Saturday, April 4

California Hydropolitics: Pure Poison UPDATED 7:30 PM EDT

Kettleman City resident Maria Salcedo’s ten-month-old daughter, Ashley Alvarez, died from complications stemming from multiple birth defects during a rash of such occurrences between 2007 and 2008 in this small farmworker town in the Central Valley. Contaminated drinking water is viewed as one of the potential causes. Photo © Matt Black / Text: Circle of Blue.

From Jeremy Miller's January 19, 2014 report for Circle of Blue, California’s Lingering Drought and Pollution Defy Solutions: Less snowmelt from Sierra Nevada leads to more pumping of Central Valley’s contaminated groundwater:
The city [of Kettleman] briefly entered the national spotlight in 2010, when the California Department of Public Health identified 11 Kettleman children born between 2007 and 2008 with chromosomal birth defects – including heart defects, cleft palate and club foot. In spite of the myriad of pollution sources, the state Department of Public Health could not identify a single cause for the spike in birth defects, citing the small population and multiple causes as confounding factors. ...
As Miller's report points out once a groundwater supply gets poisoned acrosss a wide area, there's no remedy except very long spans of time. The poisoning in this case happened before the current drought but since then blindfolded well-drilling at deeper and deeper depths, and well overpumping, have piled on top of all the other water toxicity problems in California.

Just how toxic are we talking?

Unsafe water only adds to California drought misery
Mark Koba, Senior Editor
October 24, 2014

With surface water supplies decimated from the ongoing drought, more Californians are forced to use groundwater.

But groundwater is unsafe for nearly 800,000 residents, according to the state's water resources control board.

This problem is the longtime contamination from nitrates and arsenic.

That's meant less drinkable water in California's struggle to survive more than three years of severely dry weather.

"Most areas affected by contamination don't have surface water supplies so they have to find new groundwater sources," said Kurt Souza, a branch chief of the division of drinking water at the California State Water Resources Control Board.

"But that's not always easy to do," Souza added. "Sometimes you can find new ground locations for water and sometimes you can't."

The lack of rain and subsequent heavy demand on ground wells—which are also facing supply problems—is making a bad situation worse, said Sara Aminzadeh, executive director of the California Coastkeeper Alliance, a statewide advocacy group for safe water.

"Contamination is a major concern," Aminzadeh said. "The drought just exacerbates water issues, and the groundwater problem is one of those."

Arsenic linked to cancer

According to the state water resources study, unsafe levels of arsenic are the top contaminant in groundwater supplies, followed by nitrates.

Nitrates are most often traced to farming chemicals and animal waste. Arsenic is found naturally in soil and rock in much of the world and seeps into groundwater.

Chronic low exposure to arsenic has been traced to respiratory problems in children and adults as well as having links to diabetes, cardiovascular diseases and cancers of the skin.

Read More If California doesn't get rain this winter ...

"Arsenic is a known carcinogen and with increased reliance on groundwater in California, the risk of arsenic increases," said Chris Williams, a hydrologist and terrestrial ecosystem ecologist at Clark University.

California seems particularly vulnerable to arsenic contamination, said Francie Cuffney, head of the biological science department at Meredith College.

"It has areas of high arsenic concentration. Groundwater in contact with rocks of high arsenic concentration will naturally leach out arsenic," Cuffney added.

'We have had contamination'

The state water resources board said 98 percent of the 38 million Californians get safe drinking water from public sources and treated groundwater supplies.

But 772,883 Californians rely on groundwater that is contaminated due to the high cost of water treatment or a lack of alternative water sources, according to the board.

Of that number, 400,000 are in the San Joaquin Valley—often referred to as the "food basket of the world" for its agricultural production.

One of the areas hardest hit by contaminants in the valley is Tulare County, where supplies of water bottles at state expense have been dispersed to many residents on a weekly basis, according to county water commission analyst Denise Akins. The county has also provided a 5,000-gallon, non-potable water tank for bathing and flushing.

Read More Trees vs. humans: In California drought, nature gets to water first

This is due to hundreds of ground wells drying up from lack of rain—but also because the safety of many has been compromised.

"We have had contamination of arsenic and nitrates," Akins said. "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."

Akins explained that the county water commission is planning to find new groundwater wells but is more likely to pay, with state and federal funds, to bring in water from other sources.

"We've talked to a couple of suppliers to set up tanks for people on a regular basis," she said. "We're hoping to have something in place by the end of the year."

Right to safe, clean water

In 2012, Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation establishing a state policy that every Californian has a human right to safe, clean, affordable and accessible drinking water.

A year earlier, he signed seven bills into law seek to improve access to clean drinking water in California.

But experts say there aren't enough enforcement mechanisms in place.

"Many of the groundwater sources in California are not well monitored," said Clark University's Williams. "They need to prioritize that going forward."

