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Report warns of increased nitrate risk in drinking water

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A report this week by the Pacific Institute puts a human face on the nitrate contamination problem that threatens the drinking water of millions of Californians – and shows the state has yet to allocate voter-approved money to help the worst hit communities get access to clean water.

An investigation by California Watch and KQED found the drinking water of more than 2 million Californians has been exposed to harmful levels of nitrates in the last 15 years, as decades of heavy fertilizers make their way into the groundwater. We showed how state regulators have failed to adopt a strong enforcement policy against nitrate pollution, a preventable problem that continues to grow.

Excessive levels of nitrates can cause blue baby syndrome, which cuts off oxygen to the heart, brain and other essential organs.

The Pacific Institute report is the first-ever attempt to quantify the human costs of nitrate contamination in the San Joaquin Valley, and it concludes that if current trends continue, the number of wells exceeding the health limit for nitrates in Kern County alone will double in the next 10 years.

An analysis of state records reveals that 35 percent of the San Joaquin Valley’s residents are dogged by serious nitrate problems in their drinking water – that’s 1.3 million people.

But many communities aren’t even aware there’s a problem. In a survey of four communities in Tulare County with nitrate contamination, many residents had not been informed of nitrates in their water or were under the mistaken impression that boiling the water can remove the nitrates.

“In one place that had nitrate contamination for 10 years, one-third of the community is still using their tap water in some way. For Spanish speakers, the number was even higher,” Eli Moore, a lead researcher on the report, told California Watch.

On March 20, the Assembly Committee on Water, Park and Wildlife is likely to debate a bill that would make the human right to clean water a statewide policy. If it passes, it will guarantee that all Californians receive proper notification about the quality of their drinking water.

Some of the poorest households surveyed are spending up to $65 a month on regular water utility bills, plus buying bottled water to drink and cook with. Small communities across California are left to fend for themselves when they aren’t big enough to justify installing a major water treatment plant to remove nitrates.

The most logical long-term solution is to go after the nitrate problem at its source. A report by Food & Water Watch, released in February, criticizes the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board for failing to go after the most egregious polluters – industrial-sized dairies with a long history of polluting precious freshwater aquifers in the Central Valley with nitrates.

The Central Valley is home to the most densely concentrated cattle industry in the country – see a nationwide map here. The report links dairies with exceedingly high nitrate levels to the communities that surround them – 85 percent of dairies in the valley are located within 300 feet of a domestic well that provides water to someone living nearby.

California Watch reported that 65 percent of the valley’s 1,500 dairies exceed the public health limit for nitrates, and 42 percent of wells had nitrate levels that were twice the drinking water standard.

The State Water Resources Control Board has a mandate to enforce state drinking water laws, which protect groundwater. In 2007, its regional agency, the Central Valley Water Quality Control Board, passed a rule requiring dairies to test their own groundwater wells and come up with a plan to limit the amount of manure slurry they dump on nearby lands.

Echoing our reporting, Food & Water Watch concludes that the water board has repeatedly failed to step in and penalize dairies that exceed allowable nitrate limits. According to the report, only 9 percent of dairies with nitrates at twice the legal limit have received enforcement letters. Of 75 “high risk” dairies with the most dangerous nitrate problems, eight have installed the required monitoring wells, but regulators aren’t pressing the others to comply.

Both the Pacific Institute and Food & Water Watch call for a comprehensive statewide program to monitor groundwater quality, since officials are often hamstrung by the fact that no one really knows what’s in our groundwater aquifers. They also call for more money for Regional Water Quality Control Board enforcement staff, which is a long shot in today’s budget environment.

In the short term, the state needs to appropriate Proposition 84 money – approved in 2006 – it has already promised to communities struggling with nitrate problems. Of the $61.9 million needed to address nitrate problems in communities across California, the U.S. Department of Agriculture funded only $21 million worth of projects between 2005 and 2009.

 

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