ARVIN -- Thousands of students in the south Central Valley who didn't have access to clean drinking water in their schools will now be able to quench their thirst safely after several organizations and companies that make water filters formed an unusual partnership.
More than 3,500 students in four public schools and five Head Start centers in the small towns of Arvin and Lamont southeast of Bakersfield in Kern County no longer have to worry about unsafe levels of arsenic in their drinking water.
"We really see this project as a model for other schools and communities that are struggling with contaminated water," said Shen Huang, a technical analyst for the Community Water Center. "It's a pretty creative solution. A lot of coordination went into it. If you work together you really can make a difference."
CWC worked with the Committee for a Better Arvin, the Arvin Union School District and the Community Action Partnership of Kern on the project. The California Endowment is a major funder of the effort, and several manufacturers provided filters at no cost.
Arsenic levels in some areas of the south valley are twice as high as the EPA's legal safety limit. "There are public health effects to chronic exposure of arsenic," said Huang. It can cause cancer, Type 2 diabetes and reduced mental functioning in children.
Salvador Partida, co-founder of the environmental group Committee for a Better Arvin, has been pushing for filters in the school district for years. "It's a real breakthrough, a tremendous help for these kids," he said. "It's not a permanent fix but at least it's a start."
Still, he wants to see a long-term solution for the entire town. "The only thing we can use the water we pay for is for our grass and to bathe."
Widespread Problem in Valley and Beyond
Contaminated drinking water is not uncommon in the Central Valley. Dozens of small communities grapple with the problem. "It's not limited to Arvin or Lamont," said Huang. "Arsenic is a widespread issue, as well as nitrates."
Arsenic is naturally occurring in the water in Kern County, but it can also come from practices like mining or chemical treatments, said Huang. Other contaminants, such as nitrates, are the result of decades of intense industrial agriculture.
"It's a story that plays out all over the region," said John Capitman, executive director of the Central Valley Health Policy Institute at Fresno State. Chemical fertilizers, pesticides and animal waste have seeped into the aquifers and then the groundwater for about 70 years, he said.
Some of these communities actually started out as labor camps for farm workers. "The social costs of food production in this region have really been borne by the laborers and residents," he said.
A 2012 study by the University of California-Davis estimated that a quarter million people in the Tulare Basin in the Central Valley (one of the country's leading dairy producers) and the Salinas Valley were at risk of nitrate contamination in their drinking water. High levels of nitrates have been linked to a potentially fatal condition called blue baby syndrome, caused by a lack of oxygen in the blood.
Many California towns operate their own small water districts. The volunteer boards often lack the technical expertise and the political clout to get clean drinking water, said Capitman. It's also expensive to run treatment plants. According to the UC-Davis study, "Treatment and alternative supplies for small systems are more costly as they lack economies of scale."
Even With Budget Cuts, School Districts Find Solutions
Clean drinking water in schools is not a given, according to a report by California Food Policy Advocates on Improving Water Consumption in Schools.
The report highlights the fact that in the Central Valley, unsafe tap water poses a "true public health concern" and that even providing filters "may be infeasible or too costly for cash-strapped schools."
Michelle McLean, superintendent of the Arvin Union School District, said water contamination is a problem that causes a lot of tension and stress for districts that have already suffered major budget cuts. "Public schools, especially rural or high-poverty districts, usually don't have the financial resources to provide alternative sources of drinking water," said McLean. Before her district got filters, students brought bottled water from home. There were also water dispensers at each school but they were expensive to refill.
Now the schools not only filter the water in the water fountains, they also each have two hydration stations where students can refill their water bottles. "Parents can be assured that at least at school their kids will have clean water," said McLean.
McLean said districts should work with public and private entities to apply for grants, get funding and find solutions. It's also important to do the groundwork. She said her district and the community spent a lot of time researching the right filters for arsenic. "We had a really good work group and we started looking at all our options," she said.
Getting the right filter is critical. "There's a lot of sharks preying on our communities," said Huang. "Some people will say their filters will take out anything. But filters are very specific to the contaminant. There's not a one size fits all."
The filters for this project are certified by the California Department of Public Health to remove arsenic effectively. The department has a list of certified devices on its website. DPH also offers grants for interim solutions to contaminated water in communities, said Huang.
Maintenance Is Key to Success
"Preliminary water testing already shows the filters are reducing the arsenic level below the safety limit," said Huang. "But the success of the project is really in the maintenance and operation."
Maintenance support and training will be provided to the school staff to ensure that the filters are performing successfully. "We want our projects to be sustainable, so the schools need to know what to do," said Huang, who will be doing some of the training.
One of the funding partners in this project, Blue Planet Network, will track the process online, including data about water quality.
"The network is essentially a space for people to share their projects, to show how one creates change in the community," said Huang. "Seeing these children get safe drinking water is very rewarding for us and our community partners."