Community Water Center

Community-driven water solutions through organizing, education, and advocacy
Pages tagged "Nitrates"

Sustainable Groundwater Program

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The Problem:

Valley residents rely heavily on groundwater for drinking water, and the increasing impacts of drought threaten this critical water source. CWC’s Sustainable Groundwater Program aims to protect the quality and quantity of the Valley's drinking water supply.

Goals: 

  • Support the formation of effective, transparent, and equitable Groundwater Sustainability Agencies, which will govern groundwater resources. 

  • Reduce further pollution of groundwater with effective regulatory actions and support development of programs for long-term groundwater quality restoration. 

Related Campaigns and Projects: 

Sustainable Groundwater Act: Community Water Center has been working diligently to help educate stakeholders about the Sustainable Groundwater Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) of 2014. Working with partners throughout the valley we have hosted a series of workshops for regional stakeholders and have also visited many of our local water boards to conduct individual informational sessions.

Groundwater Action Team: Community Water Center and our allies have been working diligently to ensure that the Tulare County Board of Supervisors takes action to develop a strong emergency groundwater ordinance that limits increased groundwater extractions and prevents more families from losing their water supply. 

For most recent news stories check out our Water Blog, or the related articles columns on the right.

To take action and sign up to be part of the Groundwater Action Team: 

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Questions? Contact: 

Debi Ores: (916) 706-3346 or deborah.ores@communitywatercenter.org
Kristin Dobbin: (559) 733-0219 or kristin.dobbin@communitywatercenter.org

 


The Challenge of Our Age

By Alex Breitler
Stockton Record
February 11, 2017
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While Stockton residents fretted over chloramines last year, the real water crisis could be found in scattered places like the Glenwood Mobile Home Park along Highway 26, five miles outside the city.

For years, the farmworkers, laborers and senior citizens who live in Glenwood's humble, cramped trailers have gone to town to fill jugs of water for cooking and drinking. Glenwood's well was contaminated with nitrates, possibly from fertilizer applied by farmers in the area, though that is uncertain.

One resident, asked recently to describe the taste of the water, struggled to find the right words before finally saying: "Drain water."

In a big city like Stockton, residents enjoy a mix of drinking water from multiple rivers and wells. The water usually meets standards, and if it doesn't, cities can raise the money needed to fix the problem.

When Glenwood's well went south, residents there had nothing to fall back on.

There is a happy ending to the story: Glenwood's owner just forked over $300,000 to drill a new, much deeper well that has eliminated the nitrates.

But that's likely not an option for many of the other roughly 300 small public water systems across the state, particularly in the San Joaquin Valley. Five years after legislators declared that water is a human right in California, an estimated 200,000 people from those small communities drink water that doesn't meet standards. Many are poor, cannot speak English and in general struggle to make their voices heard.

"We have recognized the human right to water in this state, but we have a long way to go to making it a reality," said Laurel Firestone, an attorney and director of the Community Water Center, based in Visalia.

Nitrates have been a problem at Glenwood going back at least to the early 2000s, when an earlier well was destroyed, records show.

A second well was drilled, but by 2009, it, too, was tapping nitrate-laden water. Sometimes, though not always, water quality standards were violated.

With the owner of the park ordered by the county Environmental Health Department to take action but unable to secure government assistance, the problem continued off and on for years. County officials said the health risk pertained mostly to infants under the age of 6 months, who could quickly become seriously ill or even die from drinking nitrates.

But many fearful Glenwood residents gave up on tap water altogether.

"All of this costs those individuals," Firestone said. "They're having to spend a lot more money to get water that they feel like they can drink. Or, they drink less water and it often means more sugar-sweetened beverages.

"There are very real impacts on people's pocketbooks and health."


Tap water in San Lucas is again unsafe to drink.

By:Nick Rahaim
January 26, 2017

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When Sheri Braden grabs a few potatoes from her pantry to cook for dinner, she rinses them off under the faucet. Then she uses water from a 5-gallon jug to rinse off the tap water she originally used. The water running through the pipes to her home has been deemed unsafe for human consumption.

