Dirty Water: California Is Facing a Water Contamination Crisis. Is the State Moving Fast Enough to Fix it?

In a state that declares water a “human right,” more than 2 percent of its residents have no drinkable water.

PUBLISHED APR 27, 2023 3:59 P.M.
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From nitrates to arsenic to “forever chemicals,” California’s water supply faces a serious pollution threat.

From nitrates to arsenic to “forever chemicals,” California’s water supply faces a serious pollution threat.   Skylines / Shutterstock   Shutterstock Standard License

Beginning in 2014, the small, financially beleaguered city of Flint, Mich., vaulted into national headlines when its water became contaminated and undrinkable. Once home to the General Motors Corporation and made famous in Michael Moore’s 1989 documentary Roger & Me, which chronicled the city’s despair after GM slashed 30,000 jobs there, Flint’s condition had gone from desperate to unthinkable—a once-thriving, small American city where residents could not drink the water. Or bathe in it. Or use it for anything at all.

Flint deservedly set off nationwide outrage over its water crisis, and the response—or non-response—to the disaster by political leaders. But Californians, much more quietly, are suffering through a similar crisis—a widespread lack of safe water.

More than 370 of the approximately 7,400 water systems regulated by the state are contaminated above the maximum levels for a range of substances known to be dangerous to humans, according to a 2022 report by the California state auditor.

Those 370 water systems serve more than 920,000 California residents, according to the auditor’s report. That’s more than 2 percent of the population in the country’s most populous state.

Economic Inequality Leads to Water Inequity

How could this happen in a state that has declared access to clean, drinkable water a “human right” since 2012—and which not incidentally boasts the most powerful economy of any state? A big part of the answer is the same as with numerous social problems—economic inequality. More than two-thirds of the 370 systems with no safe water serve “disadvantaged communities with significant financial need,” according to the report. 

The 370 unsafe systems are concentrated in the Central Valley, and similarly rural areas of San Bernardino and Imperial counties. Beyond the obvious problems caused by having no access to safe water, the low-income residents who comprise most of those affected also take a hit in their already-stretched pocketbooks, because they are forced to purchase bottled water for ordinary household purposes such as bathing and cooking, in addition to drinking.

Rural Californians are more likely to rely on domestic wells for their water supplies, and that creates more problems because those wells and other small community water systems are unregulated by the state. A 2020 study by the Water Equity Science Shop at UC Berkeley, which attempted to locate all of the state’s communities served by domestic wells or small systems, found that as many as 2.5 million people in California rely on these unregulated sources for their water supplies.

Wells draw from groundwater supplies, which—in addition to being badly depleted by years of drought—are vulnerable to contamination from any number of chemicals. The three most common are arsenic, which occurs naturally and accumulates in concentrated form as the groundwater table depletes; nitrate, which derives from agricultural fertilizer; and hexavalent chromium, an industrial chemical produced by manufacturing.

A 2022 research paper published in the American Journal of Public Health reported that approximately 370,000 California residents rely on water supplies that contain dangerously high levels of at least one of those three chemicals.

“I think a lot of people might be surprised to learn that, given how wealthy the state of California is, we still don’t have universal access to clean drinking water,” said Lara Cushing of UCLA and a co-author of the paper, as quoted by Science Direct. “For the three chemical contaminants that we looked at, we found that places with a higher proportion of people of color experienced greater levels of drinking water contamination.”

The study also noted that because researchers looked only for the three common contaminants, an unknown number of additional wells may also be contaminated by other chemicals and toxic substances.

More than half of the contaminated systems are located in the San Joaquin Valley, the state’s agricultural breadbasket, which, not by coincidence, is also home to one-third of California’s low-income communities, according to a 2023 report by the Public Policy Institute of California. The auditor's report repeatedly ripped the state’s Water Resources Control Board for its “lack of urgency” in addressing the clean water crisis. 

The Slow Pace of Bureaucracy

In addition to setting and regulating water quality standards, a main function of the state Water Board is to provide funding for local systems to help bring them up to those standards. But the process for local systems to obtain those funds is “cumbersome,” according to the auditor’s report.

The auditor found that in just the past five years the average time it takes to apply for funding and to finally receive the funds has expanded from an already-sluggish 17 months to 33 months—almost three years. Furthermore, the auditor’s report said, the board has not “established performance goals or metrics” for improving its funding application process. Even when the Water Board hires contractors to provide technical assistance, the board “has not adequately monitored the performance of the technical assistance providers with which it contracts,” the report states.

A Brief History of Dirty Water

Human beings have been figuring out ways to purify the water they drink almost as long as civilization has existed. Greek and Sanskrit writing dating back more than 3,000 years show that the ancients heated water and filtered it through sand and gravel to remove impurities. Back then, however, there was no concept that dirty, contaminated water was a major cause of disease. In 2000 B.C., water generally tasted pretty bad and people purified it as best they could simply to make it more palatable.

About five centuries later, the Egyptians discovered that water could be purified through a process now called “coagulation.” We know this because illustrations of the process being carried out have been found on the tomb walls of two pharaohs, including Ramses II (sometimes believed to be the pharaoh portrayed in the Bible’s Book of Exodus).  

Coagulation is the technique of adding a chemical—in the case of the Egyptians, the chemical was alum—that causes small, solid particles suspended in the water to clump together and sink to the bottom of whatever vessel holds the water. The clumped contaminants can then be easily filtered out.

These ancient purification techniques made water nicer looking and better tasting, but did little to remove disease-causing bacteria, parasites or other harmful substances. Human beings did not even realize such things existed until late in the 17th century when a self-taught Dutch scientist named Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, peering at a drop of water through a simple (but at the time quite remarkable) single-lens microscope, first saw the tiny organisms that today we call bacteria. That term hadn’t been invented yet, so van Leeuwenhoek called his discovery animalcules, or “little animals.”

