New Solutions for Long-Standing Drinking Water Pollution in Central Valley

Photo: jcheng/Flickr
Photo: jcheng/Flickr

Millions of Californians depend on a polluted water supply, but in the vast majority of places, the contamination is removed, and clean fresh water flows into homes, schools and businesses. Not so for as many as 160,000 people who regularly get doses of arsenic, nitrates, industrial solvents or bacterial contamination as they drink, cook and bathe. In some parts of the state, particularly in the San Joaquin Valley, water supplies are drying up altogether, because of the state’s drought. More than 100 water systems have run short of water, and the state has spent millions of dollars on emergency measures like providing bottled water to homes and schools.

In some communities like Lake of the Woods on the Kern-LA County line, nearly a thousand residents are battling both drying wells and contamination. The town is perched nearly a mile high in the Los Padres National Forest. On a warm fall day, silver maple and cottonwood leaves have yellowed, and glint golden in the sun and wind. The air feels crisp and clean. But the water is less than pristine.

“If they tell you babies can’t drink it, I don’t want to drink it either,” Janet Conner said.

Conner and her husband Bob own Lake of the Woods Mobile Home Park. Every three months, they must issue a notice to their 84 tenants—mostly retirees and young families— that the water poses a hazard to expectant mothers and infants under six months of age because it’s contaminated with nitrates. Nitrates can lower blood oxygen, causing so-called blue baby syndrome that results in illness and sometimes death, if untreated. Nitrate contamination is also common in agricultural areas like the San Joaquin and Salinas Valleys where nitrate-laden fertilizers seep into the soil.

Bob Conner blames the drought for the pollution. The creek that once ran in front of the Conner’s home during the fall and winter is bone dry. Rain and snow no longer recharge the groundwater that feeds his previously gushing well. Instead it produces a trickle of water that is likely drawing from local septic systems, and producing the contamination. He said he can’t keep up with the cost of testing and other state clean water requirements.

In 2014, Lake of the Woods was one of 17 communities the state warned was most in danger of running out of water altogether. And it wasn’t overstating the problem.

“The situation has been dire,” Pam Jarecki said. Jarecki is the office manager at Lake of the Woods Mutual Water Company, a title that significantly understates her responsibilities. She does it all at the small co-op, from sweeping floors to dealing with regulators and managing crises. The company serves 945 customers and is minutes from the Conner’s mobile home park.

Last summer, the community was so parched that the water company trucked in its supply from nearby towns. It dug three dry holes in search of water, and now, as with the mobile home park, state officials have given the company permission to serve nitrate contaminated water with a warning to customers until it can address its multiple problems: pollution, dwindling supply and 70-year old pipes that leak some 35 percent of the water that moves through them.

But, hope is in sight. The perfect storm of short supply, contamination and aging infrastructure that battered Lake of the Woods has forced a solution, at least one that regulators hope will provide clean fresh water for a long time.

Lake of the Woods Mutual Water Company plans to join forces with the mobile home park, a nearby church with its own well and the larger Frazier Park Public Utilities District whose water is not contaminated. The decision to join with Frazier Park was a no-brainer, Jarecki said.

“You’re giving us a lifeline? Yes, because we’ve struggled so much.”

State officials pitched in, too. They connected Lake of the Woods with Visalia-based Self Help Enterprises, a non-profit housing developer that has increasingly turned its focus on solving the San Joaquin Valley’s intractable water issues.

“We’re running into more people with contamination issues,” Self Help’s Dave Warner said. “There are nitrates up and down the valley and schools with arsenic or nitrate contamination.”

Warner has helped the community apply for grant funding to plan for the merger with Frazier Park, and install new pipes and water meters to trace the source of leaks. Lake of the Woods is considered economically disadvantaged with many retirees among its residents; it would have been next to impossible for its small population to bear the several million dollar cost of the project.

In recent years, as communities up and down the state have faced issues similar to the ones in Lake of the Woods, state officials have devised new fixes.

The state’s $7.5 billion state water bond, approved by the voters in 2014, has dramatically increased the amount available for water projects. It has provided $260 million for safe drinking water projects in small rural communities, but it’s not enough to assist about 400 small water systems and schools that can’t deliver safe clean water, said Ellen Hanak, who directs the water policy center at the Public Policy Institute of California.

“A lot of folks in rural areas have been able to rely on groundwater wells, which were a cheap source of water,” Hanak said.   “The problem comes now with in some cases, wells going dry.”

It costs about $30,000 to drill a new well, Hanak noted, prohibitive for many working families.

She puts the funding gap for such projects—both to help with supply and contamination— at $30 to $160 million annually. She noted that the water bond has helped a great deal with capital improvements, but smaller water systems will need help with operating costs, if they have to maintain treatment systems or face other issues.

A patchwork of 3,000 residential water systems operate in the state, from major city utilities like the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power to mom and pop operations like the Lake of the Woods mobile home park. More than 500 systems serve 75 people or fewer, and many of those serve low income residents in rural areas.

A number of the state’s systems grapple with contaminants like nitrates, or arsenic which is naturally occurring and can cause cancer at high enough concentrations. In others, carcinogenic solvents, the result of industrial pollution, or DBCP, a banned pesticide lurk in higher than legal amounts. Still others battle the most common contaminant, coliform bacteria, which indicates that e coli, which causes flu-like symptoms, may be present in the water, while some systems find they have a cocktail of more than one pollutant present at unsafe levels.

Smaller water systems are short on technical and managerial expertise and don’t have enough customers to absorb the cost of water treatment.

Last year, the legislature passed bills that will facilitate consolidation of small companies creating more viable economies of scale. Lawmakers have also given regulators the authority to force consolidations in cases in which the parties can’t agree to get together but where a merger is the only way to provide water to customers. Six such mergers have been initiated so far.

Lake of the Woods expects its headaches to ease in five years when its project is set to be completed. And, its residents pray for rain and snow with its assurance of the clean fresh water they enjoyed before the drought.

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