The tiny community of San Lucas, eight miles southeast of King City where the Salinas Valley floor rises and begins to fade into hills, has been on bottled water restrictions since October 2016 after two tests found the well supplying drinking water had elevated levels of nitrates.

“We’ve been through this before and we’ll keep dealing with it into the future until we find a new water supply,” says Braden, who is also the president of the San Lucas Water District. “We’re still hoping that we can connect to King City’s water system.”

San Lucas was on bottled water restrictions from 2011-14 after a different well supplying water to the community was found to have levels of nitrates that exceeded state and federal standards. Nitrate contamination is largely attributed to fertilizers leaching through the soil into groundwater.

John Romans, who owns Mission Ranches, which covers more than 1,200 acres of farmland outside San Lucas, has become the de facto steward of the community’s water supply. After the old well, located on Mission Ranches property, was found to be contaminated in 2011, the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board ordered Romans and landowner Wendell Naraghi to supply San Lucas’ roughly 350 inhabitants with bottled water until a new water source was found.

In 2014, Romans drilled a new well on Mission Ranches property, closer to the Salinas River, to serve as a temporary water solution for the community. The well remained a reliable source of water for nearly two years, until elevated nitrate levels were found in two separate tests in July and September of 2016.

The bottled water order issued by the Monterey County Environmental Health Bureau wasn’t the only water setback San Lucas residents faced in 2016. In September, plans for connecting San Lucas’ water supply to King City’s were put on hold after determining there was not enough money to complete the design, permitting and environmental reviews.

Connecting San Lucas to King City would cost more than $1 million in planning and another $10-$12 million in construction costs, says Nick Nichols, special projects engineer with the Monterey County Resource Management Agency, who was charged with designing the pipeline. Nichols was working off a $440,000 grant from the State Water Resources Control Board.

Now the state is asking the county and the San Lucas Water District to look into finding a cheaper groundwater and water treatment plan.

Securing a new groundwater source for San Lucas that’s not on Mission Ranches property will be a challenge, Nichols says: “A lot of people have done a lot of water exploration in that area and haven’t found much.”

For the indefinite future, residents of San Lucas will be reliant on five 5-gallons jugs of water a week.

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Toxic water plagues rural California

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By: Barrett Newkirk

December 13, 2016

Original story: http://www.visaliatimesdelta.com/story/news/local/2016/12/13/toxic-water-plagues-rural-california/95404472/

Californians relying on small water utilities to bring drinking water into their homes, or who work or go to school in places providing their own water, are far more likely to be exposed to lead, according to a new analysis of Environmental Protection Agency data by The Desert Sun and USA TODAY.

Small public water systems across the state made up the vast majority of systems found to have high levels of lead in their drinking water or testing violations since 2010, the analysis found. These systems typically exist in rural areas and serve less than a few thousand people. Some serve only a few hundred or even a few dozen people, sometimes at a single school or business.

The results are evidence that while most water utilities across the state have clean records when it comes to lead, smaller agencies with limited resources more often struggle more often to comply with safety protocols. Neither the state nor the small water systems have the capacity to monitor for safety of drinking water as often as larger water systems do. Regulators are encouraging consolidation and a new law requires any new small system coming on line to first consider joining an existing system.

“The real interesting story is the amount of testing that’s required by a water system,” said Rick Williams, board president of the Bodega Water Company, which serves 38 households in rural Sonoma County.

The Bodega Water Company has seen excessive levels of lead in drinking water five times since 2010. According to Williams, the problem is not the water or wells that supply it but is old lead plumbing fixtures inside the community’s historic homes.

“We have no control over what people do in their own homes,” he said. “We can’t tell people they have to replace their own pipes.”

