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California | Central Valley | Environment & Forest Defense | Government & Elections | Health, Housing, and Public Services

Health and Safety Gaps in Safe Drinking and Clean Water Acts
by by Patrick Porgans and Lloyd G. Carter
Thursday May 23rd, 2013 11:20 AM
Since 1978 the State has received on average $600 million to $800 million annually for clean water programs that are administered by the State Water Resources Control Board (State Water Board) through the Clean Water State Revolving Fund. EPA officials estimate California needs $39 billion in capital improvements through 2026 for water systems to continue providing safe drinking water to the public. Instead, Gov. Brown is pushing a $14 billion twin tunnel project to ship relatively clean Sacramento River water around the beleaguered Delta estuary to western San Joaquin Valley mega-farms and Southern California development interests.
Health and Safety Gaps in Safe Drinking and Clean Water Acts

by Patrick Porgans and Lloyd G. Carter, Part One of a two-part series

The Legislature finds and declares all of the following:
(a) Every citizen of California has the right to pure and safe drinking water.
(b) Feasible and affordable technologies are available and shall be used to remove toxic contaminants from public water supplies.
Health and Safety Code sections 116270, subdivisions (a) and (b).

In the heart of California's farm country, San Joaquin Valley growers get better quality river water for irrigation while farmworkers, farm families and rural communities often get polluted groundwater unfit to drink.

Making matters worse, California officials have known for decades that groundwater used for drinking and home use is polluted by pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, industrial wastes and "treated" city waste water, but have done little to take advantage of nearly half a billion dollars in federal low interest loans available to address the problem.

The Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) is the main federal law that ensures the quality of Americans' drinking water. Under SDWA, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sets standards for drinking water quality and oversees the states, localities, and water suppliers who implement those standards. The 1996 amendments to the SDWA created the Safe Drinking Water Revolving Fund (SDWRF). The SDWRF is a loan program for states that provides low-cost financing to eligible entities within a state and tribal lands for public and private water systems infrastructure projects needed to achieve or to maintain compliance with SDWA requirements and to protect public health. Small water systems and disadvantaged communities are given higher funding priority.

However, according to an April 19 letter from EPA’s Regional Administrator, Jared Blumenfeld, to Dr. Ron Chapman, Director of the California Department of Health (CDPH), California has failed to properly administer and disburse $455 million of the $1.5 billion made available beginning in 1996. Blumenfeld said California has the worst record of all 50 states in failing to take advantage of the federal grant money. In recent years, California has received an estimated $80 million in federal money annually for the fund. The state provides a 20 percent match and manages the loan repayments which helps replenish the fund, according to the Associated Press.

Blumenfeld's letter is the first “Determination of Noncompliance” notice issued to the CDPH, according to EPA staff. However, back in 2002 EPA issued a determination of noncompliance to the State Water Resources Control Board, for similar reasons, citing mismanagement and misuse of federal funds provided to the State under the provisions of the Clean Water Act section 602(b) and 40 CFR part 35.3013(c). According to EPA the State Water Board has been in compliance since the 2002 notice.

In his letter to CDPH, Blumenfeld cited administrative problems, insufficient staff and unqualified personnel at CDPH as causes for non-compliance. However, EPA allows for the state to use four percent of the grant and loan funds towards administrative and personnel costs. Ironically, EPA reported that CDPH had more than $6.4 million at its disposal for such costs but did not use it.

Since 1978 the State has received on average $600 million to $800 million annually for clean water programs that are administered by the State Water Resources Control Board (State Water Board) through the Clean Water State Revolving Fund. EPA officials estimate California needs $39 billion in capital improvements through 2026 for water systems to continue providing safe drinking water to the public. Instead, Gov. Brown is pushing a $14 billion twin tunnel project to ship relatively clean Sacramento River water around the beleaguered Delta estuary to western San Joaquin Valley mega-farms and Southern California development interests.

Under the revolving fund, the State Water Board is supposed to provide financial assistance through various State and federal loan and grant programs to help local agencies, businesses, and individuals meet the costs of water pollution control, development of locally available sustainable water supplies, and cleanup.

But what has happened is that significant portions of those federal funds have been expended on band-aid attempts to deal with the discharge of billions of gallons of highly contaminated wastewater and runoff resulting from agricultural drainage; one of the State’s major unresolved sources of pollution of both surface and ground water supplies. This farm drainage water discharged into the lower Delta contains pesticides and the trace element selenium, which caused the poisoning of fish and birds at Kesterson National Wildlife Refuge in Merced County three decades ago.

