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Tainted Water: Nitrate Contamination Spreading in California Communities

Much of California's water supply is polluted with nitrates, a byproduct of factory farming -- and the situation is worsening.

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Don’t drink the water

In parts of the state where serious nitrate problems have already taken root, communities have a limited menu of options available to cope with the contamination.

Large municipalities can afford to pay millions of dollars to remove contaminants like nitrates before they reach the tap. But these kinds of solutions are beyond the scope of many small communities, which are often home to the poorest and most disenfranchised residents in California.

Many communities rely on at least one well that contains dangerous levels of nitrates, forcing residents to use water they’ve been warned not to drink, say clean water advocates.

The Community Water Center, based in Visalia, has helped dozens of residents, schools and communities across the Central Valley deal with nitrate problems.

Co-founder Susana De Anda says many communities pay twice for water each month: once for contaminated well water, once for bottled water.

Some communities have used state money to drill a test well, only to find nitrate problems there, too. And they can’t trace the nitrates back to their sources, so they can’t hold anyone accountable.

“The community has to figure out how to fix the problems when they didn’t pollute the water,” De Anda said. “It is not OK for communities to have to subsidize the cost of pollution through their health and their pocketbooks.”

Schools struggle with tainted water

On the other side of Tulare County from East Orosi, nitrate problems have been one long, expensive headache for Norm Brown, principal of Citrus South Tule Elementary School in Porterville. Several years ago, Brown applied for a state grant to dig a $100,000 well on school property to alleviate the school’s chronic nitrate problem, only to learn that the school’s entire local groundwater basin was loaded with nitrates.

“I was really going to make a difference on that,” Brown recalled. “But if they’re digging a well they’re not going to find clean water. It’s a waste of money.”

The school, which has 53 students, is one of 12 across the state now coping with nitrate contamination in their well water, affecting a total of about 3,000 students, according to public health records.

Testing by California Watch showed the school’s well water contained twice the public health limit for nitrates. A second set of tests analyzed the DNA fingerprint of the nitrates under the school and traced the contaminant back to its likely sources, including local citrus farms and natural sources in the Sierra foothills. The DNA test, known as a nitrogen isotope tracer test, indicates the general type of source the nitrates came from but can’t isolate exactly who would be responsible.

Bottled water is the only affordable remedy now but only barely. The school pays more than $2,000 each year to stock its water coolers and distribute plastic cups. Brown is also required to test the well water every month, which cost $2,500 in 2009, a hardship for a school that has just three teachers for six grade levels and was forced to tap its small reserve fund this year just to avoid laying off one of those instructors. Brown sends the test results to the Tulare County Department of Environmental Health.

Boiling water isn’t an option. It can actually make matters worse, scientists say, because it concentrates the water without eliminating the nitrates, making the dose of contaminants even more potent.

Even though no one has ever suspected the school of being the source of nitrates, last year , Citrus South Tule Elementary School had to pay $750 in fines for water quality. Brown calls it adding insult to injury.