Tests for lead and copper are typically required every three years nationally, but a high lead reading would initiate follow-up tests every six months. The Bodega Water Company last saw a high lead reading in 2012. Tests in 2013 and 2014 then showed levels within acceptable standards, according to state testing information published online.

The toxic metal can cause brain damage and other physical ailments if ingested and can be particularly harmful to children. Experts say no amount of lead is considered safe.

While experts say lead has been less of a problem in California than other states, concerns about small water systems not meeting standards for other contaminants have prompted state officials to try and limit the number of new small systems and combine existing systems when possible.

The Bodega Water Company serves about 77 people, which Williams said includes some part-time residents. It’s among the smallest of California’s more than 7,600 public water systems.

The Desert Sun analysis of EPA data found that since 2010, 541 public water systems in the state either had drinking water tests with high lead levels or violations for improper testing. That is about 7% of all systems statewide.

But of the 541 systems with violations, 498 (92%) served fewer than 3,300 people and 412 (76%) served fewer than 500 people.

State drinking water regulators are well aware that smaller water utilities are more likely to struggle to meet safety standards.

“The smaller water systems just suffer from not having an economy of scale. They don’t have sufficient customers to pass charges on to, so even the monitoring costs really hit them in the pocketbook,” said Cindy Forbes, deputy director for the State Water Resources Control Board’s Division of Drinking Water.

Small water systems are not a California-specific issue. As a new USA TODAY investigation found, about 4 million Americans get water from small operators who skipped required tests or did not conduct tests property, and about 100,000 people get their drinking water from utilities that discovered high lead but failed to treat the water to remove it. Dozens of utilities took more than a year to formulate a treatment plan and even longer to begin treatment.

Federal drinking water regulations give small systems greater leeway in monitoring. Larger systems, for example, must perform water quality checks that only become required of smaller systems once lead is detected. Operators of small systems also need to receive less training.

Forbes said some states take on the responsibility of monitoring small systems. In California, she said, “It would take an army of staff just to do it.”

Instead, state officials are trying to reign in the number of small water systems by making it harder for new ones to form and encouraging – even forcing – consolidations.

A law signed by Gov. Jerry Brown in September that takes effect in January requires anyone seeking a permit for a new water system to look into connecting to an existing system and compare the costs of consolidation versus creating a new system.

State Sen. Bob Wieckowski of Fremont, who sponsored the bill, said in a statement earlier this year that too many water systems “lack the expertise and financial resources to effectively and safely provide service to their customers.”

Wieckowski’s bill followed a 2015 report by the State Water Resources Control Board that found small water systems more often have violations for contaminants such as arsenic, nitrate and uranium.

Separately, the state has begun pushing water systems with poor safety records to consolidate with neighboring systems. Since 2015, California water officials have encouraged seven consolidations, and in April they announced their first mandatory consolidation. After multiple high levels of arsenic, the Pratt Mutual Water Company, which served about 1,500 mostly poor and Latino residents in the Matheny Tract community of Tulare County, was mandated to join the city of Tulare system.

Following a seven-year wait and initial agreement that led to litigation, the state-mandated consolidation came to fruition on May 31.

“It’s working well,” said Fresno attorney Ashley Werner, who represented Matheny Tract residents. “The city is complying with the settlement agreement.”

Before the consolidation, Javier Medina complained the water piped into his home smelled and didn’t seems to help keep him or his clothes clean. Buying bottled water for drinking and cooking was a constant household chore.

But since connecting to Tulare’s water system, Medina and his family can consume their water without concerns.

“Residents are now happy,” he said. “We have clean water. We don’t worry about the contaminated water.”

At least two small water systems that serve a single school are using state grant money to consolidate with other systems, but the process has been slow.

Students at Orange Center School, a K-8 school outside of Fresno, have relied on water coolers instead of the school’s built-in drinking fountains for more than two years because of high lead readings going back to 2010.

After hoping to join the city of Fresno’s water system before the start of the current school year, school Principal and Superintendent Terry Hirschfield now hopes work will begin over the upcoming winter break.

