Arsenic and a bad taste: Flawed water contamination study puts Sacramento area schools on the defense

Elk Grove district official says issues resolved at one elementary school

More than two dozen schools in Sacramento County may have unsafe drinking water flowing from their taps, according to a recent study.

That study, however, may be flawed.

Titled “Are We Providing Our School Kids Safe Drinking Water? An Analysis of California Schools Impacted by Unsafe Drinking Water,” the report’s authors—the Community Water Center and the Environmental Justice Coalition of Water—used environmental mapping data to examine schools that exceeded maximum contaminant levels as determined by the California State Water Resources Control Board. Some schools were connected to both public water systems and well water systems.

The water’s two most common pollutants were bacteria and arsenic, the latter of which can cause stomach pain, cancer, high blood pressure and cognitive delays in children, among other conditions.

In the Sacramento region, the study found 22 schools in the Elk Grove Unified and five schools in the Galt Union school districts with possible traces of arsenic in their water.

Robert Pierce, the associate superintendent of facilities and planning at Elk Grove Unified School District, said he was only aware of past water violations at one school—Franklin Elementary School.

And he could be right.

One of the report’s lead contributors, Jenny Rempel of the Community Water Center, a grassroots nonprofit located in the San Joaquin Valley, acknowledged the study’s limitations, saying it was based on incomplete and sometimes inconsistent tracking data from the state water board.

“Neither state nor local jurisdictions are maintaining records of local water system providers, so there really is a lot that isn’t being monitored at the state level,” she said.

Franklin Elementary experienced water violations in 2006, when, according to Pierce, the state revised its water toxicity from the federal level of 10 parts per billion to 4 parts per billion. Violations again surfaced in 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012, but the school was supplying bottled water to every student during that time, Pierce said.

“The safety of our students is paramount to the work that we do here,” he told SN&R.

None of the district’s schools have water contamination issues at this time, Pierce said.

Following the 2006 violation, the district applied for a facility hardship grant from the Office of Public School of Construction to help pay for a treatment facility, to decrease the arsenic levels in the school’s well water supply. It cost the district $91,021 to pay for bottled drinking water for four years before it acquired the grant to pay for half of the treatment facility, which cost $732,882 in total.

When the district first discovered how expensive the facility was, officials briefly considered sticking with the bottled water approach, Pierce acknowledged.

“I’m all for the state putting policies and procedures in place to make drinking water safer for our students, but when the state gives us a new requirement to live up to and absolutely no money to accomplish that, it is difficult,” he said. “There needs to be funding and resources to pay for these mandates.”

Officials at Galt Union School District didn’t respond to requests for comment.

The Central Valley had the greatest number of schools with potentially unsafe drinking water, according to the study, which indicated that as many as 1,600 public schools in California may have water contamination issues.

Children and pregnant women are particularly vulnerable to arsenic exposure.

The Environmental Justice Coalition of Water, which co-authored the study, is a statewide advocacy group focused on water access for low-income people and communities of color.

Rempel said the study was based on spatial analysis data provided by the state. Namely, “shapefiles”—a mapping format that depicts topographical features like water wells and bodies of water. But Rempel said it was possible that water systems might not always be accurately depicted. These shapefiles, she said, “definitely have some inaccuracies.”

Some schools also fell under overlapping geographic boundaries with two or more water systems, she said.