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California lawmakers scramble to make drinking water a right

Fellowship Story Showcase

California lawmakers scramble to make drinking water a right

Picture of Sara  Rubin

In July 2011, the Monterey County Health Department sent out a notice: “We are requiring the use of bottled water or water from an approved source for drinking or cooking." The notice included this message about corrective action: “Research is being done to find another water source.” But as a 2013 California Endowment Health Journalism Fellow, Sara Rubin found that two years later there’s been little progress.

California lawmakers scramble to make drinking water a right
Meanwhile, contamination in Monterey County is getting worse
Monterey County Weekly
Friday, June 14, 2013

It was the birds that signaled to Maria Velasquez that the water had gotten really bad. She’d been keeping eight green and blue parakeets, and giving them only bottled water to drink for months.

“Then I gave them water from the faucet, and within a week, they were dead,” she says.

It’s the same water Velasquez uses to brush her teeth, though she’s careful not to swallow.

Velasquez lives in San Lucas, a tiny South County community with stray dogs and dusty streets and a three-room school for grades K-8. There’s little by way of green grass this time of year, though she’s laid artificial turf in front of her house.

The water’s been awful ever since Velasquez moved here from Mexico, by way of Greenfield. It turns white clothing yellow and leaves dark rings around the toilet bowl. Velasquez’ hair always seems to be falling out, something she demonstrates by running her hand gently through her long, dark ponytail and coming out with a handful of loose strands.

“The 23 years I’ve lived here, the water has always been bad,” Velasquez says.

For decades, she had complaints, but she could drink the water. Two years ago, that changed. “We are requiring the use of bottled water or water from an approved source for drinking or cooking,” a July 7, 2011 notice from the Monterey County Health Department reads.

Testing by the health department’s Environmental Health Bureau showed nitrate levels exceeded both state and federal standards. Boiling the water just concentrates nitrates further. The notice included this message about corrective action: “Research is being done to find another water source.”

Nearly two years later, there’s been little progress.

That’s sadly typical of contaminated water supplies in poor, rural towns like San Lucas and others scattered across the county and the state.

It’s something most of us take for granted, without even noticing – filling up a pot of water to boil pasta, feeding pets, handing a child a glass of water.

Assemblyman Luis Alejo, D-Watsonville, has been shepherding 10 bills through the Legislature that would free up funding and streamline bureaucratic processes when it comes to drinking-water improvements across California.

“Drinking water is a basic human right,” Alejo said at a recent Assembly committee hearing. It’s also a basic necessity, that which makes life possible.

While the popular changes Alejo proposes have bipartisan support, all are downstream of the problem. Trying to address nitrates upstream at their probable source – fertilizers on the crops that most San Lucas residents base their livelihoods on – leads to a regulatory and political tangle.

~ ~ ~

Ribbons of color line Las Colinas Ranch near San Lucas, strips of red and green lettuces and feathery carrot tops. Mission Ranches farms some 1,200 acres in South County, most of it organically.

In the middle of those fields is a well that pumps water about a mile uphill to a holding tank in San Lucas, and from there to people’s homes.

In the past seven years, grower John Romans has torn up hundreds of acres of vineyards, replacing them with row crops that require more intensive fertilizer to grow. Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board officials analyzed that change in farming practices – along with the hydrology of the region – and determined Mission Ranches was to blame for the contamination.

Last month, the water board ordered Romans and landowner Wendell Naraghi to provide drinking water in San Lucas. That means they foot the bill, about $2,400 a month since July 1, 2012, for jugs to supply about 450 residents and the 70-student San Lucas School.

In effect, the order just codifies an existing agreement; Mission Ranches and Naraghi had already been paying voluntarily. Romans is preparing a work plan to submit to the water board by the end of June, laying out proposed next steps. He’s prepared to offer to pay for a new, deeper well – which could run about $500,000.

There are three main ways forward for San Lucas: digging that deeper well; pumping Salinas River water, which would require a costly treatment plant; or consolidating with King City’s privately owned utility, Cal Water, which also supplies the city of Salinas, where Cal Water is requesting a 26-percent rate hike next year.

The San Lucas Water District occupies a small office and is open just a few hours a week. When it came time to apply for grant funds from the Safe Drinking Water State Revolving Fund, administered by the California Department of Public Health (CDPH), the county Board of Supervisors took over.

