A state report last month suggested a farm fertilizer fee to help fix drinking-water problems, especially in rural towns around the San Joaquin Valley.
I wrote about it, but I should have added that there already is a fertilizer fee in California, a reader said. The existing fee funds research, however, not dirty-water cleanup.
It is the Fertilizer Research and Education Program in the California Department of Food and Agriculture. Last year, Assembly Bill 2174 from Assembly Member Luis Alejo, D-Salinas, made the money available for research on more efficient application of fertilizers.
It would not provide near enough money anyway. The analysis on the fund last year showed it would be worth about $1 million. The state needs $36 million a year to address drinking water problems.
The state report last month focused on nitrate contamination, which comes from fertilizers, animal waste, septic systems and sewage treatment plants.
Grants and loans through the state have not panned out for some towns that can’t afford to pay back loans or maintain treatment facilities. Another funding source is needed, say leaders of the State Water Resources Control Board, which did the report.
I have not seen any legislation yet to raise the funding.
Deep in a state report on dirty drinking water, an important and revealing statistic went unnoticed by the media last week.
Of the 772,883 Californians relying solely on compromised groundwater, about 400,000 are in the San Joaquin Valley.
We’re talking about water systems that have violated standards, leaving people with no option except buying bottled drinking water during those times. About half of the people suffering this problem in California are right here in the Valley.
The report was done for the legislators by the State Water Resources Control Board as part of Assembly Bill 2222, which required the water board to look at statewide problems and assess the financial resources to help fix them.
The report looks at all of California, but the Valley is in a spotlight here.
Naturally occurring arsenic was the biggest offender among the contaminants. But nitrates — attributable to activities by people — was second.
The Valley has a widespread problem with nitrates, which a University of California study last year traced to fertilizers and animal waste in agriculture.
In Kern County alone, there were 55 violations of water standards between 2002 and 2010 — the highest number in the state.
Tulare County followed with 31. Madera County had 22, Fresno County 15 and Stanislaus County 14. Very few other counties in California even had 10 violations.
Here’s another telling point that nobody reported.
“There are 89 community water systems in Los Angeles County that serve approximately 8.4 million people. However, only 11 percent of that population is solely reliant on a contaminated groundwater source.
“In contrast, Tulare County has 41 community water systems that rely on contaminated groundwater source that serve approximately 205,000 people. Sole reliance on groundwater for these communities stands at 99 percent.”
I’m looking at the percentages here, not the raw numbers. Southern California has larger numbers, but it also attracts more money to fix the problem. Dirty water is cleaned up.
As I mentioned earlier, the Valley has more people drinking water from a system with actual violations.
How are the problems being addressed? The report said some water systems were not receiving or even actively seeking money — most of them in the Valley. They are in Kern, Stanislaus, Fresno, Madera, San Joaquin and Tulare counties.
The tug of war over California’s groundwater continues over a 1 million-acre swath of the San Joaquin Valley, north of the Fresno area.
For the last decade, the state has studied and discussed ways to protect groundwater beneath farm fields. The Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board late last year issued hard-fought orders for several thousand farmers north of the San Joaquin River.
Activists in early January told the state the orders don’t do the job, and they need to be rewritten.
Activists say farm chemicals and pollution would continue to pollute the water, monitoring would be inadequate and people in small towns would have to continue living with poor drinking water quality.
The state water board would replace the California Department of Public Health, a $3 billion bureaucracy tasked with 150 different functions handling everything from hospital licensing to regulating the movement of radioactive material.
The state public health agency was the biggest roadblock to getting funds, according to town leaders and many others involved in the process.
The Fresno Bee’s 2011 stories detailed several cities that have been trying for years to get funding from the public health department for drinking water cleanup. In such towns as Seville in Tulare County, drinking bottled water is a way of life.
Nitrates from fertilizers, animal waste and septic systems are the most common problems in the water.
“Some towns have been able to get funding, but some have been lost in the bureaucratic stream,” said Perea, who has expressed frustration about the public health department’s efforts.
A year ago, the Sierra snowpack was an anemic 20% of normal. Now it’s a whopping 146%.
At this time last year, the San Joaquin Valley was gasping through a 44-day siege of federal air violations — dangerous soot and debris. This year, the Valley only had five violations in December.
California’s capricious weather makes all the difference.
At the same time, some things I cover in the Earth Log and in the news columns have not changed much. My beat has had a kidney stone of a year. Thankfully, it has passed. But 2013 might be more of the same.
