By Rebecca Wolfson
It started in 2001, and mostly affected the very young and the very old. Peoples’ hair would fall out, their skin would break out in rashes and their eyes would turn red after showers.
“That was how people were hurt on the outside,” said Horacio Amezquita, manager of the San Jerardo Cooperative. “On the inside, we don’t know.”
Amezquita, a former farm worker, lives at the cooperative, which houses about 250 low-income people. Many of the residents work on nearby farms that use nitrogen-based fertilizers to help crops grow.
But the very fertilizers that keep these farms in business leach into the soil and into the drinking water.
A report released last year by California Watch and The Center for Investigative Reporting revealed that the number of wells that exceeded health limits for nitrates increased from nine in 1980 to 648 in 2007. That includes the water supply of more than 2 million Californians.
Nitrate-contaminated water can lead to serious health problems, including methemoglobinemia, or “Blue Baby Syndrome,” a disease that develops when an infant’s organs, cells and tissues do not receive enough oxygen.
Studies have also linked nitrates with cancer, Crohn’s disease, thyroid disruption and depression, among other illnesses. Regions with the highest nitrate pollution include major agricultural regions, such as the Imperial, Central, Salinas, and other coastal valleys in California. Regulators classify nitrates as acute contaminants, which means people can experience severe reactions with only one taste, or one glass.
In San Jerardo, officials replaced the contaminated well with a new well, which also became contaminated. They implemented new filtration systems. The water would get cleaned up, but eventually the nitrates would re-enter the aquifer. In December 2010 the community received a new well, and subsequently, safe drinking water, but residents now bear the brunt of the costs. Co-op members pay $100 to $150 per month for water.
Roger Briggs, an executive officer with the Regional Water Quality Control Board of the Central California Region, describes the scope of the nitrate problem as unprecedented. “Usually, if there’s a discharge, it’s at one point. It’s usually just in one location, one relatively small location,” Briggs said. “But this is not the case with this issue.”
Nine regional water quality control boards administer water quality regulations in the state. Four of those regions, including The Central Coast, Central Valley, Los Angeles and San Diego regions, have adopted “conditional ag waivers,” which require owners of irrigated farmland to control discharges, and require growers to implement Best Management Practices in an effort to prevent pollutants from entering the groundwater.
Last year the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Board submitted a proposal that would involve more stringent regulations of businesses categorized as Tier 3 operations. Farmers and growers who use a certain amount of nitrogen-based fertilizers, or who own operations that are located on impaired bodies of water, will receive Tier 3 classifications.
The agricultural industry opposes the measure. A coalition of more than 50 farm groups and individual growers presented an alternative plan to the board when it was reviewed last year.
“The staff proposal that is out there will add significant costs to all growers, but particularly Tier 3, and it may be very difficult for some growers to continue,” said Danny Merkley, director of water resources at the California Farm Bureau Federation.
“We are competing in a global market where you can ship fresh products anywhere in the world and have them here any time overnight,” Merkley said. The Central Coast region includes many smaller growers who can’t bear the economic challenge, he said.
About 3,000 operations on the Central Coast will be classified as Tier 3 operations.
Under the proposed waiver, Tier 3 facilities will have to monitor runoff for toxicity, nitrates and the pesticides Diazinon and Chlorpyrifos. The waiver would also require farmers and growers to implement detailed nutrient and irrigation management plans.
“If the regional board passes the rules they’ve drafted, it will be the most rigorous regulations of discharges that exist,” said Steve Shimek, program manager for Monterey Coastkeeper and executive director of The Otter Project.
Instead of building new wells and filtrations systems after nitrates already enter aquifers, Amezquita said farmers should prevent harmful runoff from entering the water supply in the first place.
“Farmers need to be educated and we need to implement the best conservation measures,” Amezquita said. Otherwise, the burden of contaminated water will simply shift over to future generations.