California looking at response to lead in drinking water

by Barrett Newkirk, originally posted on April 8, 2016


Amid a national conversation around lead in drinking water, California officials say they’re taking steps to better ensure people in the state don’t need to worry if their water is safe.

An investigation by The Desert Sun and USA Today in March found nearly 100 public water systems in California with high readings of lead in tap water from 2012 to 2015. These included public schools where students could not use the drinking fountains because of concerns about lead.

The report showed that, that is not a problem isolated to the water in Flint, Michigan, which has been trying to solve a public health crisis caused by corrosive pipes containing lead. USA Today found almost 2,000 water systems in all states had reported lead levels above what federal government considered acceptable.

The toxic metal can cause brain damage and other physical ailments if ingested, and experts say no amount of lead is considered safe.

In some cases, water systems in California were already taking steps to address a lead problem. For example, Orange Center School outside of Fresno is working with the city of Fresno on plans to join the city’s water system and upgrade its pipes, the likely source of the lead. For two years, the school’s 300 or more students have been restricted to drinking bottled water because of high lead levels. The single-school district is also an independent water system.

California has thousands of similarly small water agencies. Of the more than 7,600 water systems across the state, 63 percent have less than 200 service connections, meaning they serve less than around 600 customers.

Even smaller systems are coming online as developments expand into new territory, and many don’t have the resources to meet drinking water safety standards, said state Sen. Bob Wieckowski, who chairs the Senate Environmental Quality Committee.

Wieckowski, a Fremont Democrat, has introduced a bill that would increase permitting requirements for new public water systems. The bill also would require these proposed systems to consider joining existing water agencies. The bill passed a committee vote on Wednesday.

Wieckowski told The Desert Sun, lawmakers should also consider legislation that would push consolidation of small water systems.

“We need performance standards to say if you do not perform this way, you get consolidated, you get gobbled up by somebody else,” he said. “I know that’s going to give heartburn to some people”

For existing water systems grappling with lead or other quality issues, the state is making $260 million available from the 2014 state water bond intiaitive for grants and loans to pay for repairs and upgrades. As of March, nearly $12.4 million from that fund had been allocated, including $2.9 million for the city of Fresno and Orange Center School.

State Assemblyman Eduardo Garcia of Coachella is behind a bill he sees as complimentary to the water bond funds. The bill would direct $10 million from the state’s general fund to pay for drinking water stations in schools facing water access or quality issues, including lead.

“Whatever water quality standards are not being met act as the trigger point for these funds,” Garcia said.

The idea is modeled after the Agua 4 All program that has brought water stations to the eastern Coachella Valley.

Errors in the data USA Today used to conduct its investigation have prompted the state Water Resources Control Board to look into moving away from testing procedures where testing results reported on paper are manually entered into a database, said Kurt Souza, the agency’s deputy director.

“When we put our data out to the public, it shows that water systems have high numbers when they really don’t because there are data entry errors, which is our fault,” Souza said.

But for systems where the high levels of lead do infact exist, Souza said the state will continue to follow protocols outlined by the federal Lead and Copper rule while awaiting guidance from the Environmental Protection Agency. Officials with the EPA have said they are looking at how to strengthen regulations around lead in drinking water.

“I think it really depends on how fast the EPA is going to move,” Souza said about any changes to enforcement in California. “If they take five years, we will probably do something sooner.”

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