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By Roy L Hales

Reprinted with permission from San Diego Loves Green; original published at

March 10, 2012 (San Diego)--A recent Sierra Club news release states, “For more than two million Californians, access to clean drinking water is a daily struggle. This year, a number of legislators are taking the lead to address this growing problem. According to a study conducted by the California Water Resources Control Board, 680 communities in California rely on contaminated water sources and roughly a third does not have necessary filtering systems in place to make sure that the water that comes out of their faucet is safe to drink.”

The article was written in support of legislation, introduced by Assemblymember Luis Alejo and Assemblymember Henry Perea, to extend funding programs, find other revenue to sustain current funding sources, and fill information gaps that are crucial to finding sound solutions to clean up California’s water.

My immediate question, after reading this release, was what does this mean in relationship to San Diego County?

On page 12 of the attached January 2013 report from the California Water Boards it states, “over 98 percent of Californians using a public water supply receive safe drinking water that meets all public health standards, even though some groundwater sources may contain elevated concentrations of contaminants. This estimate does not include the percentage of people who rely on private domestic wells and other drinking water sources not regulated by the state, since data on the quality of that drinking water does not exist or is not available in a publicly accessible database.”

There were indeed 680 communities (p13) that “rely on a contaminated groundwater source for drinking water.” Most “are able to treat the contaminated water source or to blend it with cleaner sources of drinking water before distributing it to the public.”

It would appear that the problems (p 14) occur in “Small rural community water systems, especially those that are low income and experience greater difficulty in obtaining funding solutions, tend to have more physically vulnerable infrastructure and may experience a persistent contamination problem.”

The graph below (from page 38) indicated that San Diego was 15th in the list of Counties with contaminated groundwater sources.

I very quickly found that while it is relatively easy to access materials that list water contaminants, it is not as easy to comprehend what this means. The map at the top of this article plots the results of nitrate tests carried out on 137 of San Diego’s domestic wells in 2008 and 2009. Twenty-three of them have nitrate levels of more than 45 mg per litre – but what does this really mean? Another graph, found on page 117 of the Water Boards’ report, lists five rural San Diego communities whose water is contaminated with nitrates, uranium, gross alpha or Perchlorate. They are all receiving funding to treat their water.

I phoned the County Water Authority for further clarification. The lady who answered was helpful but, noting that my questions were complex, suggested I send her an email. That was two days ago. Given the number of my questions, I am not surprised that she has not yet got back to me.

In the meantime, I came across an article that helped bring this matter into focus. It described the work of “two County Department of Environmental Health (DEH) inspectors who monitor and regularly examine the 166 ‘small water systems’ spread across the county.”

They “make sure the people operating the systems know what types of water-testing they are scheduled to undergo each year. They visit and inspect their wells, storage tanks and pipeline systems to make sure they’re secure from potential contamination and complying with the federal Safe Drinking Water Act. They provide technical help and offer training to water-systems staff members. And they issue public “Boil Water” orders — which tell people not to drink the water until they’ve boiled it to make it safe — when systems occasionally get contaminated, and then work with the folks who operate the systems to correct problems and get them safely running again.”

Our knowledge of California’s water systems is still incomplete. According to the Water Board report (p 38), many “private domestic well users may not know the quality of their drinking water, and the lack of domestic well water quality data is a significant data gap in terms of evaluating California’s drinking water quality.”

The Sierra Club news release adds that, “Although there are earmarked funds available to help communities that are disproportionately affected, there are many barriers preventing timely distribution of the funds.  The barriers range from complicated and long application processes, lack of guidance for community members on available grants and qualifications, and lack of information about the extent of the problem and appropriate solutions.”

The legislation that Assemblymember Luis Alejo and Assemblymember Henry Perea have introduced is meant to further the flow of information and funds to the communities where it is needed. This is a good thing.

Roy L Hales is the editor of San Diego Loves Green

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