Move Over Drought, California Drinking Water May Be Less Drinkable

Posted in: Drinking Water News, United States Water News, Water Contamination
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Article courtesy of  | July 21, 2015 | SF Weekly | Shared as educational material

Water in California just gets weirder and weirder. Fresh off of San Diego experiencing an inch of rain in July for the first time in its history,

It might be a case of “water, water in localized flash floods so sudden that arid terrain can’t even absorb the moisture, nor a drop to drink.” But what water does remain under this thirsty state is actually becoming increasingly polluted.

(Photo Credit: SF Weekly)

According to Mother Jones, a 10-year U.S. Geological Survey study analyzed contaminants in 11,000 public-water wells in California, looking for heavy metals such as arsenic, manganese, and uranium along with nitrates that collect from agricultural runoff. Soils under farmland tested high, as did the ground beneath suburban regions with agricultural pasts.

Although the scientists thought the nitrate levels would be high, uranium was the real devil. A fascinating tidbit about how uranium seeps into the aquifers:

Kenneth Belitz, the study’s lead author and chief of the USGS’s National Water Quality Assessment Program, explains that before irrigation, the arid San Joaquin landscape supported very little vegetation, and the naturally occurring uranium in the landscape was relatively stable. But as farms sprouted up, irrigation water reacted with carbon dioxide from now-abundant plant roots to “mobilize” the uranium, pushing it downward at the rate of 5 to ten feet per year and eventually into the water table

The real danger here is that, absent sufficient Sierra snowpack and a voluminous Colorado River, California will be forced to draw down its groundwater reserves further, exacerbating the entire process. El Niño can’t come soon enough (and with a bout or two of gentle showers first, to temper the hardpan that it may absorb the torrents to follow).

In slight good news, even though this is the height of the dry season and the fires are burning in earnest, the worst-off sections of the state are actually holding steady. In the three months since an April 14 measurement saw that 44.32 percent of the state was in an “exceptional drought” with several weeks of nominal rainy season yet to go, it ticked up only to 46.73 percent last week and then down to an even 46 percent this week. Whether it’s conservation, freak rain, or luck, we’ll never know, but for now, things aren’t actively getting worse.

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