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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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He says some companies have benefited from a clause in the Porter-Cologne Water Quality Control Act, enacted in 1969 to limit the spread of contaminants, which allows authorities to waive waste discharge requirements if it is in the “best interest” of Californians.

“The regional boards just make off-the-cuff remarks that a dairy employs people and produces milk, and therefore it’s in their best interests to pollute,” McHenry said. “What kind of analysis is that? You’re not looking at the whole big picture. It’s not only about jobs.”

Landau of the regional board said he knows of no regulatory agency that approaches its job in the manner McHenry described.

“This absolutely does not reflect the view of the boards,” he said. “Might a single board employee ever have said or thought something like this? We're not privy to employees' private opinions, but that statement certainly does not reflect the boards' opinion. The boards' view is that current regulation is vigorous and appropriate.”

Pollution yields few consequences

While the state water board and its regional entities have begun treating nitrates as a significant issue, regulations vary greatly by industry and region.

Where regulations do exist, former inspectors say a toothless enforcement system enables polluters to pay small fines for nitrate problems – if they are fined at all – rather than bring their operations into compliance.

Consider the case of Monterey Mushrooms Inc., the country’s largest marketer of fresh mushrooms. Its wells have exceeded nitrate limits 17 times, according to records reviewed by California Watch.

In 2006, the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board cited Monterey Mushrooms for four of those violations. “Nitrate out of control!” one staff member scrawled on a lab report obtained by California Watch.

Yet the facility has never been fined or required to limit the amount of nitrate-contaminated water it sprays onto adjacent fields. This nutrient-rich wastewater is left over from the process of spawning, growing, and processing the mushrooms.

Monterey Mushrooms is hardly alone. In the past six years, state regulators issued 248 enforcement actions against 44 polluters for problems specific to nitrates in groundwater, records show. Most received routine violation notices. Even repeat violators are rarely fined.

Polhemus, of the State Water Resources Control Board's division of water quality, says his agency has put greater emphasis on regulation than enforcement when it comes to nitrate polluters.

“We certainly don’t approach it from the same standpoint we do a chemical contamination, where we’re trying to find who released it, make them clean it up and penalize them for that,” he said. “Nitrates are so much everywhere that you’d spend too much time trying to track them down and the levels are such that it wouldn’t make sense to go after it that way.  We think it’s much more important to try to get ahead of the curve through our different programs.”

The impact on towns and communities is steep. Several drinking water wells in Royal Oaks, a community neighboring Monterey Mushrooms, have already been shut down due to nitrates. Since 1983, residents have been asking the Central Coast Water Board to limit the amount of undiluted wastewater it allows Monterey Mushrooms to apply. Environmental studies conducted by the company show the Royal Oaks facility has applied far more nitrogen than the land can actually absorb – 36 times more.

The regional water board has said it is “concerned” about the potential for nitrate problems. But the agency has been unable to pinpoint the cause of the contamination.

Wayne Bautista, general manager of Monterey Mushrooms, says the high nitrate readings come from a well that’s closer to other fields on a ridge above the mushroom plant, and are not attributable to his plant’s operations. He also said the company has “significantly” reduced the amount of wastewater it applies to land, due in part to five newly lined wastewater ponds that help the plant reuse water in its composting process.