“The kids are not at risk and our parents are satisfied with us providing them clean drinking water,” Hirschfield said.

Also in Fresno County, officials with Fairmont Elementary School have been working since 2009 to connect with a nearby water utility. The school’s own system was giving students and staff water with high levels of nitrate, a naturally occurring chemical that can be elevated because of agricultural runoff. The school has turned off its taps and instead relied on bottled water for many years, possibly as long as a decade, said Richard Sepulveda, chief operations officers for the Sanger Unified School District.

Since 2010, the elementary school has exceeded acceptable levels of lead seven times, the most of any water system in the state. Because the pipes aren’t being used, it’s possible for lead to accumulate over time.

Sepulveda said he knew nitrates were a problem but not lead. “It takes a while,” he said of the school’s plans to join another water system.

“We got awarded the grant – I want to say three or four years ago, and it’s just now that we’re getting funded.”

North in Sonoma County, the community of Bodega sits among heavily wooded hills about seven miles from any other water provider. Williams, the Bodega Water Company president, said he can treat the well water to make it less corrosive to lead pipes, but as far as consolidation, he’s in the same situation as other small, remote systems.

“It’s not economically feasible to do anything like that,” he said.

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State Letter to Farmers Demands Water to Fix Nitrate Problem

By Lewis Griswold, The Fresno Bee
October 21, 2016

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A state water agency has told some farmers in Tulare County that their operations caused nitrates to get into drinking water, and that the contamination must be replaced with a clean source.


Nitrates Poison Water in California's Central Valley

By AFP
September 19, 2016

In California's Central Valley, where verdant fields of fruit and vegetables unfurl under sunny skies, the water that feeds them -- and flows into taps across the region -- contains a toxic and silent poison.

The very same farmers who have tilled and cultivated the earth for decades in one of America's biggest produce regions have also poisoned it, dumping millions of tons of fertilizer, which has found its way into many of the region's aquifers.

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Nitrates, a residue left behind by intensive farming, now lurk in the water in a number of communities, many of them poor and rural.

Agricultural fertilizers as well as cow manure from dairy farms have led to domestic wells in California's Central Valley having dangerously high levels of nitrates ©Robyn Beck (AFP)

For years, Cristobal Chavez has been drinking the water directly from the faucet, never imagining that he, his wife and their children were in danger of nitrate poisoning.

The water "tasted normal," said the former truck driver, who lives in the agricultural town of Porterville, is a foster parent and now runs a day care -- meaning lots of children have consumed the water in his home over the years.

Several months ago, the Community Water Center (CWC) nonprofit association discovered that water in the family's well contained twice as many nitrates as the maximum allowed under state standards.

According to a study by the University of California, Davis, some 250,000 people in the region are at risk of excessive exposure to nitrates.

Most of the tainted communities are small and cut off from larger water distribution networks, making them dependent on wells. The majority are poor, and most residents are Latino, with few speaking English well.

The California State Water Resources Control Board, which monitors public distribution systems in large cities, has no jurisdiction over private wells.

One of its branch chiefs, Kurt Souza, said that county authorities are "trying to target the areas they feel are the most critical," but admitted they had probably missed some contaminated spots.

- 'Health emergency' -

The toxic effects of nitrates are widely recognized by World Health Organization and US health officials, and are particularly dangerous for children and pregnant women.

Nitrates can sometimes cause a deadly blood disorder called "blue baby" syndrome, in which the blood's capacity for carrying oxygen is reduced, in addition to causing increased miscarriages and fetal deformations.

The substance is also thought to play a role in kidney and thyroid problems, and may cause certain cancers.

Nitrates are "a public health emergency," said Jennifer Clary, an advocate at CWC.

According to a CWC report, the rate of blue baby syndrome is 40 percent higher in the Porterville area than the California average.

California's Public Health Department was unable to provide statistics on blue baby syndrome, and says it does not collect data on the broader impact of nitrates in the Central Valley.