The Dutch scientist went on to achieve great fame as “the father of microbiology,” but it wasn’t until the 19th century that German physician Robert Koch first linked one of these organisms to a specific disease (anthrax, as it turned out). His discoveries led the pioneering French microbiologist Louis Pasteur to develop the “germ theory” of disease, the then-revolutionary idea that disease was caused by external microorganisms that invade the human body.

We live in the 21st century, but worldwide the most common cause of contaminated water is a pretty simple and crude one. Feces. According to the World Health Organization, more than 2 billion human beings worldwide get their drinking water from a source that has been contaminated by fecal matter, making excrement the single greatest threat to the safety of global drinking water.

Water Purification in the United States

In the intervening thousand years or so after the Egyptians invented coagulation, bacteria-infested water continued to ravage the human population, causing a variety of horrible diseases—perhaps foremost among them dysentery, a gruesome intestinal illness that causes violent, bloody, mucus-filled diarrhea and can lead to death by dehydration. 

In the Middle Ages, dysentery killed about one of every three infants before they reached the age of one. The horrific disease was a particular scourge of the military. Several English kings, including Henry V, died of dysentery while conducting various invasions and wars. In the U.S. Civil War, about 57,000 soldiers (roughly as many Americans as died in the Vietnam war) died of dysentery and similar diarrheal diseases.

In 1850, a British scientist named John Snow figured out that an outbreak of cholera, another intestinal malady, was caused by drinking water that was contaminated by sewage. Snow added the chemical chlorine to the affected water, thus inventing the practice of disinfecting water which otherwise appears clean and fresh, but may still be contaminated with microscopic bacteria.

In 1908, Jersey City, New Jersey, became the first American city to disinfect its entire municipal water supply. As the practice quickly spread to cities and towns across the United States, rates of bacterial diseases quickly dropped. In 1900, 100 Americans out of every 100,000 contracted typhoid fever, a deadly infection that causes headache, high fever and severe intestinal symptoms. By 1920, that rate had been cut by two-thirds, and by 2006 there were only 353 cases nationwide with about 75 percent of those occurring in people who had traveled internationally, indicating that they may have contracted the disease abroad.

While federal standards for public water supplies went into effect in 1914, it wasn’t until 1972 that Congress passed and President Richard Nixon signed the Clean Water Act, setting up a regulatory structure for the discharge of pollutants into U.S. waters. The Safe Drinking Water Act followed in 1974, authorizing the Environmental Protection Agency to set minimum standards for public drinking water, as well as groundwater supplies.

Even so, according to the Centers for Disease Control (based on 2014 data), more than 7 million Americans contract disease from contaminated water annually, leading to more than 6,600 deaths and $3.33 billion in healthcare costs.

The Rise of Forever Chemicals

On April 6, 1938, a chemist working for the DuPont corporation named Roy J. Plunkett was researching chemicals that could be used in refrigeration when he stumbled on a discovery that would revolutionize the American kitchen. After freezing a chemical called tetrafluoroethylene, he noticed that the sample had compressed into a white, waxy substance, polytetrafluoroethylene or PTFE.

What quickly became clear was that this substance was essentially indestructible at the molecular level. Mixing it with other chemicals left it unchanged. And even more to the point, the substance was incredibly slippery. Nothing stuck to it. Eventually, it was recognized as the slipperiest stuff ever discovered. DuPont saw that this substance, PTFE, could be used to solve one of the most annoying problems in cooking—food that sticks to the pan. A thin coating of PTFE turned ordinary pots and pans into something altogether new and convenient—nonstick cookware.

In 1945, DuPont slapped a new brand name on the substance and trademarked it. The name? Teflon.

Teflon has gone on to become somewhat iconic, and is the name even serves as a metaphor for any person to whom nothing seems to “stick.” President Ronald Reagan earned the label “Teflon president” because no criticism or scandal ever seemed to dent his popularity. More recently Donald Trump, who faced numerous allegations of wrongdoing, was nicknamed “Teflon Don.”

But the real Teflon also became the original source of an entirely new and dangerous type of water contaminant, polyfluoroalkyl substances. Or as they are better known, PFAS. These chemicals, which have been used in hundreds of consumer products beyond just nonstick Teflon pans, have been linked to a wide variety of health problems including immune system suppression, liver disease, thyroid disease, and pregnancy complications such as hypertension and preeclampsia.

Because they do not naturally degrade, these long-lasting contaminants are known colloquially as “forever chemicals.”

Forever Chemicals in California

Their near-indestructibility has caused PFAS to spread throughout the world. According to a 2020 study by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), as many as 200 million Americans have some level of PFAS in their drinking water supplies. But there is no federal standard for PFAS in drinking water and no nationwide requirement for local water systems to test for forever chemicals.

Michigan has the highest concentration of PFAS of any state, but according to a 2018 study by EWG, California comes in fourth with at least 21 public water systems testing positive for contamination by two specific types of PFAS: PFOS (Perfluorooctane Sulfonate) and PFOA (Perfluorooctanoic Acid). Some of the California cities and regions with those PFAS found in their water supplies, according to EWG, include Los Angeles, Monterey Bay, Alameda County, San Juan Capistrano and Visalia.

Between 2013 and 2015, the EPA required large water systems—those serving at least 10,000 people—nationwide to test for PFOA and PFOS. A 2021 report by the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) found that PFAS are widespread in California and that, as with other types of pollutants, the forever chemicals crisis hits low-income communities the hardest.

At least 69 percent of communities identified by the state as disadvantaged had PFAS in their drinking water supplies, according to the NRDC, and about 25 percent of those communities had the highest levels of PFAS contamination anywhere in California.

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