Water Woes All Over California Policy Map

by George Lauer, California Healthline Features Editor

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Water issues dot the California policy landscape this summer like weather fronts on a map, some promising much-needed moisture and others bringing dark clouds of controversy and potential problems.

Some issues -- like contaminants in drinking water -- are clearly and directly related to public health. Others -- including delayed distribution of federal funding for water projects, scarcity of water in some areas and diversion of water in other areas -- might be indirectly connected to public health in a variety of ways, ranging from reduced supplies of clean drinking water to reduced capacity to grow crops and maintain livestock.

A partial list of California's current water issues:

  • Nitrate contamination in Central Valley drinking water that is linked to birth defects;
  • California public health officials' decision to delay proposing a new limit for chromium 6 in drinking water;
  • A delayed plan to distribute federal water project funds;
  • Shallow snow pack expected to deliver only about 20% this year and 10% next year of water called for in California Department of Water Resources contracts;
  • Controversy over the nation's largest farm-to-city water transfer dividing the state's share of water from the Colorado River; and
  • A proposal to build two massive, expensive water tunnels to divert the Sacramento River to the Central Valley has caused critics to claim peripheral tunnels under the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta could play a role in increasing fracking in California.

Department of Public Health officials did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

Nitrates, Cadmium, Arsenic, Other Pollutants

In the Central Valley, considered one of the nation's most-important, food-producing regions, nitrate in the water has become a persistent, far-reaching problem.

study published this summer in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives confirms a long-held suspicion that nitrates in groundwater are linked to birth defects including spina bifida, cleft palate and missing limbs.

Nitrates, a pervasive byproduct of large agricultural operations, have been found for years in groundwater in several San Joaquin Valley communities and the pollutant is not going to go away quickly or easily, according to experts.

In a study titled "Addressing Nitrate in California's Drinking Water," UC-Davis researchers wrote:

"Groundwater is essential to California, and nitrate is one of the state's most widespread groundwater contaminants. Nitrate in groundwater is principally a by-product of nitrogen use, a key input to agricultural production. However, too much intake of nitrate through drinking water can harm human health."

Noting that "California's governments, communities, and agricultural industry have struggled over nitrate contamination for decades," the study predicts nitrogen pollution will be a problem for years to come but suggests several ways to deal with the problem, including stricter regulations on fertilizer use and new funding for clean water sources in affected areas.

In addition to nitrates, California water is plagued with other pollutants, including chromium, arsenic and perchlorate.

A judge last month ordered California health officials to set new limits on acceptable amounts of the carcinogenic hexavalent chromium, a chemical byproduct of industrial pollution made infamous in the movie "Erin Brockovich." Also known as chromium 6, the chemical is used as an anti-corrosive in industrial applications, as well as an agent in the production of stainless steel, textile dyes, wood preservatives and leather tanning products.

In tests between 2000 and 2011, chromium 6 was found to be above a preliminary acceptable level in about one third of California's 7,000 drinking water sources. Los Angeles, San Bernardino and Santa Barbara counties had the highest levels in the state.

Arsenic and perchlorate pollute drinking water supplies in several parts of the state, especially in the Coachella Valley, according to UC-Davis researchers. In a study, "Revealing the Invisible Coachella Valley," researchers found East Coachella "drinking water wells contain much higher contaminant levels for arsenic, chromium 6, perchlorate, and nitrates than are allowed by law." 

Arsenic is used in strengthening copper and lead alloys and perchlorate, both a naturally occurring and a man-made chemical, is used to produce rocket fuel, fireworks, flares and explosives.

Delayed Plan for Spending Federal Water Money

Last week, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency approved California's revised drinking water spending plan, which requires the state to distribute at least $878 million to water system projects by the middle of 2016, more than double the funding allocated over the past four years.

The EPA earlier this year reprimanded California DPH for not distributing $455 million in federal funding intended for water projects in California.

The EPA claimed the department had "inadequate personnel and resources" and showed lax financial oversight.

Two Diversion Plans Create Controversy

Last month, a judge approved what is billed as the nation's largest transfer of water from agriculture to city use, ending a multiyear dispute about how to use California's share of the Colorado River.

The Sacramento Superior Court judge's ruling upheld an earlier court decision approving a plan challenged in lawsuits by government officials, farmers and environmentalists, who contended that the transfer would deplete the state's water resources.

The Colorado River is a major source of drinking and irrigation water for much of California and six other western states.

In another diversion plan generating controversy, Gov. Jerry Brown (D) supports a proposal to build two massive tunnels to help move water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to Southern California farms and cities. Proponents say the fertile regions of the Central Valley won't survive without more water.

Critics say the costs -- financial and environmental -- are too high. They say the price tag could approach $30 billion and the massive relocation of water might harm fragile ecosystems, fisheries and drinking water supplies in the north.


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