"There is a total lack of transparency, this is of a crisis proportion," Erin Brockovich, the environmental crusader portrayed by Julia Roberts in her Oscar-winning role in the 2000 eponymous Hollywood film, told AFP.

- 'Ticking time bomb' -

"Most communities suffering are not sophisticated enough to demand change, and since they are predominantly from a migrant status there has never been a push really to get anything done," said Bob Bowcock, an expert who works with Brockovich.

Honorio Nunez, who is Mexican and makes a living picking oranges, discovered with the help of CWC that his tap water in Porterville is contaminated with nitrates and bacteria.

Although his family has been using water bottles, which have been delivered for the past two years by emergency services due to a drought that has dried out area wells, he and his wife worry about the water that they and their children drank before that.

"The vast number of smaller communities with this nitrate contamination are a ticking time bomb," Brockovich said.

Authorities have indicated a willingness to toughen legislation on the amount of nitrates farmers can use, but are still in the information gathering stage.

"It will take 10 years for the government to even regulate them," Brockovich said.

Of the 1,500 Porterville homes that are being connected to a larger water distribution network, only 10 percent are expected to be on-stream within the next year.

"If we don't do anything 80 percent of people (in parts of the Central Valley) could be impacted by nitrates by 2050," said Deborah Ores of the CWC.

Meanwhile, many of Porterville's residents are simply stuck, with no place else to go.

"We've seen people interested in buying the house," Chavez said of his property.

But when they find out about the nitrates, all hope will be lost, he said.

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For Some People in the U.S., Every Day is a Day without Water

By Nancy Stoner
September 14, 2016

Water is something that we easily take for granted. We wake up in the morning, stumble into the shower, brush our teeth, and brew our coffee without a second thought of how the abundance of clean water arrived at our tap. By the end of that routine, nearly 30 gallons of water has been used. Yet, as of 2015 more than 660 million people throughout the world still did not have access to clean water, spending large portions of the day walking miles to fetch water.

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Most people within the United States do not often consider what life would be like without water for a day, let alone for most of the time.  Imagine a Day without Water, September 15, 2016, is a day to help raise awareness and educate the American population on water, our most precious resource and one that is facing serious constraints.  This campaign is sponsored by Pisces Foundation’s grantee, US Water Alliance, and is implemented by the Value of Water Coalition. Raising awareness is possible in many ways, such as issuing a press release, sharing success stories, or participating on social media with the hashtag #valuewater. A full list of ways to participate can be found here.

It is easy to assume that most water related concerns are in other countries.  But that is not always true. Within California, according to Community Water Center(CWC), a well-respected grassroots organization working to address water and equity issues in California’s Central Valley, thousands of people in the San Joaquin River Basin in the southern Central Valley have no clean drinking water due to drought or contamination of ground water supplies with arsenic, nitrates, or pesticides. In 2014, within the San Joaquin Basin, 432 public water systems did not consistently meet safe drinking standards. These poor water conditions have been exacerbated by the five-year drought-year drought that California currently faces. Many domestic wells that are the primary source of water for poor, disadvantaged communities have gone dry. Water levels at more than 2,300 wells state-wide have been deemed critically low or dry.

At the Pisces Foundation, we are working to highlight and address drinking water quality issues throughout the US, including through an important meeting this week we helped design and co-funded where the focus is on how remote sensing technology can help. At a national level, we’re supporting efforts like NRDC’srecent report examining the scope of lead in drinking water.  To address the complexity of the problems in parts of California, our grantee, the Water Foundation, is working with the Community Water Center and other partners to advance statewide and local solutions in the San Joaquin Valley to build resiliency for vulnerable communities and support all human needs. CWC is helping create new water sources, such as hooking up homes to community water systems, building wells, and helping to ensure that broken and contaminated water distribution systems are repaired.

