Dirty drinking: Water systems in Davis and Woodland out of compliance with safety standards, state agency says

Nearly 9 percent of California’s public water systems violate state and federal drinking water standards

This story was made possible by a grant from Tower Cafe.
This is an extended version of a story that ran in the February 23, 2017, issue.

While Gov. Jerry Brown promotes his multibillion-dollar vision of two tunnels to deliver Sacramento River water to farms and cities in Southern California, communities around the state lack water clean enough to safely drink.

Nearly 300 public water systems are currently “out of compliance” with standards on drinking water quality, according to a report published online on February 13 by the state Water Resources Control Board. These systems serve just shy of 700,000 people and in many cases are delivering water containing known carcinogens at levels exceeding state and federal limits.

“And we know even those numbers are underestimates, because their newly released data doesn’t include [such contaminants as] chromium 6, 1,2,3-trichloropropane and bacterial violations,” said Phoebe Seaton, co-director of the Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability, a Fresno-based organization that focuses on water quality issues in the San Joaquin Valley. Seaton added that the report didn’t include 1.5 million Californians served by private wells and other water systems.

Of the state’s 3,327 public water systems, precisely 292, according to the report, were found to be in violation of state and federal drinking water standards.

Among them is Davis, where one of the city’s public water systems has three times violated the maximum contaminant levels for nitrate, a contaminant often associated with livestock waste and fertilizers. Woodland has also had problems with some of its water, with tests finding more than the legal nitrate limit. Public water systems in Robbins, Rio Vista and Courtland collectively have dozens of violations on record for exceeding the limit for arsenic, a known carcinogen that often occurs naturally but sometimes can be traced back to agricultural sources.

The report comes one year after the water resources board officially deemed the human right to water “a top priority and core value” of the state. The report also came just days after a February 8 hearing in Sacramento, where the state water board listened to tearful testimony from San Joaquin Valley residents who described drinking off-color or foul-smelling tap water, showering with water carried home in buckets, and rationing supplies of bottled water in schools for fear of running out.

Celedina Chavez, from Arvin, Kern County, begged for help. “Our water is not drinkable,” she said. “There’s no good water. Please hear us how badly we need clean water.”

East Porterville, an unincorporated community at the western base of the southern Sierra Nevada, has been stricken by water woes for years. Resident Tomas Garcia told the board he and his family had no drinkable water for two years. “This is a basic human right,” Garcia said. “You guys have the power [to help], but it has to be today. We can’t wait until tomorrow.”

State assistance for affected communities has been limited. Even $260 million in water bond money, to ensure disadvantaged communities have clean drinking water, supports only upfront construction costs, not maintenance and operations, said Laurel Firestone, the co-executive director of the Community Water Center, a clean-water advocacy group with offices in Sacramento and Visalia. “You can build a treatment plant, but if you can’t afford to run the plant, you won’t have clean water,” Firestone said.

In the community of Lanare, in Fresno County, for example, a treatment facility was built in 2006 with $1.3 million in federal funds. However, the plant—intended to remove arsenic from the groundwater below the community of about 600 people—operated for only a few months before shutting down.

“The bill for operating the plant was $100 per resident per month, and they couldn’t afford it,” said Amanda Monaco, who has worked closely with residents of Lanare in her role as a policy advocate with the Fresno-based Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability, a nonprofit that advocates on behalf of poor, rural communities.

The Community Water Center and the Leadership Counsel have been lobbying the state Legislature to create a public fund for operation and maintenance of water treatment systems, and lawmakers are listening. On February 17, state Sen. Bill Monning introduced a bill that would create just such a fund. If Senate Bill 623 becomes law, the treatment plant in Lanare, for example, might rev back to life.

Ideally, Firestone says, polluting industries would be held financially responsible for contaminants traceable to their operations, with the general public footing the bill for naturally occurring contaminants.

Polling has shown that most Californians would be willing to pay to improve public access to clean water, Firestone says. “People care, but to get funding for operations and maintenance, we need political leadership,” she said.

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to more clearly reflect the water systems affected in Yolo County.