“They don’t have the technical or managerial wherewithal to maintain this system,” says County Supervisor Simon Salinas, whose district includes San Lucas. He favors annexation by King City’s system as the most viable solution.

“That’s not something we’re interested in,” San Lucas Water District board member Jodilyn Barker says. “We want to keep it here in San Lucas.”

The county applied in October, on behalf of the water district, for $465,000 from CDPH’s revolving fund to conduct a feasibility study on the possible solutions.

The current well, located on land owned by Naraghi, has been in violation of the nitrate standard for two years, and total dissolved solids standards – or water hardness – for five.

The county expects a response from CDPH by the end of July. But whether or not the money comes through, Romans is planning his own solution: Drill a new, deeper well along the tree-studded east bank of the Salinas River.

And he’s not waiting around for the county’s study.

“I don’t know why they put the well here, in the middle of an agricultural operation,” he says. “We have a solution. We don’t have time for the county.”

He plans to apply for permits later this summer and ask county planners to waive fees, grant a lot-line adjustment and expedite his application. He fears the San Lucas well could collapse entirely after years of deferred maintenance.

But even if Romans fronts the cost, there’s no way to assure residents their rates won’t rise in the future.

“Here’s the problem,” says Jeanette Pantoja, who directs the Salinas Valley Safe Drinking Water Project for the nonprofit California Rural Legal Assistance. “The requirement of the [Water Board’s] order is to find a new drinking water source, but that doesn’t necessarily deal with the biggest vulnerabilities of these small systems, which is the ongoing operations and maintenance cost.”

San Lucas residents pay about $75 a month in winter (and more in the drier summer months) for water they can’t drink or cook with.

Maria Velasquez isn’t convinced the water district is listening. She plans to run for a seat on the San Lucas Water District board in November, which would be the 59-year-old’s first bid for public office. Of the current board, she says, “When we invite them to community meetings, nobody comes.”

Her issues are mostly with bottled water delivery logistics, which Romans, the Mission Ranches owner, is working to resolve.

“Before we started giving them free water, everyone bought it for $1.25 anyway,” he says. “They’re getting a good deal. They shouldn’t complain.”

~ ~ ~

Nitrates have no taste or smell, making them impossible for people to detect in drinking water without the aid of lab tests. But they’re also hard to detect underground.

Nitrates disable hemoglobin, preventing oxygen from traveling effectively through the bloodstream, and can cause symptoms that are generally subtle, like headache, fatigue and shortness of breath. The consequences are worst for infants, who can suffer from “blue-baby syndrome,” which can kill them when oxygen in their bloodstream plummets. Research also shows possible connections between nitrate exposure and Parkinson’s disease, cancer and other illnesses.

Nitrate-related symptoms are rare enough that the county doesn’t even track them, but once or twice a year, a blue baby comes into a county hospital.

What’s even more rare: determining who’s responsible when it comes to nitrate pollution. But that’s exactly what happened when the water board laid blame on Mission Ranches. Even though the grower has voluntarily agreed to pay for bottled water, Romans doesn’t actually accept the water board’s analysis; neither does the landlord.

“To solely blame Mission Ranches for the nitrate concentration in the water produced by [the San Lucas Water District] Well No. 2 for groundwater problems in the area that are well documented and known over the last several decades would be arbitrary, capricious, discriminatory and prejudicial,” their attorney, Pamela Silkwood, wrote in a letter to the water board.

Nitrogen fertilizers nourish Central Coast cropland, but the chemistry of what happens as the components break down is bad news for humans. Nitrates are attracted to water, not soil particles, so they move rapidly from the root zone of crops into groundwater, where they’ll stay in invisible plumes for decades without breaking down.

This is where the upstream regulation gets tricky. The ag industry and state water board are in the midst of determining how much data will be public under new regulations, known as the ag waiver, adopted in 2012. Some features of the expanded water quality monitoring rules are being held up in appeals, but others have taken effect.

“I don’t know if [the ag waiver] could’ve prevented this situation,” says Angela Schroeter, who manages the water board’s agricultural regulatory program. “But certainly the new reporting requirements would help to alert us to this issue when we receive the data.”

Alejo, as well as U.S. Rep. Sam Farr, D-Carmel, opposed the ag waiver; it’s a politically volatile issue that highlighted old-school ag verse environmental tensions.

Water board officials sent notification letters last month to 15 Central Coast growers warning them that nitrate levels in wells on property they farm exceed safe drinking-water limits.

