizable proportion of this land has been fallowed due to soil salinization).
Moreover, Errotabere says 60 percent to 70 percent of his water this year has come from aquifers, with the rest supplied via the Central Valley Project. “Our water table is dropping and we have to keep lowering our wells,” he says. “I haven’t seen subsidence yet but that may be coming.”
Statistics on groundwater overdraft are difficult to come by, since California is one of the few states in the U.S. that does not monitor groundwater usage. However, a recent study from the University of California at Irvine found that from 2003 and 2010 the Central Valley aquifer – the second most pumped aquifer in the U.S. after the Ogallala – lost a volume equivalent to the capacity of Lake Mead, on the Colorado River near Las Vegas. Lake Mead is the largest reservoir in the United States.
Throughout the valley, subsidence due to unchecked groundwater pumping is a major issue – in some places the land has subsided by more than 20 feet. “Continued groundwater depletion at this rate may well be unsustainable,” states the report, “with potentially dire consequences for the economic and food security of the United States.”
Another serious problem of tapping groundwater in this part of the San Joaquin Valley is salinity. Unlike groundwater pumped in other parts of the valley, water drawn from its western edge tends to be highly saline, on average between four and 13 times saltier than water taken from the aqueduct, according to a district report.
Errotabere points to the effect of reduced water deliveries to the local economy. “Farming is the economic fabric,” Errotabere says, explaining that he sells his tomatoes, garlic, chickpeas and onions to processing plants along the Interstate 5 corridor. “If I don’t get my water, they don’t run.”
And yet, at least in the short run, the lack of water and reduced acreage has not been met with a commensurate loss of revenue for Westlands farmers. According to a 2011 Pacific Institute study that examines the economic effects of the 2007 and 2009 drought, crop yields remained steady even though fallowed acreage more than doubled, from just over 46,000 acres in 2000 to 122,000 acres in 2009.
In the same period, overall revenues increased, from $1.27 billion to $1.49 billion, suggesting that when faced with water shortages California’s farmers can be innovative in developing water-conserving production practices.
But it may still not be enough.
Do Westlands farmers need to downsize in order to adapt to what seems to be the “new normal” of reduced deliveries? Errotabere rejects that notion. “That might work for organic farms in Sonoma. But that’s not the model here,” he says.
Low-Income Residents Supplied With Toxic Drinking Water
In Kettleman City, half an hour south of Dan Errotabere’s farm, Maricella Mares-Allatore, an environmental activist with the Bay Area environmental group Greenaction, considers another outcome of groundwater use and management in the Central Valley.
She sits in the local Starbucks and sips black coffee brewed with the town’s water, which comes from its aquifer. The irony is somewhat diabolical.
Kettleman’s groundwater is contaminated with arsenic at an average of 12.5 parts per billion (and as high as 16 ppb), in excess of the state limit of 10 ppb. Arsenic enters drinking water supplies from natural deposits in the earth or from agricultural and industrial practices, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. And yet, a river of cleaner water from the Delta flows through the middle of town in the concrete confines of the California Aqueduct.
A warning that hangs at the Kettleman City Post Office sends a confusing message: “You don’t have to use an alternative (e.g., bottled water) supply,” the flyer reads. Yet an information sheet on arsenic from the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment suggests that long-term ingestion of arsenic at levels below the legal limit have been shown to increase risk of certain kinds of cancer.
Mares-Alatorre holds a manila folder. Inside is a flyer with images of five babies of Kettleman City parents who were born between 2008 and 2009. Each of the children show the distinct scars of cleft palates.
Residents of Kettleman City have contended with an array of pollution sources for decades, including pesticide drift, diesel emissions, and oil drilling wastes. One of the nation’s largest hazardous waste dumps, operated by Waste Management, a Houston-based company, is located here. Every year it accepts tens of thousands of tons of PCBs, asbestos, oil wastes and pesticides.
The city briefly entered the national spotlight in 2010, when the California Department of Public Health identified 11 Kettleman children born between 2007 and 2008 with chromosomal birth defects – including heart defects, cleft palate and club foot. In spite of the myriad of pollution sources, the state Department of Public Health could not identify a single cause for the spike in birth defects, citing the small population and multiple causes as confounding factors.
But the disfigured babies continue to symbolize the serious anxieties in this community of 1,500 – the vast majority of whom are farm workers living at or below the federal poverty line.
The health risks also animate Mares-Alatorre’s push for clean water. Right now a controversial proposal is in the works to fix the town’s water system. Waste Management has offered to pay off the water system’s $552,000 debt, which would allow the town to secure $8 million in state funding needed to install a plant to draw and treat drinking water from the California Aqueduct.
In exchange, Waste Management wants to expand its toxic waste landfill in town.
