By Laurel Firestone/August 24, 2012: Laurel Firestone is the co-founder and co-director of the Community Water Center, a nonprofit environmental justice organization located in Visalia, California.
The UC-Davis Center for Watershed Sciences flipped over a rock in March with its release of “Nitrates in Groundwater,” a report which documented—in refreshingly clear fashion—how nitrate crop fertilizers and manure from livestock operations are poisoning the drinking water of more than 1.1 million residents of the Tulare Lake Basin and Salinas Valley.
Our task now is also clear—do not allow that rock to simply get put back in place. In the wake of the report, there is hope that meaningful and cost-effective regulation is within our reach, along with some troubling signs that point towards allowing the rock to fall back into the hole it has covered for so long.
In findings that parallel the story in an OnEarth article from March, the report confirmed that 96 percent of the nitrate groundwater pollution in the two regions comes from agricultural fertilizers and manure. What is important is not the precise percentage, which is ultimately just an estimate, but the clear conclusion that the vast majority of nitrate pollution has come from and is continuing to be caused by fertilizer and manure application on crop land. This is not the result of deliberate waste or dumping, but rather because even with our improvements in fertilizer use and irrigation technology, most crops take up only 30 to 50 percent of the nitrogen in the fertilizers that growers apply to their fields, leaving the rest to wash into groundwater aquifers, local watersheds, or evaporate into the atmosphere. If nothing is done to prevent further nitrate contamination, the report estimated that by 2050, nearly 80 percent of the residents in the two regions will have poisonous drinking water.
And make no mistake, this water is poisonous. Nitrates can kill infants, and cause miscarriages, birth defects, cancer, spleen, kidney and thyroid disease. The health standard for nitrate in drinking water is not new or controversial. It has been in place in the United States since the mid 1970’s.
Nitrate contamination affects everyone in current or historical agricultural regions, from city dwellers to farmers with their own private household wells. But the impacts are disproportionately borne by residents in rural, low-income, predominately Latino farmworker towns, which can go for more than a decade without a safe source of water once a well becomes polluted. UC-Berkeley Researchers recently found that small communities with higher concentrations of Latinos were disproportionately exposed to unsafe levels of nitrates in their drinking water. These communities also are least able to afford treatment systems. Communities can go for more than a decade without a safe source of water once a well becomes polluted, which results in families with annual incomes of $16,000 having to spend up to $1,600 a year for safe drinking water alone.
Now the hopeful signs.
The California State Water Resources Control Board, which commissioned the UC-Davis report, is preparing a report to the Legislature on how to address nitrate pollution. A public hearing in May included representatives of the affected communities, environmental justice organizations, state agencies and regulators, and state agriculture and dairy industry organizations.
While the state Board’s work in this area was a forced march—the result of legislation that community groups advocated for—the Board has indicated its commitment to finding solutions to the nitrate problem. The Governor’s office also has convened a task force to develop recommendations on more effectively funding and sustaining drinking water solutions; its recommendations are scheduled for release in August.
The Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board, which has jurisdiction over the Salinas Valley, also recently approved a regulatory program to address nitrate pollution–a huge step forward in protecting groundwater, and one that has set the standard for other parts of the state.
Even the traditionally agriculture-dominated Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board, which has jurisdiction over the Tulare Basin—as well as the vast majority of agricultural lands in California—recently released its first-ever proposal to regulate irrigated agriculture to protect groundwater quality.
Unfortunately, the current draft proposal is something less than a two-fisted dynamo.
It lacks transparent public reporting, effective oversight and enforcement, and no funding for remediation. The draft does call for the collection of basic information on farm practices and water quality—but a coalition of growers will collect and hold all individual farm data, and public reports will contain only aggregated totals, which could protect individual scofflaw growers. There are no clear enforcement mechanisms for ensuring water quality objectives and no plans to address cleanup of existing contamination or continued pollution.
