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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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Monterey Mushrooms is located in the Salinas Valley – the heart of Monterey County’s $3.8 billion dollar agricultural industry. The region ranked first in the state for the most severe nitrate contamination back in 1995, according to a report prepared by the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board. The water board has not updated its numbers since then.

Yet the regional board does not require all growers to conduct groundwater monitoring. They are required to fill out a checklist of water quality management techniques they may be using on their farm, but they won’t face consequences for operating without them.

Farmers in both the Central Coast and the Central Valley may soon face new regulations that could require them to limit the amount of fertilizer they apply to crops. Farmers in areas known for heavy nitrate contamination would have to deal with more restrictions.

Fresno County farmer Parry Klassen says farmers shouldn’t be blamed for legacy nitrate problems that may have migrated in groundwater from elsewhere.

“Cities can’t say the farmers did it, the farmers can’t say the cities did it. I don’t think it should be set in someone’s lap. We need to figure out what the problems are and solve them where we can,” said Klassen, who is president of the East San Joaquin Water Quality Coalition.

Although nitrates are considered a pollutant under the Porter-Cologne Act, they have never been regulated that way, according to Davis, of the Environmental Justice Coalition for Water.

Back in East Orosi, Camelia Lopez feels helpless about her family’s nitrates problem, which testing has traced to animal manure, possibly from nearby cattle ranches , or a leaky septic system.

The reasons Lopez moved to the San Joaquin Valley – a simpler, rural life among the vineyards and the orange trees, the cows and chickens – may be harming her home and her community.

She knows nitrates are a big problem that will require a Sacramento-sized solution. But today she’s starting small – going door-to-door, talking to other mothers about getting their wells tested. She’d like to tell lawmakers what it’s like to be unable to drink water from her own tap. She’s even been practicing her testimony.

“Please care a little bit about this community,” she says. “Just like I’m worried about this, there are other mothers with a lot of kids who are worried about this issue, too. If it were you and your kids in this community, what would you think? What would you do?”

Julia Scott is an investigative reporter for print and radio based in San Francisco.