After three years of some of the worst droughts ever, the state of California is finding that what little drinking water it has left may not be safe.
The state’s water resources control board reports that groundwater used for 772,883 residents is unsafe, due to longtime contamination from nitrates and arsenic. Approximately 400,000 of those residents are from the San Joaquin Valley, which is responsible for much of the world’s agriculture.
These Californians depend on groundwater due to the high costs of water treatment and lack of alternative water sources, says the board. In total, 98% of the state’s 38 million residents receives water from public sources and treated groundwater supplies.
The problem is further complicated by the fact that many of these areas don’t have surface water supplies, so they are forced to go underground to find new groundwater sources, says Kurt Souza, a branch chief of the division of drinking water at the California State Water Resources Control Board.
That is, if they can find the groundwater locations at all. The lack of rain places a huge burden on the state’s ground well, and the contamination is making life harder for the affected regions.
The top contaminant in the water is arsenic, which is found naturally in soil and rock throughout the world. Chronic low levels of exposure to arsenic has been linked to respiratory problems, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases and skin cancer.
Nitrates are mostly traced to farming chemicals and animal waste.
In Tulare County in the valley, the state has handed out water bottles to residents on a weekly basis and provided a 5,000-gallon non-potable water tank for bathing and flushing. Hundreds of the county’s ground wells have dried up due to the drought, and the county has also been hit by the same contamination as the rest of the valley.
Tulare County water commission analyst Denise Akins says that the county has been coping with the drought, but might not be able to do so for much longer. “We’ve delivered water to people that meet the income qualifications and who are in contaminated water areas. But the money to buy the water won’t last forever,” she says.
The county water commission is planning to find new groundwater wells, but Akins says they are more likely to use state and federal funds to set up tanks and get water from other sources.
One of the other issues California has encountered is enforcement, which critics say there’s not enough of.
Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation in 2012 that said that every California resident has the right to safe, clean, affordable and accessible drinking water. The year prior, he signed seven bills that sought to improve access to the state’s clean drinking water.
This isn’t enough, however, says Chris Williams, a hydrologist and terrestrial ecosystem ecologist at Clark University. “Many of the groundwater sources in California are not well monitored,” he says.
The board is also seeking proposals from the public, dozens of whom have called for increased funding for research and grants to develop new water treatment processes or for improvements to existing water systems.
In November, state voters have the chance to cast their ballot on a proposed $7.54 billion bond measure to fund new surface and groundwater storage projects and sustainable groundwater management. The bill is expected to pass by a wide margin.