Progress elusive in fight for clean California water

David McNeir is a bishop of his church and a man of faith. But he has found himself banging his hand on a table more than once when negotiating with public health authorities for clean drinking water.

"We've always had bad water," said McNeir, a cannery employee who lives in Monterey Park Tract, an area southwest of Modesto flanked by dairies and farms. "We've been on a list for a project now for four or five years. We've applied for every kind of grant there is."

Up and down the Central Valley, the frustration is palpable.

After years of effort by community activists, politicians and even teenagers, the state's progress toward clean water for all has been dwarfed by discoveries of more problems. Residents continue to rely on groundwater tainted by pesticides, nitrates, industrial chemicals and arsenic.

Californians have voted twice for bond money to ensure clean water, with $230 million in grants and loans, mostly for small and disadvantaged communities.

The state receives federal money for water projects, this year totaling $67 million. And, thanks to the federal stimulus plan, the state's getting $160 million more.

But a 2007 federal study estimated that it will take $39 billion over 20 years to improve state drinking water quality.

Adding to the delays are budget problems that have forced the state to stop taking applications for bond money in December.

"Having money frozen is 10 steps back," said Susana De Anda of the Community Water Organization in Visalia.

De Anda's group has decided to try a new tack: Pass a state law declaring clean water as a human right.

A grass-roots movement

Joanna Mendoza, 13, of the Tulare County town of Cutler, said families are tired of receiving official warnings that their water contains a pesticide linked to cancer.

Residents spend money every month to buy bottled water, on top of paying for what comes out of the tap.

"The only thing that ever changes on those notices is the date," said Joanna, who belongs to Youths for Water, a group of Central Valley teens who are urging their water districts to find ways to improve water quality.

Two decades ago, César Chávez and the United Farm Workers rallied valley farmworkers to demand better drinking water. As awareness and testing for contaminants grew, water districts and even communities have joined the call for action.

That's happening in Monterey Park Tract, where McNeir is chairman of a small utility district that provides water to 48 homes.

In November, the state dropped the maximum allowable level of arsenic from 50 to 10 micrograms per liter of water. One well in Monterey Park Tract has three times that standard.

For two decades, McNeir said, local wells have violated the standard for nitrates, which seep into groundwater from leaking septic tanks, farm fertilizers and, as the state's dairy industry has grown, cow manure.

Attempts to dig new wells have run into more pollution, and efforts to find funding sources have failed.

Now, McNeir's district is looking for money to drill a well farther away or to tap a nearby city's water system.

Officials at California's Public Health Department acknowledge that it's difficult to monitor 8,000 public water systems and enforce more than 100 drinking water standards and regulations.

With limited funds, money goes first to systems contaminated by an acute bacteriological threat, such as fecal matter, that can sicken people instantly. In those cases, the law requires public health authorities to act swiftly, ordering districts to close wells or provide bottled water.

It's much harder to get prompt action when contaminants pose long-term health threats, such as cancer risks.

Yet that may be the biggest challenge.

In November, California followed the federal government in setting a lower safety standard for arsenic in drinking water. That decision meant scores of water systems suddenly were serving up too much arsenic with their drinking water.

Arsenic is common in the West, seeping into water from rock or through runoff from mining or orchards. Even if concentrations do not trigger an immediate water system closure, they can pose cancer risks and vascular and skin problems.

South Lake Tahoe and Galt have water systems that violate the arsenic standard. Both are developing treatment plants. Those two cities can handle the cost, but that's not true of all.

"Small systems just don't have that ratepayer base," said Dennis Cocking, spokesman for the South Tahoe Public Utility District.

After construction, he warned, districts must shoulder costs for maintenance and disposal of the concentrated arsenic waste.

Before arsenic became an issue, the valley's major water-related concerns focused on chemicals such as perchlorate, the pesticide DBCP and nitrates.

Contaminants spur warnings

Public health officials consider nitrates an "acute" health risk, but the state policy in most cases is simply to issue a warning that water should not be boiled, which concentrates the nitrates, and that pregnant women and infants shouldn't drink it.

Tulare is the world's largest dairy county, and nitrates are pervasive. In groundwater tests of small water systems with more than 200 customers, about 20 percent exceeded state limits.

The town of Cutler has lost some of its wells to nitrates. Residents also have been warned that their water has too much of another contaminant, the pesticide DBCP, which was banned in 1977 for causing cancer and sterility.

Cutler was not listed as violating DBCP standards in a 2007 report. But a state Water Resources Control Board database shows its wells have violated standards since 1988.

On June 18, residents again received notice that their water contained DBCP but there was no immediate threat requiring them to stop drinking it. The resulting confusion has bred suspicion, not just of the water, but of surrounding farms.

Cutler resident Jesus Quevedo, 75, blames his son's death last year from leukemia on the water and on farm chemicals in the air.

"The farmers are fighting for water to grow crops," he said. "We agree with them. But we are also fighting for water to drink that is pure."

Dionicio Rodriguez, supervisor of the Cutler Public Utility District, said the district was approved for $2.2 million in state grant money this year to dig a new well and install a tank to blend water. That money was frozen.

Looming on the horizon is another monster problem.

Years after the 2004 deadline set by the Legislature, California has not set a drinking water standard for the carcinogenic industrial substance hexavalent chromium, subject of the film "Erin Brockovich," set in Hinkley.

State researchers must adopt a public health goal before they can set a maximum contaminant level for the chemical in drinking water.

David Spath, former director of the drinking water and environmental management division of the state Department of Public Health, said hundreds of sources could be in violation after a standard is set.

"That's the next train wreck, so to speak," he said.

De Anda, with the Community Water Organization in Visalia, said watching communities struggle for so long without clean water led her to believe a simple, strong statement was in order.

Policy statement sought

She's hoping Assembly Bill 1242, known as the Human Right to Water bill, will require state agencies to act more quickly to assist communities that keep getting overlooked because contamination there is not considered an acute threat.

The bill was introduced by Assemblyman Ira Ruskin, D-Los Altos. The Assembly passed it in May, and it is in the state Senate.

"We're mindful of the budget problems, so it doesn't ask for money," De Anda said. "But this bill is one step forward because it sets a policy. Once you have a policy, then you have to act. It should not be taking years and years to get clean drinking water."

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