— The complex San Joaquin River restoration continues to move forward. Experiments included trapping adult salmon and hauling them upstream near Fresno to spawn. The billion-dollar restoration still lags behind the initial and ambitious timetable. Many big projects, such as replacing Sack Dam, are expected to make progress this year.
— A dozen years after setting aside more than 300,000 acres for the Giant Sequoia National Monument, people are still arguing about how to manage it. The latest plan was released during 2012. The Sierra Club and others have appealed the plan.
— Yosemite National Park has an even longer-running discussion. A dozen years ago, I wrote a story about the park’s Merced River protection plan — which was already about a decade late. I lose track of how many times it has been rewritten by court order. By July 2013, the National Park Service is supposed to have another plan out. This might be the one that finally gets through.
— Dozens of cities are now lined up to sue Dow Chemical and Shell Oil, the manufacturers of a now-defunct farm fumigant. The fumigant contained a chemical called 1,2,3-trichloropropane or TCP, a powerful cancer-linked toxin. It’s in the drinking water across a wide swath of the Valley, including Fresno, Clovis, Bakersfield and a host of other cities. It may take hundreds of millions of dollars to protect the public.
— Small towns throughout the Valley still wait for the California Department of Public Health for funding to clean up nitrates in their drinking water. Nitrates come from fertilizers, septic systems, animal waste and rotting vegetation. A University of California study says the problem threatens drinking water for 250,000 people.
— Kettleman City, the Latino town in western Kings County, has its own special water problem. It needs the financial help of Chemical Waste, the owner of the hazardous waste landfill near town. The landfill needs to expand so it can offer the financial help. But plenty of Kettleman residents would rather see that landfill close.
— The San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District approved a new plan to clear up tiny specks of pollution called PM-2.5. As they often do, environmentalists did not think the plan was tough enough. That’s often a prelude to a legal challenge — a very familiar scenario.
The evidence keeps mounting that people living in impoverished, Latino towns around the San Joaquin Valley are in danger if they drink water out of their taps.
Researchers this year linked dirty drinking water with many towns, such as Seville, Orosi and Tooleville in Tulare County. The culprit is widespread nitrates, which come from fertilizers, septic systems, animal waste and rotting vegetation.
This month, a new study reveals people living in similar communities also are at a high risk of drinking arsenic in their water.
Arsenic is routinely found in the water of such towns as Lanare in Fresno County, Kettleman City in Kings County and Alpaugh in Tulare County. It is linked to skin, lung, bladder and kidney cancer. More recently, it has been connected to diabetes.
The lead researcher in the latest study is Carolina Balazs of the University of California at Berkeley.
She said, “We found that across the Valley, lower income communities had higher arsenic levels than their wealthier counterparts. These same systems may be the least equipped to comply with drinking water standards in the future, leaving residents at continual risk of exposure.”
California’s approach to cleaning up the problem has fallen far short for many years, say those living in the communities. A plan to build a water treatment plant in Tulare County has been caught in funding snafus with the California Department of Public Health for more than a year.
Balazs says California needs a new, well-funded approach over the long-term.
“In the meantime,” she said, “interim solutions need to be put in place so that residents of small communities are protected from dangerous contaminants like arsenic.”
Small, impoverished towns are sometimes left for years with tainted drinking water while they wade through a cryptic state process for public funding to fix the problem.
Two frustrated lawmakers this week will start a streamlining effort that probably will result in several new bills next year. The lawmakers are Assemlymembers Henry T. Perea, D- Fresno, and Luis Alejo, D-Watsonville.
“We’re getting pretty fed up,” said Perea, who has worked for funding in such Tulare County towns as Seville, Monson, Cutler and Orosi. “We might want to consolidate this process under different agencies.”
At 1:30 p.m. Wednesday in Sacramento, Alejo and Perea will convene an oversight hearing of the Environmental Safety & Toxic Materials Committee to take testimony from more than a dozen people. If you want to follow it live, go here.
Thomas Harter, a University of California at Davis researcher, will briefly discuss his landmark research released this year on nitrates, the most widely found contaminant. It comes from fertilizer, animal waste, septic systems, sewage treatment plants and decaying vegetation.
The contaminant threatens the drinking water for more than a quarter of a million people in the Valley, according to Harter’s research.
This week, the Tulare County Board of Supervisors was expected to approve a $690,000 grant to study the best ways to fix Seville’s problem. The study money has been years in the making and there have been bureaucratic snags along the way, as The Bee reported last year.
Even with the study money in hand, it probably will take more than a year to get started on a fix for the town’s crumbling water system.