The proposal has fostered a lively conversation about risks and benefits. “Of course we want clean water to bathe our children in and to drink,” says Mares-Alatorre. “But at what price? Should we have to allow another major source of pollution into town in order to get it?”
On the opposite side of the valley from Kettleman City, dozens of small farm communities near Visalia also are dealing with contaminated groundwater – in these cases from years of over-application of fertilizers and pesticides. The problem is particularly acute in dozens of small, unincorporated towns – many of which are home to large populations of farmworkers and are served by rudimentary water systems.
The water systems tap into aquifers contaminated with nitrates, a constituent of of synthetic fertilizer and manure, and other agricultural contaminants. A 2012 report from the University of California at Davis found that 254,000 people in the Salinas Valley and Tulare Basin, two major agricultural regions, are at risk of nitrate contamination. Of the nitrates seeping into the Central Valley’s groundwater, a full 96 percent comes from the region’s croplands, the report found.
According to Peter Weyer, associate director of the University of Iowa’s Center for Health Effects of Environmental Contamination, nitrates are often seen as an indicator of “overall” water quality – and high levels can indicate the presence of other microbial or organic contaminants. “The problems can go way beyond nitrate in places where there is inadequate filtration,” Weyer says.
Nitrates are particularly serious problems for infants. At high enough concentrations they can cause methemoglobinemia, or “blue baby syndrome,” a condition in which an infant’s red blood cells are incapable of transporting oxygen. In adults, long-term exposure to nitrates can lead to the formation of carcinogenic compounds called nitrosamines, believed to contribute to elevate the likelihood of various forms of cancer.
So extensive and vast is the groundwater contamination that there is little hope for “cleaning” up the Central Valley’s aquifers, says Thomas Harter, an author of the UC Davis report. “There is nothing we can do that will solve this issue for them on the source side anytime soon. This is the water quality they will have for decades to come,” says Harter. “Even if we got rid of all the contamination sources tomorrow, it’s going to be decades before this mess is cleaned up. To think we’re going to remediate this problem away is the wrong path.”
One town, Seville, is located along the base of the Sierra foothills. There, local activist Becky Quintana has been pushing state and local officials to address the severe problems of the town’s water system, which is located beside a sprawling orange orchard.
From the pumps, a small array of coupled plastic pipes run through the middle of an irrigation ditch. This, Quintana says, is the town’s water main. When the ditch is full of irrigation water in summer, she says, the pipe is often submerged.
Irrigation water, unfiltered and loaded with dirt, debris and other contaminants can enter the water main through the rickety couplings. She says a neighbor once had a tadpole wriggle out of her kitchen tap. “We hear mixed messages,” says Quintana. “Sometimes the water district will tell us to boil the water, to get rid of the bacteria. But if you boil the water you concentrate the nitrates.” As a result, many people in these towns are spending upwards of $100 a month on bottled water – an expense most residents of these impoverished communities can ill-afford.
Though groundwater contamination has been a lingering political issue in California at least since the 1980s, the state has been slow to act. Quintana’s group, the Committee for a Better Seville, part of a larger coalition, la Asociación de Gente Unida por el Agua (the Association of People United for Water), have pressed state and local representatives for years to do something to reduce the threats.
Last year the community groups won passage of AB 685, the Human Right to Water Bill, an amendment to the state water code, which declares that “every human being has the right to safe, clean, affordable, and accessible water adequate for human consumption, cooking, and sanitary purposes.”
The ambitiously worded bill is modeled on a similar United Nations resolution passed in 2010, and adopted by 122 nations (the U.S. was one of 41 countries to abstain). But, just as with previous legislative and regulatory steps to reduce farm chemical contamination and make groundwater safe, when it comes to actual regulatory teeth to change the patterns of water consumption and engineering in the valley, AB 685 is of questionable practical effectiveness.
AB 685 does not force state agencies to ensure clean water, but to merely consider the water as a human right when “revising, adopting, or establishing policies, regulations, and grant criteria” that affect water used for domestic purposes.
A good illustration of the law’s weak regulatory potency is its applicability to the massive water-engineering project of the Bay Delta Conservation Plan. Even if the project were to go forward as conceived, it seems there is little chance the project, designed specifically to ship cleaner water south, will ever reach the poor and clean water-deprived communities of the valley.
“AB 685 does not apply to the Bay Delta Conservation Plan,” wrote Nancy Vogel, of the Department of Water Resources. “BDCP is a habitat conservation plan under the U.S. Endangered Species Act and a natural community conservation plan under state law. [Therefore] there is no obligation created by AB 685 for the BDCP to solve problems outside its focus on species and habitat.”
Still, proponents such as Laurel Firestone, executive director of the Visalia-based Community Water Center, say the bill is a step toward addressing long-standing public health concerns. “AB 685 is very significant in creating a priority and focus at the state level. State agencies now have to consider drinking water more explicitly in their decision-making. That’s huge,” she says. “It’s made people look and see the disparities around drinking water across the state.”