With officials admitting something needs to be done, the state water resources control board is updating the 1993 safe drinking water plan and seeking input from the public.

Among the dozens of proposals in draft form are calls for increased funding for research and demonstration grants to develop new treatment processes or improve the cost efficiency of existing treatment processes for small water systems.

Water bond measure

But final plans are months away. A quicker resolution might come from state voters in November.

Read More California's drought: Getting grimmer, say experts

They have a chance to approve a $7.545 billion bond measure.

It targets funding for new surface and groundwater storage projects, as well as for sustainable groundwater management while providing safe drinking water, particularly for disadvantaged communities.

Polls show the measure passing by a wide margin.

But what would help even more are near endless days of rain.

"If we have another dry year, I don't know what we'll do," Akins said. "I don't even want to think about it."

The "another dry year" is here but Mark Koba's report, good as it is, barely scratches the issue of arsenic in groundwater.  From Deborach Blum's September 20, 2013 report for The New York Times, The Arsenic in Our Drinking Water:

The baby with the runny nose, the infant with a stubborn cough — respiratory infections in small children are a familiar family travail. Now scientists suspect that these ailments — and many others far more severe — may be linked in part to a toxic element common in drinking water.

The element is naturally occurring arsenic, which swirls in a dark, metalloid shimmer in soil and rock across much of the United States and in many other countries. It seeps into groundwater, but because the contamination tends to be minor in this country, for many years its presence was mostly noted and dismissed by public health researchers.

They’ve changed their minds. Long famed for its homicidal toxicity at high doses, a number of studies suggest that arsenic is an astonishingly versatile poison, able to do damage even at low doses. Chronic low-dose exposure has been implicated not only in respiratory problems in children and adults, but in cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancers of the skin, bladder and lung.

Trace amounts in the body interfere with tumor-suppressing glucocorticoid hormones, studies show, which is one reason that arsenic exposure has been linked to a range of malignancies. Arsenic also interferes with the normal function of immune cells. It damages lung cells and causes inflammation of cells in the heart.

Researchers first became aware of these problems in so-called hot spot countries like Bangladesh, where arsenic levels in water can top 1 part per million. Decades ago, public health agencies there sought to replace microbe-contaminated surface water with well water. Only later did geological surveys reveal significant aquifer contamination from bedrock arsenic.
Researchers have begun a widespread re-evaluation of arsenic as a public health threat not only in water, but in the food supply. The Food and Drug Administration recently set a limit of 10 p.p.b. for arsenic in apple juice, and the agency is now evaluating the risks posed by foods like rice, which tend to pick up arsenic from the soil. At the request of the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Academy of Sciences has begun an intensive review of arsenic risks. The academy study group is chaired by Joseph Graziano, a professor of environmental health sciences at Columbia University who researches the link between arsenic in drinking water and cognitive deficits in children.

Researchers also are taking a much closer look at drinking water, from Southwestern states like Nevada, where wells sometimes contain arsenic at more than 500 p.p.b., to the upper Midwest and New England, where a belt of arsenic-infused bedrock taints aquifers in stretches from the coast of Maine to a point midway through Massachusetts. Water in parts of the Central Valley of California, America’s breadbasket, has been found to be tainted with arsenic as well.

While municipal water suppliers are required to meet the E.P.A.’s safety standard of 10 p.p.b. for arsenic in drinking water, no such regulation exists for private wells. Nationwide, researchers say, about 13 million people get drinking water from private wells with arsenic levels above the federal standard.

And studies here are beginning to show a pattern of harm not unlike that seen in Bangladesh. One study of private wells in Michigan, tainted with arsenic in the 10 to 100 p.p.b. range, found increased mortality rates linked to everything from diabetes to heart disease.
There's more of import in Deborah Blum's report; by the way she specializes in writing about chemicals in the environment.

None of the above goes near the increasingly serious issue of wastewater injection in California. From Mike Gaworecki's February 11, 2015 report for DeSmog Blog,  California's Wastewater Injection Problem Is Way Worse Than Previously Reported:
Documents released this week as part of the EPA’s investigation into the state of California’s underground injection control program show that in addition to hundreds of wastewater injection wells there are thousands more wells illegally injecting fluids from “enhanced oil recovery” into aquifers protected by the federal Safe Drinking Water Act.
At a time when California is experiencing extreme and prolonged drought, you might expect state regulators to do everything they can to protect sources of water that could be used for drinking and irrigation. But that simply isn’t the case.
For every barrel of oil produced in California — the third largest oil-producing state in the nation, behind Texas and North Dakota — there are 10 barrels of wastewater requiring disposal. California produces roughly 575,000 barrels of oil a day, meaning there are nearly 6 million barrels of wastewater produced in the Golden State on a daily basis — a massive waste stream that state regulators have utterly failed to manage properly.
There is way more in Gaworecki's report, and don't let the Just Hippie Folk facade fool you about the people at DeSmog. 

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