Another major source of surface and groundwater contamination results from the annual application of toxic pesticides. “Pesticide use in California rose in 2010 after declining for four consecutive years," according to data released in December 28, 2011 by the California Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR). "More than 173 million pounds of pesticides were reported applied statewide, an increase of nearly 15 million pounds – or 9.5 percent – from 2009. The increase reflected a 15 percent jump in acres treated with pesticides – up 9.7 million acres to a total of 75 million acres in 2010," The DPR data stated.

Pesticide use varies from year to year depending on many factors, including weather, pest problems, economics and types of crops planted. Increases and decreases in pesticide use from one year to the next or in the span of a few years do not necessarily indicate a trend.

The greatest pesticide use occurs in the San Joaquin Valley. Indeed, the San Joaquin Valley is probably the most chemically-drenched landscape in the world. The top five counties in order of most pesticide pounds applied in 2010 were Fresno, Kern, Tulare, San Joaquin and Madera. All are major producers of agricultural products. All of those counties receive subsidized water from government projects.

Pesticides have been detected in the sources of water suppliers serving 16.5 million people in 46 of California’s 58 counties over the past ten years, according to a 1999 California Public Interest Research Group Charitable Trust report titled, “Toxics on Tap." That report has not been updated.

In January of this year the State Water Board issued a report, entitled "Communities That Rely on a Contaminated Groundwater Source for Drinking Water", which states:

"This report identifies 680 community water systems that, prior to any treatment, relied on a contaminated groundwater source during the most recent California Department of Public Health (CDPH) compliance cycle (2002-2010). It is important to note that, according to CDPH, over 98% of Californians on public water supply are served safe drinking water. Although many water suppliers draw from contaminated groundwater sources, most suppliers are able to treat the water or blend it with cleaner supplies before serving it to the public. Consequently, when this report refers to communities that rely on contaminated groundwater, it is referring to community public water systems that draw water from one or more contaminated groundwater wells prior to any treatment or blending."

Some community water systems, however, cannot afford treatment or lack alternative water sources, and have served water that exceeds a public drinking water standard. Of the 680 community water systems that rely on a contaminated groundwater source, 265 have served water that exceeded a public drinking water standard during the most recent CDPH compliance cycle (2002-2010).

One should view skeptically the state claim that 98 percent of drinking supplies are "safe" to drink. It is the water purveyor, which can be a small company with 10 connections, that collects the "grab samples" for testing. Under this self-policing system, there is no quality control or quality assurance work done by the California Department of Public Health.

Bruce Burton, Chief of the CDPH’s Northern Branch concedes this self-policing system can be a problem but he points out that the State is not required by law to conduct quality assurance or quality control of water quality sampling. Burton conceded his department is not conducting any research as to the synergistic effects (two harmless substances can become dangerous when combined) of pesticides found in public drinking water supplies.

According to a May 2011 report by the California Senate Office of Research:

“[E]valuating how the state’s drinking water quality has changed over the years is difficult, as drinking water standards have become tougher, technology to measure contaminant levels has improved, and the number of water systems being monitored and evaluated has increased. One of the California Safe Drinking Water Act’s provisions requires the state Drinking Water Program to submit to the California Legislature a comprehensive Safe Drinking Water Plan. This plan must include the California Department of Public Health’s assessment of the overall quality of the state’s drinking water, the identification of specific water quality problems, an analysis of the known and potential health risks that may be associated with drinking water contamination in California, and specific recommendations to improve drinking water quality. The last (and only) plan was submitted in 1993. As a result, the California Department of Health is being sued for not preparing a Safe Drinking Water Plan, as required by Health and Safety Code Section 116355 (Gonzales et al. v. Horton and California Department of Public Health, Court of Appeal, Fifth Appellate District No. F060147 [Superior Court No. 09CECG03979]). Without a report card on the quality of the state’s drinking water, California residents and policy makers are unable to easily assess whether their water is safe to drink—or even how their drinking water has improved over time.”

In the CDPH 2011 annual compliance report, it said that there were 936 violations of drinking water standards by water delivery agencies or companies involving inorganic contaminants above maximum allowable contaminant levels, with arsenic accounting for 638 of those violations. The CDPH report says erosion of natural deposits account for a "major" source of arsenic contamination but runoff from orchards, and wastes from glass and electronics production also contribute to the problem. Excess arsenic in drinking water can cause skin damage, circulatory problems and may increase the chance of getting cancer.