In the meantime, state and federal agencies say they are committing financial resources and technical assistance to helping these communities address long-standing problems. According to the California Department of Public Health, efforts are ongoing in both Kettleman City and Seville, such as providing $50,000 to Kettleman residents from the state’s clean drinking water bond fund to purchase bottled water until a permanent solution is found. In November, the Environmental Protection Agency announced it had awarded $174 million in funds to the state to “control water pollution and provide low-cost loans for both drinking water and wastewater infrastructure upgrades.”
John Borkovich, the manager of the state’s Groundwater Ambient Monitoring and Assessment program, says one possible solution is delivering safer water to communities by blending contaminated groundwater with cleaner water piped in from elsewhere. “There are some communities that have the means to blend with a cleaner water source and deliver water that does not exceed the maximum contamination levels,” says Borkovich. “But there are many other communities that can’t do this. So they either need help with a remediation system or to obtain another water source that is safe to drink.”
Just how long it will take to complete the large infrastructure projects required to bring clean water to isolated communities is unclear. Promises have been made and broken before, says Mares-Alatorre, and the poor people of the Central Valley have become accustomed to being at the back of the line when it comes to access to California’s increasingly scarce freshwater supplies. “People in Kettleman City assume that the state doesn’t care about them, that they’re on their own when it comes to water,” says Mares-Alatorre. “But that doesn’t mean we won’t keep fighting for what’s right.”
Asm. Alejo Press Release
(02/12/2014) (SACRAMENTO) — Assemblymember Luis Alejo (D-Salinas) has introduced legislation proposing $2 million to devise a comprehensive drinking water plan. Specifically, the funds would be for the development of an integrated water quality and wastewater treatment program plan for disadvantaged communities in the Salinas Valley.
“Even before the drought, many of our communities lacked access to clean and safe drinking water,” comments Alejo. “Now, with decreasing surface and groundwater supplies, the issue of access to clean and safe drinking water should be a higher priority.”
High levels of nitrate in groundwater sources have plagued the Salinas Valley for years. Nitrate groundwater contamination not only imposes serious health risks but also results in major costs for small rural communities. AB 1630 would provide a starting point for the state to begin identifying affordable and efficient means for providing disadvantaged communities in the Salinas Valley access to safe drinking water.
“Clearly, the Salinas Valley must prioritize water conservation and sustainable water management,” states Alejo. “With this bill, our leaders can at least begin to think about how we can best maximize our water resources in order to help struggling communities.”
In March of 2012, a report published by UC Davis found that approximately 10 percent of 2.6 million people in the Tulare Lake Basin and the Salinas Valley rely on drinking water that may contain levels of nitrates above the state drinking water standards set by the California Department of Public Health.
“This is an important bill for all people of the Salinas Valley,” says Omar Carillo of Community Water Center, a non-profit organization that supports community driven solutions to California’s drinking water problems. “This bill provides base assistance that will allow communities to plan for the future. Too many rural communities throughout California lack the basic water infrastructure needed to guarantee safe and affordable drinking water.”
AB 1630 will be considered by the Assembly Committee on Environmental Safety and Toxic Materials later this year in March.
Luis Alejo represents the 30th District in the California State Assembly, which consists of the Salinas Valley, Monterey County, San Benito County, South Santa Clara County and the city of Watsonville in Santa Cruz County.
By Alissa Figueroa
Fusion – America with Jorge Ramos
(12/09/13) Berta Diaz doesn’t drink or cook with the water that comes out of her tap. That’s because she received a letter from the Tulare County Department of Health telling her the water was contaminated. “Public Notice: Nitrates,” it read in big black letters.
According to the Community Water Center, a local advocacy group, Diaz’s central California community has dealt with nitrate levels above the national standard intermittently for nine years. The contaminant can cause “blue baby syndrome,” a condition that can result in sudden infant deaths, as well as some kinds of cancer, skin rashes and birth defects.
“I’m a single mother, I raised four kids,” Diaz said in Spanish. “I work in the fields, but I think I deserve clean drinking water. It should not be a privilege.”
But for many in the Central Valley, which produced about $34 billion in agricultural revenue last year, it is. A 2012 study by UC-Davis researchers found that one in 10 people in the valley are at risk of drinking water with unsafe nitrate levels, and that about 1.3 million people in the Central Valley face increased cost because they must buy drinking water. The Community Water Center estimates that about 1.36 million people in the valley could be drinking tainted groundwater, based on data collected by the State Water Resources Control Board.
“It’s bad and it’s only going to get worse,” says Jay Lund, director of the UC-Davis Center for Watershed Science and the lead researcher on the study.
That’s because 90 percent of the tap water in the valley comes from underground wells, which pull from water tables contaminated from decades of industrial farming. According to Lund’s study, 96 percent of the contamination is caused directly from farming — especially from nitrate-rich synthetic fertilizers used throughout the valley.
