The cost of clean water

The Central Valley is plagued with contaminated drinking water

Judith Redmond is a partner at Full Belly Farm in the Capay Valley.

Water that is safe to drink, straight from the kitchen tap, is more of a luxury than we realize. There are many places around the world where access to safe drinking water is either nonexistent, or only available for a high price. When Californians visit Mexico, we all grab the bottled water, and if we stay with friends or go to restaurants, we hesitate before eating fresh vegetables in case they might have been washed with dirty water.

But did you know that six million of your fellow Californians are also forced to drink out of plastic bottles? Not because they prefer the taste, but because the water in their communities is in violation of health standards. Most of the problem water is in the Central Valley and Central Coast regions, where the State Water Resources Control Board says that contaminated water is “ubiquitous.” These are highly productive agricultural regions, and they also happen to be the home of 80 percent of California’s 1.8 million adult cows.

One of the most serious water quality offenders in California is nitrate, which causes serious health problems for children and pregnant women and is associated with certain cancers. A recent multiyear study at UC Davis estimated that 550,000 tons of nitrogen fertilizer, 240,000 tons of manure nitrogen, and 4,000 tons of urban and food processing waste effluent nitrogen “are annually applied to or recycled in Central Valley agricultural lands for food production.” Some of the nitrate in these sources leaches to groundwater. The UC Davis study, measuring nitrate loading from various sources, is one of the most complete and meaningful reports in decades.

Because agriculture is demonstrably a major source of the problem, the regulators have their sights trained on California’s farmers. Back in 2012, when the state started really looking into it, another report from UC Davis, this time addressing regulatory options, stated, “Current regulatory programs have not effectively controlled groundwater nitrate contamination, and water quality in these areas has largely worsened for decades, a trend which seems likely to continue. Looking forward, promising options exist to manage nitrate contamination of groundwater, but it will take years to decades for source-control programs introduced today to improve drinking water quality.” This report attempted to be optimistic about the regulatory options, but the effort to find a solution has been messy and divisive, with groups representing agriculture, affected communities and the environment all at each other’s throats.

The resulting massive “Irrigated Lands Regulatory Program,” with its extensive monitoring and reporting, doesn’t have a lot of friends in farming country, and I think may be completely unknown in urban circles. With six million acres of irrigated farmland enrolled in the program, farmers are paying well over $22 million dollars a year, and the costs are rising annually.

What to do? Fertilizers are currently exempt from sales tax, and some analysts recommended a fee on the nitrogen in fertilizer as a funding source for cleanup programs, but political realities make this a tough lift. I do think that it could have been an interesting part of a solution because the increased costs would have created incentives for farmers to use fertilizer more efficiently.

Organic farmers, using fertilizers that are much less water-soluble than those used in conventional agriculture, know that their best management practices contribute significantly less to the problem, but the state’s program paints all farmers with the same broad brush. A regulatory approach that rewarded good practices would be a good idea.

The Irrigated Lands Regulatory Program took a different path. It’s too early to tell the results. Will it reduce nitrate leaching into groundwater? At least six million Californians hope so.