Nitrates accounted for 280 of the 936 violations with the primary sources of nitrates or nitrites being fertilizers, sewage and wastes from humans and animals and some industrial processes. Excess levels of nitrates can cause serious illness and even death in infants under six months of ages, whose health can deteriorate in a matter of days when tainted water is used with baby formula.

The CDPH 2011 report said DBCP, a pesticide banned in 1978, accounted for all 14 violations of the maximum contaminant loads for synthetic organic contaminants in groundwater drinking supplies. The report said long-term consumption of DBCP tainted water could lead to reproductive problems and/or an increased risk of cancer. In the late 1970s, while conducting pesticide monitoring, Patrick Porgans found DBCP coming out of the drinking water taps at Disneyland, which was included in the Los Angeles Times' series "The Poisoning of America."

If the State continues to sanction the pollutions of the waters it is entrusted to protect it would appear that the public is expending a vast sum of money to subsidize a losing battle to attain a clean, safe and reliable source of drinking water.

Assemblyman Henry T. Perea of Fresno is pushing a bill in the state Legislature that would shift drinking water enforcement from the Department of Public Health to the State Water Board. According to a recent analysis from the Legislative Analyst Office (LAO), it was found that the Water Board delivers federal dollars to the communities faster than CDPH. The LAO has concluded that moving the drinking water program has many long term advantages such as increased transparency and greater public participation, policy integration with other water issues and increased administrative capacity.

“It is a shame that $455 million in allocated federal funding for our citizen’s safe drinking water has not been spent,” said Perea. “For the past two years I have worked tirelessly to expedite the funding process as this is more than a governance problem – it is community health problem. Our communities should not have to fight so hard to get access to clean and affordable drinking water.”

Perea is also a member of the Latino Water Coalition, which is considered a front group for western San Joaquin Valley agribusiness. Thus, while he supports clean drinking water for impoverished farmworker hamlets, he also supports an agribusiness industry which is polluting the entire aquifer under the San Joaquin Valley.

The Fresno Bee recently published a series titled "Living in a Toxic Land" about the environmental risks for people living in rural areas of the Valley. Bee writer Mark Grossi noted that people living in the southwest corner of Fresno County in the town of Lanare (population 590) could not drink local groundwater because of arsenic contamination. Lanare resides were driving to Riverdale, four miles away, to buy water dispensed from machines, which did not treat the water for arsenic contamination. The California Rural Legal Assistance, said water from the machines was found to contain three times the safety limit for arsenic. Now, Lanare residents have to drive to Fresno, 20 miles away, to get bottled water. For poor families, the expense is extremely difficult to bear.

The Community Water Center in Visalia, the county seat of Tulare County, has been fighting for clean water for years. Tulare County has more drinking water pollution problems than any other county in California. Water Center officials say more than 326,700 San Joaquin Valley residents were served water with levels of contamination over a legal limit in 2006, primarily due to bacteria, nitrates, arsenic, and disinfectant byproducts. In 2007, 75 percent of all nitrate health standard violations in California were found in the San Joaquin Valley, impacting over 275,000 people. These figures are from seven years ago and the problem has only grown worse.

One of the strangest things about all of this is that the federal government is pushing projects to clean up polluted groundwater while the state government allows tens of millions of pounds of pesticides, nitrates and other pollutants to continue polluting groundwater aquifers. And thousands of individual homeowner wells and farm and ranch wells throughout the state are not tested at all. Those rural families are playing Russian Roulette with their health. Compounding the pesticide and synthetic fertilizer problems, there are two million dairy cows in the San Joaquin Valley (equivalent to 20 million human beings) generating huge amounts of nitrates in animal wastes. Animal wastes account for about 30 percent of the nitrogen fertilizer used annually in California, and it is estimated that 600,000 tons of synthetic nitrogen fertilizers are applied in the state annually. Dairy lagoons containing these wastes leak into the aquifer below. There is no end in sight for the dairy pollution.
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Editor's Note: Part Two, to run in the near future, will examine California's method of accounting for pesticide sales and use and whether the numbers add up, and will also take a close look at how the state has bamboozled the public into spending billions on water bonds which promise "clean, safe, reliable" water but do not deliver and, in fact, are threatening to help break the state's budget.