This kind of agricultural runoff has historically not been regulated.
Diaz’s home, in Tulare County, is in one of the affected areas. She estimates that she spends about 10 percent of her income on water since she buys bottled water for drinking, cooking and even bathing her two-year-old grandson, who she says gets rashes when she uses water from the tap.
Diaz says she could use that money to buy, “shoes for my daughter, a little more to eat. Things that other people have and we don’t.”
In 2011, a United Nations investigator came to the Central Valley on a tour of places around the world with contaminated drinking water. The investigator stopped in Seville, California, an unincorporated town of 350 with a median income of $14,000.
Chris Kemper is the principal of the town’s lone elementary school. “What we’ve decided to do is shut off the water that comes from the city, from the well over here,” says Kemper. “Then we decided to bring in bottled water for the students.”
His tiny rural school — one of the poorest in the state — spends up to $600 a month on drinking water because nitrate levels there fluctuate between safe and unsafe levels. It was supposed to be a temporary solution, says Kemper, but five years after shutting off the water fountains, Seville’s toxic water problem has still not been solved.
It may be too late to clean up the groundwater in Seville.
“At this point, it’s almost impossible to reverse the contamination,” says Lund. The answer, he says, is to treat the water that comes out of the tap instead.
The UC-Davis researchers estimate it would cost between $20 and $36 million over the next 10 years to build enough water treatment systems to provide clean drinking water to the valley.
Lund said the small towns in the Central Valley aren’t able to meet that cost.
“They just don’t have the money to do it. It’s very expensive or there are not very many people in their system to spread that cost around.”
Despite the costs, the problem, advocates say, is fixable. “This contaminant was man-caused, so humans can fix it,” insists Susana de Anda, co-founder of the Community Water Project in Visalia, Calif. Part of the solution, says de Anda, is “making sure that funding agencies are actually prioritizing our communities without safe drinking water.”
That responsibility lies mainly on the shoulders of the California Department of Public Health, which does not regulate contamination, but is charged with making sure the water that flows from the tap is clean and safe.
The Environmental Protection Agency provides the agency with a revolving grant to ensure that the poorest communities in the state receive funds to provide clean drinking water. To date, the EPA has given California some $1.5 billion in funding.
But California has been slower than any other state in spending the funds. In April, the EPA sent the state Department of Public Health a notice, holding them in non-compliance of the Safe Drinking Water Act, and warned the state that funds would be cut if they weren’t put to use.
The state Department of Public Health declined an interview with Fusion, but said they have submitted a corrective action plan to the EPA to spend the remaining funds in a timely manner.
For now, some of the poorest people in California are stuck paying double for clean water.
“This is America, the United States. Why would people have to put up with that?,” says Chris Kemper, the principal at Stone Corral Elementary, where the water is undrinkable. “We’re not talking about boxes, we’re talking about human beings that we’re delivering this water to. And people in this day and age find that acceptable. I think it’s sad.”
KGET-TV – KernGoldenEmpire.com
(11/07/2013) KERN COUNTY, CA – Access to clean water is a major concern in central California, where more than 100 communities in the valley don’t have it.
But, an initiative led by community groups in Kern County is helping schools in Arvin and Lamont keep their drinking water safe from arsenic.
By the end of the year, all K-8 schools and Head Start Centers in Arvin and Lamont will have water filters on the playground and classroom drinking fountains. They’ll also be in kitchens, all in an effort to get rid of arsenic.
Though it will take years to come up with a long-term solution for water contamination, this step is making a big difference
For students and staff in the Arvin Union School District, drinking from the water fountains could be dangerous.
“For some time now, the community of Arvin has had a water issue with the acceptable levels of arsenic and nitrates in the water,” said Superintendent, Dr. Michelle McLean.
Those contaminants can lead to reduced mental funtion in children, various forms of cancer, and Type 2 Diabetes.
“There have been requests made over time for us to filter the water here at the schools, but it’s really cost prohibitive, and the costs we receive from the State Department of Education and taxpayers are really meant to go toward the education,” McLean said.
So the Community Action Partnership of Kern teamed up with the school district, the Community Water Center, and the Committee for a Better Arvin to come up with a temporary solution, filters on all drinking fountains and in kitchens.
“We have to pay double for water here because we pay the water district their bill and then we have to pay for bottled water which we can’t drink the water from the tap.”
Salvador Partida says his concern is for the kids who might not be able to bring bottled water to school every day. Though he hopes for a permanent solution to the water problem, this project is a good place to start.
“It’s a band aid, but nevertheless it’s going to help maybe for the duration until we get something fixed. But, it’s worth it,” Partida said.
This project will be in place for three years at no cost to the schools or Head Starts thanks to funding from various partners.