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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.

The water supply of more than two million Californians has been exposed to harmful levels of nitrates over the past 15 years – a time marked by lax regulatory efforts to contain the colorless and odorless contaminant, a California Watch investigation has found.

Nitrates are now the most common groundwater contaminant in California and across the country. A byproduct of nitrogen-based farm fertilizer, animal manure, wastewater treatment plants and leaky septic tanks, nitrates leach into the ground and can be expensive to extract.

The problem affects both rural Californians and wealthier big-city water systems. State law requires public water systems to remove nitrates. Many rural communities, however, don’t have access to the type of treatment systems available in metropolitan areas.

Nitrates have been linked to “blue baby syndrome,” which cuts off an infant’s oxygen supply. Some studies have found connections to certain cancers in lab animals.

The State Water Resources Control Board acknowledges that nitrates are a problem affecting vast regions of California. And the situation is worsening, especially in the Central Valley, Central Coast, and the Los Angeles and Imperial Valley regions. High nitrate levels have already impacted public water system wells in many areas, and the contaminants continue to migrate toward groundwater supplies that could ultimately impact the water supply for millions of additional Californians.

Statewide, the number of wells that exceeded the health limit for nitrates jumped from nine in 1980 to 648 in 2007. Scientists anticipate a growing wave of nitrate problems in some parts of the state if remedial steps aren’t taken.

And yet the state’s patchwork regulatory efforts remain riddled with gaps that have allowed nitrate contamination to spread virtually unchecked. Consider:

  • Nothing is being done to regulate the use of the leading source of nitrate pollution in many regions of the state – nitrogen fertilizer. A lettuce farmer can apply as much fertilizer as he wants, within feet of the nearest water supply well, without having to worry how much of it might contaminate the groundwater with nitrates. Officials aren’t even equipped to determine the sources of contamination, meaning no one is held accountable.
  • Sixty-five percent of domestic wells at Central Valley dairies test over the public health limit for nitrates, putting local residents at risk of potential exposure. Yet, according to records obtained from the State Water Resources Control Board, none of the dairies were fined for a nitrate problem identified by the state.
  • When polluters are found responsible for nitrate contamination, the state rarely does anything to correct it. Californiahas issued 248 enforcement actions against 44 polluters for nitrate contamination in the past six years. But only once has the state ordered a polluter to clean up contaminated groundwater.

In one of life’s ultimate ironies, families in poorer, rural communities typically pay more for tainted water than ratepayers hooked up to clean water systems.

Residents in the tiny town of Seville in eastern Tulare County, for instance, pay a flat monthly fee of $60 for nitrate-laden water they have been warned by local health officials not to drink. By comparison, the average metered bill is just $26.50 a month for San Francisco residents, who consume water from the pristine Hetch Hetchy water system.

“The people who are polluting the water, they don’t pay for that cleanup – the ratepayer does,” said Debbie Davis, a legislative analyst with the Oakland-based Environmental Justice Coalition for Water, a statewide network of grassroots groups that advocates for clean, safe water. “If California is going to meet the water challenges of the future, we have to figure out how to deal with nitrates.”