If this report did one thing, it served to eliminate agriculture’s longstanding contention that the source of nitrate pollution was a mystery. Now we need to focus on funding safe drinking water for the communities hit by nitrate contamination. Currently, agricultural fertilizers are exempt from state sales tax; reinstating that tax and channeling it into a remediation fund is a great idea. A modest mill fee increase would help, too, by raising funds while also incentivizing more efficient fertilizer practices.
Most importantly, the State Board needs to get serious about using its enforcement powers to effect meaningful reforms. The California Clean Water Act has a big enforcement stick in it. Let’s poke it in that hole and keep the rock where it belongs.
Prepared by: Thomas Harter and Jay R. Lund (Principal Investigators)
Jeannie Darby, Graham E. Fogg, Richard Howitt, Katrina K. Jessoe, G. Stuart Pettygrove, James F. Quinn, and Joshua H. Viers
Dylan B. Boyle, Holly E. Canada, Nicole DeLaMora, Kristin N. Dzurella, Anna Fryjoff-Hung, Allan D. Hollander, Kristin L. Honeycutt, Marion W. Jenkins, Vivian B. Jensen, Aaron M. King, George Kourakos, Daniel Liptzin, Elena M. Lopez, Megan M. Mayzelle, Alison McNally, Josue Medellin-Azuara, and Todd S. Rosenstock
With project management support from
Cathryn Lawrence and Danielle V. Dolan
Center for Watershed Sciences • University of California, Davis
Groundwater Nitrate Project, Implementation of Senate Bill X2 1
Prepared for California State Water Resources Control Board • March 2012
Technical Report 1 – Project and Technical Report Outline (Version July 2012)
Technical Report 2 – Nitrogen Sources and Loading to Groundwater (Version July 2012)
Appendix – Appendix Figures to Technical Report 2 (Version July 2012) – 84 MB (large file!)
Technical Report 3 – Nitrogen Source Reduction to Protect Groundwater Quality (Version July 2012)
Technical Report 4 – Groundwater Nitrate Occurrence (Version July 2012)
Technical Report 5 – Groundwater Remediation and Management for Nitrate (Version July 2012)
Technical Report 6 – Drinking Water Treatment for Nitrate (Version July 2012)
Technical Report 7 – Alternative Water Supply Options for Nitrate Contamination (Version July 2012)
Technical Report 8 – Regulatory and Funding Options for Nitrate Groundwater Contamination (Version July 2012)
The July 2012 versions of Technical Reports 1 – 8 supercede the March 2012 versions. The updated versions feature a cover page on each Technical Report, corrections of typographical and grammatical errors, and minor clarifications in the text of the Technical Reports. A separate Appendix compendium has been added to Technical Report 2. No changes have been made to the factual findings of the Technical Reports originally published in March 2012.
Related Links and Literature:
Anton et al., 1988, Nitrate in Drinking Water, Report to the Legislature, SWRCB.
Staff, February 2012, California Communities That Rely on Contaminated Groundwater, Draft Report to the Legislature, SWRCB.
Tulare County SBX2 1 Implementation Project
Science Advisory Board, 2011, Reactive Nitrogen in the United States: An Analysis of Inputs, Flows, Consequences, and Management Options, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
United Nations High Commissioner, Drinking Water and Sanitation in the United States, United Nations 2011.
Sutton et al., 2011, The European Union Nitrogen Assessment.
Tomich et al., 2012, The California Nitrogen Assessment.
Dubrovsky et al., 2010, Nutrients in the Nation’s Streams and Groundwater, 1992–2004. US Geological Survey, Circular 1350.
United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), 2012, Report on the Future of Sustainable World Food Production.
Thomas Harter (Video) – Beneath the Tulare Basin: A Tour of Groundwater and the Many Paths of Water to Wells.
California Department of Public Health Factsheet on Nitrate
California Department of Public Health Nitrate Webpage and Links
California Department of Public Health Information on POU/POE Treatment Systems
Environmental Protection Agency Information on Domestic Wells
Multimedia: Coping with Nitrate Contamination (California Watch)
Healthy Crops, Safe Water Program, University of California
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