The names of those growers were redacted in copies of the letters obtained by the Weekly under the California Public Records Act; three of the growers are located in Monterey County.

The letters mark the first time in California’s history that such data has been systematically collected and crunched.

“I would suspect there will be a lot more notifications going out,” Schroeter says. “We are on the tip of the iceberg.”

~ ~ ~

Millions of Californians depend on groundwater for their drinking water (meaning it’s pumped up from below ground, rather than pulled from a surface source like the Carmel River).

As reported in a 2012 study by UC Davis’ Department of Land, Air and Water Resources and the Center for Watershed Resources, about a third of the Monterey County wells sampled exceed nitrate concentrations.

“These same areas have seen a significant increase in nitrate concentrations over the past half century,” according to the study.

“Just because the water tastes good, you can’t assume that it is good,” says Cheryl Sandoval, who supervises the county Health Department Environmental Health Bureau’s drinking water program.

Sandoval’s team tests 1,256 small water systems for coliform bacteria and nitrates annually. They test systems with two to 199 hook-ups; there are an additional 40,000 or so private wells that Sandoval’s team doesn’t test.

“Every year there are a few new systems that go over the [mandated level] for nitrates,” Sandoval says.

Sandoval was unable to specify how many Monterey County households are affected by nitrate contamination. But there’s a good chance some rural Monterey County residents are drinking nitrates in their water without even knowing it, according to health department officials.

At least a dozen small Monterey County communities depend on bottled water. In Springfield Terrace, a farmworker community in North County, the water has exceeded allowable nitrate levels since 1986. Pump from too deep, and you risk hitting arsenic, which occurs naturally in the area.

At an old ag-labor housing camp southeast of Chualar known as Camp 21, Pantoja is out knocking on doors to ask residents if weekly water deliveries paid for by landlords Sally Welly of San Diego and her sister Joanne Koch of Berkeley supply enough for cooking and drinking.

Arturo Manzo says he needs to buy an extra jug every week or so. “In the summer, we need more,” he says. “My wife makes agua fresca and horchata.”

There’s a miniature water crock on the floor for the dog. Manzo also says the weekly water deliveries, which happen midday when he’s at work harvesting celery, are inconvenient.

Manzo’s parents live a few doors away. His mom Antonia reports on an update from two of her sisters, who still live in Mexico. “The drinking water in our little town [in Michoacán] is still clean today,” she says.

Across a gravel lot, neighbor Uriel Alcázar laughs when asked if he could drink the water back home in Michoacán. “Back in Mexico, we could drink from a nearby stream,” he says. “The water is nice and clean and fresh there. Here, it’s a challenge; it’s not right.”

That sentiment has also proved popular in Sacramento, where nine of 10 of Alejo’s bills passed out of the Assembly and moved on to Senate hearings beginning June 12. But even legislative love can’t necessarily solve the problem: It can free up federal cash and help streamline a notoriously convoluted bureaucracy, but for some communities, the water may simply be beyond repair.

Camps 21 is hitting bottom when it comes to new wells. It’s awaiting results on a second test well site, to 950 feet below the surface; the first effort, at 600 feet, still came up with excessive nitrates.

Pantoja has partnered with Welly, whose grandfather originally built the camp to house braceros in the ’50s, to apply for a $50,000 grant from CDPH. The cash would help pay for the weekly water deliveries (which is why Pantoja’s out trying to get an accurate tally). But a long-term solution still seems elusive.

“They’ve dug test wells, but in every direction and at every depth, the water seems to be contaminated with nitrate,” Pantoja says. “The options for a lot of these rural communities are disappearing.

“If this doesn’t reveal clean drinking water, I don’t know what the future will look like for the residents of that community,” she adds. “It maybe just mean having to rely on bottled water indefinitely.”

In some areas where contamination is found to be particularly egregious, CDPH has authority to shut down a system altogether. County health department officials say they’re not sure what they’d do if the 30 families living in Camp 21 can’t get safe tap water.

“Our particular role is inform and test,” says Ric Encarnacion, assistant director of the Environmental Health Bureau. “If there are enforcement issues, those are issues we would have to deal with as they’re occurring.”

~ ~ ~

The legislative maze that got the Assembly to pass nine of the 10 bills Alejo pushed as chair of the Assembly Environmental Safety and Toxic Materials Committee has many twists, but they come back to a simple affirmation passed last year.