I had the good fortune to visit the San Joaquin Valley with Laurel Firestone of the Community Water Center several years ago. We toured through the Valley in a van, meeting up with local residents at schools, which is where most people have to go to pick up water for their homes and families.  Turnout was high throughout our tour as residents came out to explain their many years of efforts to obtain access to the safe tap water that the rest of us take for granted.  It left a deep impression on me.

Rebecca Quintana and her family are among those the Community Water Center is assisting. The Quintana family did not have normal, reliable deliveries of clean drinking when CWC helped install a new well for them in the fall of 2014. The Quintana family, like other residents of Seville, CA, had access only to ground water contaminated with nitrate at levels that were much higher than federal health standards deem safe.  But for the Quintanas and others, a new well is not the complete solution. The entire water distribution system must be replaced and be connected to an outside water source to ensure safe water for the residents of Seville.

The Pisces Foundation is proud to partner with the Water Foundation and the Community Water Center, and many other grantees committed to clean and safe drinking water.  Together, our goal is to make a day without water an imaginary world.  No one should have to live even one day without clean water.

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Address Agricultural Pollution

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  • Promote solutions and policies that reduce nitrate pollution from agricultural activities
  • Communicate the impacts of nitrate contamination in small, low-income communities to the public and decision-makers
  • Ensure that community impacts and solutions play a fundamental role in the development of policies that address the nitrogen impacts of agriculture

For most recent news stories check out our water blog, or the related articles columns on the right.

Contact


State Water Board Takes Step to Better Regulate Agricultural Pollution of Groundwater

Throughout California, groundwater nitrate contamination from agriculture is costing families, local governments and the state tens of millions of dollars a year. As an acute contaminant, nitrate poses great health risks to communities, especially to pregnant women and young babies. In February, after almost three years of review, the State Water Resources Control Board issued an updated draft general order regulating agricultural pollution of groundwater. This order has the potential to set the state on track to reduce nitrate pollution from agriculture.

CWC and our allies worked hard to ensure the Irrigated Lands Regulatory Program (ILRP) would regulate groundwater pollution from agriculture. However, as currently designed, the ILRP does not provide the field-level data that is vital to measuring and regulating nitrate pollution from agriculture. 

What’s proposed in the draft order is the bare minimum first step to start to get data about how current agricultural practices contribute to groundwater pollution. The new draft order allows the data that farmers are already reporting to be available to the public so that the state, researchers, and communities can understand the dynamics of nitrate use. Transparent data about multi-year nutrient loading is vital to successful local management of water quality and successful management throughout the Central Valley. 

Nitrate pollution already contaminates the drinking water relied on by a quarter of a million Californians. Unless we prevent ongoing contamination, by 2050, nearly 80 percent of the residents in the Tulare Lake Basin and Salinas Valley will be impacted by nitrate-contaminated drinking water. It’s time to provide safe, affordable drinking water to communities that are still lugging gallons of water into their homes every week. And to ensure a livable future for residents of our state's agricultural regions, where hundreds if not thousands of wells have had to be closed due to nitrate pollution, creating an extra financial burden on our communities.

CWC and our allies across the state are analyzing the draft general order and have spoken before the California Department of Food and Agriculture about the need for adequate data and transparency to understand nitrate pollution and work toward solutions. The revised order needs to ensure measurable and enforceable protections, and we look forward to working with the State Water Board to get it right.

 

The State Water Resources Control Board will hold two public workshops on the Eastern San Joaquin River Watershed Agricultural Order. The first will be on May 4th in Sacramento, and the second will be on May 17th in Fresno. Public comments on the proposed order are due by May 18th. If you would like to learn more and get involved in CWC's work to advance more sustainable agriculture, please contact CWC's Jenny Rempel at 916-706-3346.


Water in America: Is It Safe to Drink?

 


The West Virginia chemical spill brings attention to a broader national problem.

By Tim Friend
National Geographic

http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/02/140217-drinking-water-safety-west-virginia-chemical-spill-science/

(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.”

http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/02/140217-drinking-water-safety-west-virginia-chemical-spill-science/


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