KUSP Reports: Environment

Water Regs Aim to Slow Growth of Widespread Contamination

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Maria Nuño's taps pours nitrate-contaminated water into her sink. She drives 8 miles to get bottled drinking water. Photo: Danielle Venton

Maria Nuño’s tap pours nitrate-contaminated water into her sink. She drives 8 miles to get bottled drinking water. Photo: Danielle Venton

By Danielle Venton | KUSP News

Water quality on the Central Coast is fraught with problems. After decades of intensive farming, chemical fertilizers have trickled through the soil into underground aquifers, polluting many of the wells rural areas rely upon. As part of our series on agriculture and water.

Maria Socorro Nuño lives eight miles outside of Salinas, near a plant nursery greenhouse where her husband works. She welcomes visitors into her trailer, past a porch filled with pet parakeets and offers them water.

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For people like the Nuños with contaminated water, water becomes a significant expense. Photo: Danielle Venton

If you say yes, she’ll handle you a plastic water bottle. That’s what they drink around here. Nuño is one of the quarter million people in the Salinas Valley and Tulare Lake Basin living with nitrate-contaminated water. University of California toxicologist John Hunt says this contamination affects many Californians.

“The main problems on the Central Coast with regard to water pollution start with nitrate,” he says, “which is in fertilizers that is used in agriculture and it’s also in fertilizers that people put on their laws and their gardens. It’s very water soluble, so it moves around with water. It’s very difficult to remove from water.”

Farms are the Main Source of the Pollution

A 2012 report by U.C. Davis concluded 96% of nitrate pollution comes from agriculture. Most of that begins as synthetic fertilizer applied to crops. Nitrate pollution is a danger because it can lead to brain damage and death in infants, through a condition known as blue baby syndrome. In adults nitrate contamination is linked with skin rashes, thyroid troubles and stomach cancer. As of last year the Central Coast Regional Water Board placed farmers under a new set of guidelines for monitoring and controlling their runoff, including nitrates. The board wants to slow the rate of pollution, but no one thinks it’s going to be easy.

“Some of the nitrate coming down into the groundwater now may have been applied over 50 years ago,” Hunt says. “So it’s a problem that’s going to take along time to solve.”

In fact, authorities expect the pollution to get a lot worse before it gets better. The U.C. Davis report estimated that more than half of residents in Tulare Lakes Basin and Salinas Valley were using public water systems that recently registered unsafe levels of nitrate. By 2050 they estimate 80 percent of the population will be affected.

For people like Maria Socoro Nuño, that means long drives to the store. Nitrate can’t be removed through counter top water filters, so she buys bottled. Before it became contaminated 15 years ago, she used this water for everything. Community worker Jeanette Pantojas joined me as a translator so I could ask what nitrate contamination has meant to Maria.

Cruel Irony: An Expensive Problem for Low-Income People

“It’s meant a lot, a lot,” Pantojas translates. “She used to be able to comfortably use her water for everything and now she can only use it for washing dishes and clothes. There are times when she’s fully stocked on everything else and they have to drive the 8 or 9 miles into Salinas so she can cook that day or have drinking water that day.”

And it’s a big slice of her monthly budget. Ideally, according to EPA guidelines, people wouldn’t spend more than 1.5% of their monthly income on water. But nitrate-affected communities often spend five to 10% of their income on bottled water. Michael Marsh, the directing attorney at California Rural Legal Assistance in Salinas calls this an unfortunate irony.

“The people who can least afford to buy bottled water are the exact communities that are being forced to buy bottled water,” he Marsh says. “They didn’t contribute to this problem of nitrates in the groundwater. What makes the ag order so important is that it’s the first time the regional board has really tried to put teeth into their ordinance, into their regulation.”

While the farming community, regulators and even some academics are deeply divided over how to best address the problem, everyone agrees something must be done. Closely monitoring the nitrates coming off farms seems like a good start to some, but for residents like Maria, her tap water will remain undrinkable for many years to come.

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