“It is hereby declared to be the established policy of the state that every human being has the right to safe, clean, affordable and accessible water adequate for human consumption, cooking and sanitary purposes,” AB 685 states.

That affirmation came only after Senate Bill X2 1 ordered the study in 2008 on the extent of nitrate contamination. The study, conducted by UC Davis faculty and released last year, prompted Gov. Jerry Brown to convene a Drinking Water Stakeholder Group.

Members hailed from ag trade groups, water agencies and environmental-justice nonprofits. The policy directions they laid out became the basis for the package of bills currently working its way through the Legislature; four are authored by Alejo and one by Assemblyman Mark Stone, D-Scotts Valley.

The only bill that died so far, AB1, would’ve allocated $2 million to Salinas Valley water projects.

AB 145 would take away the California Department of Public Health’s authority over the California Safe Drinking Water Act, including the drinking water fund San Lucas is waiting on. It would transfer the fund over to the State Water Resources Control Board.

That might seem like an arbitrary bureaucratic tweak, but CDPH has drawn criticism from the feds and from Alejo for ineffectively distributing funds to poor communities.

Since 1998, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has granted $1.5 billion to the revolving fund administered by the California Department of Public Health. An unspent $455 million prompted regional EPA Administrator Jared Blumenfeld to write to CDPH Director Ron Chapman in April and warn him the California Department of Public Health is in noncompliance with the Safe Water Drinking Act.

Blumenfeld criticizes the unspent balance as “the largest obligation of any state in the nation.”

It’s that stagnant pool of money that got Alejo working on the issue. “You meet all these people who are suffering, and meanwhile the state is sitting on $455 million,” he says. “This is about how the system is not functioning.”

Meanwhile, as San Lucas resident Esmeralda Wittman and her family wait on the system, they’re considering a move to Paso Robles. She’s four months pregnant with her second child and struggled through the water situation with her toddler, Isabella. “When we’re outside watering the flowers and she wants to drink from the hose, it’s hard to teach her not to do that,” Wittman says.

Miguel Lomeli grew up in San Lucas, and describes a fading community. “The vacant lot is where the store used to be,” he says, gesturing toward one dusty plot. “But no one wants to invest here because of the water.

“You notice things have just come down; one thing happens, another thing happens. No one wants to stick around.”

Monterey County Free Libraries has secured nearly $1 million to build a new library and sheriff’s office; the old one was boarded up in 2010 due to asbestos. CHISPA (Community Housing Improvement Systems and Planning Association, Inc.) had planned 36 affordable houses; those plans are being held in indefinite suspense until a water solution is worked out.

Romans, on a drive in his pick-up through town, points out where good restaurants used to be. “You could get the best pickled tongue in the Salinas Valley,” he says. Now, the place is boarded up and weeds grow through the sidewalk.

Like the well that feeds the town, San Lucas looks like a town on the brink of collapse.

~ ~ ~

Alejo leans over a water fountain in the San Lucas School and presses the button – it’s dead. Instead, students use plastic cups, labeled with their names on strips of masking tape, to drink from water coolers.

After a tour of the school, where storage closets hold books and five-gallon jugs, Alejo attends a community meeting, where just two residents are waiting on a worn wooden bench outside St. Lukes Catholic Mission.

Velasquez, the water board candidate, is there to complain about the water delivery schedule. The Pure Water truck comes twice a week from 11am to noon, when she’s working long days at a vineyard during the grape harvest season. And if you arrive near the end of the hour, they might be all out.

When Alejo tries to point out the irony – that she helps make high-caliber wine, but can’t even drink from her own tap – Velasquez doesn’t even notice. “I love my job,” she continues.

If she wins a seat on the water district board, Velasquez says, she’ll smooth over delivery hiccups. She’s counting on Alejo to secure much-needed funding in Sacramento – though Mission Ranches is moving forward no matter what happens there. Ironically, it’s the alleged polluter who’s best poised to solve the problem.

In the meantime, it’s a dry, dusty walk from her small home to the water district office once a week to pick up water. On a recent Friday, the Pure Water delivery guy is five minutes late and Velasquez is trying to keep her Chihuahua mix, Rosa, from eating grass. Then the delivery truck rolls up as residents gather up their empty jugs to swap for full ones.

The slogan on the side of the truck reads, “It’s all a matter of taste.”

But water is also a matter of life – for parakeets, babies or even an entire town.

This story was produced with support from the USC Annenberg/California Endowment Health Journalism fellowship.