Nitrate Contaminating Drinking Water for More Than 254,000 Californians
The University of California at Davis’ Center for Watershed Sciences released a major report on March 19 detailing extensive nitrate contamination in groundwater used as drinking water in the state's two leading agricultural regions—The Tulare Lake Basin in the Central Valley, and the Salinas Valley on the Central Coast. It finds that nitrate is now polluting the drinking water for a quarter million people, with projections that millions more Californians will be affected in the future. The report estimates that providing safe water to the communities currently affected will cost $20 to $36 million per year. Nitrate has been linked to Blue Baby syndrome, miscarriage, birth defects, diabetes, thyroid disease and cancer. (See below for contact info, solutions & key findings).
For years, families throughout the Salinas and Tulare regions have lugged gallons of water into their homes every week because nitrate levels mean it’s unsafe to drink from the tap. Even elementary schools in the affected communities are forced to buy bottled water for their children.
“Imagine not being able to cook with or drink the water out of your tap. But that’s what’s happening in California’s two most profitable farm regions,” says Laurel Firestone, co-director of Community Water Center in Visalia, Calif. Rural, low-income areas with small systems are especially vulnerable to nitrate contamination because they can’t afford expensive water treatment systems. “It’s time to ensure that California’s farm communities have access to safe and affordable drinking water.”
“The state has known for 40 years that applying too much fertilizer contaminates drinking water with unsafe levels of nitrates,” says Maria Herrera, of Community Water Center. “Trying to fix the problem through voluntary actions has not worked, and meanwhile the problem has gotten worse. We need to stem the problem at its source and reduce unnecessary fertilizer use."
Unlike pesticides, the use of chemical fertilizer is not regulated, taxed or monitored. “The state needs to implement a program that ensures wide-scale adoption of farm practices to reduce the amount of fertilizer that comes off fields,” says Jennifer Clary, of Clean Water Action.
On March 14, the Central Coast Water Board will be voting on a program that requires farmers to monitor and protect groundwater quality. According to Clary, “this program is an essential first step to protecting communities and water safety in the Salinas Valley area and will create a precedent for protecting impacted communities in other regions of the state.” The Central Valley Regional Water Board is also working on a series of regulatory permits that will require irrigated lands to protect groundwater quality for the first time ever. The first draft order in the Central Valley is expected in April.
Key report findings include:
- The total volume of groundwater exceeding the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Maximum Contaminant Levels (MCL) for nitrate in the Tulare Lake Basin and Salinas Valley is 32.2 million acre feet and 3.4 million acre feet, respectively. The amount is equal to 11 trillion gallons—so vast it would fill Lake Shasta nearly eight times.
- Agricultural activities are responsible for 96 percent of the pollution, with chemical fertilizer making up 54 percent of the sources.
- About 254,000 people are currently at risk. One million people—more than 57 percent of residents in the two areas—rely on a community water system with recorded nitrate concentrations that have been above the MCL at least once between 2006 and 2010.
- Report authors estimate that if nothing is done to prevent more runoff from farms, by 2050, nearly 80 percent of the residents in the Tulare and Salinas regions could be impacted.
Advocates call for solutions
The Community Water Center, Clean Water Action, and California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation are calling for funding to develop and implement safe drinking water solutions to affected communities; a state program to provide tools and strong incentives to ensure fertilizer is used more efficiently to prevent pollution; and a framework to measure the effectiveness of these efforts.
Four bills have been proposed this year to fund and provide safe drinking water in the Salinas Valley and Tulare Lake Basin, and to support farm implementation of best management practices. They include:
- AB685 (Eng) Establishing a State Policy to Implement the Human Right to Water in California
- AB1669 (Perea): Establishing a mechanism to direct funding to develop and implement drinking water solutions in Nitrate At Risk Areas.
- AB 2174 (Alejo): Expands CDFA’s Fertilizer Research and Education Program (FREP) to provide assistance to farmers to implement pollution prevention management practices, as well as makes funds available to communities to mitigate the impacts of fertilizer contamination.
- AB2238 (Perea): Establishing clearer funding mechanisms to develop and implement projects that connect and consolidate small disadvantaged community water systems without safe, affordable drinking water.
Advocates call for rescuing the Fertilizer Research and Education Program (FREP) program from the fertilizer industry and reform it so that it helps fund technical assistance and outreach needed by farmers and farm communities. AB 2174, sponsored by Assemblymember Luis Alejo, will expand the FREP program to provide technical assistance to farmers, who have been paying into this fund for 20 years and have not received the practical support necessary to implement more effective nitrogen management practices.
Clear requirements for groundwater protection and monitoring should be implemented through the Irrigated Lands Regulatory Programs to ensure that farms are on a level playing field and best management practices adopted on a large scale to protect community drinking water supplies.
A national problem
Concern is growing nationally over the environmental and health impacts of nitrogen pollution, spurred mainly by the use of chemical nitrogen fertilizer. Nitrogen runoff from farms acts as unwanted fertilizer that spurs the growth of algae in lakes and coastal areas, essentially choking out other forms of marine life. Surveys by the EPA show that about one-third of U.S. streams and two-fifths of U.S. lakes are impaired by high nitrogen concentrations. And two-thirds of U.S. coastal systems, including the Gulf of Mexico and the Chesapeake Bay, are moderately to severely impaired.
Meanwhile, nitrate contamination affects communities throughout California. In February, the California State Water Board identified 452 wells in use in 206 community systems that are impacted by nitrates.
And thousands of farm communities across the U.S. struggle with the cost of providing safe drinking water. For example, a water system in Decatur, Illinois costs about 8 million dollars, with additional annual operating expenses of two- to four hundred thousand dollars—to serve its population of 76,000. The problem is international as well. A 2011 nitrogen assessment put the cost of European nitrogen pollution at 100 billion dollars a year.
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Kevin T. Smiley
When hurricanes and other extreme storms unleash downpours like Tropical Storm Beta has been doing in the South, the floodwater doesn't always stay within the government's flood risk zones.
New research suggests that nearly twice as many properties are at risk from a 100-year flood today than the Federal Emergency Management Agency's flood maps indicate.
Flooding Outside the Zones<p>About <a href="https://furmancenter.org/files/Floodplain_PopulationBrief_12DEC2017.pdf" target="_blank">15 million</a> Americans live in FEMA's current 100-year flood zones. The designation warns them that their properties face a 1% risk of flooding in any given year. They must obtain flood insurance if they want a federally ensured loan – insurance that helps them recover from flooding.</p><p>In Greater Houston, however, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1539-6924.2012.01840.x" target="_blank">47% of claims</a> made to FEMA across three decades before Hurricane Harvey were outside of the 100-year flood zones. Harris County, recognizing that FEMA flood maps don't capture the full risk, now <a href="https://www.hcfcd.org/floodinsurance" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">recommends that every household</a> in Houston and the rest of the county have flood insurance.</p><p>New risk models point to a similar conclusion: Flood risk in these areas outstrips expectations in the current FEMA flood maps.</p><p>One of those models, from the <a href="https://firststreet.org/flood-lab/research/2020-national-flood-risk-assessment-highlights/" target="_blank">First Street Foundation</a>, estimates that the number of properties at risk in a 100-year storm is 1.7 times higher than the FEMA maps suggest. Other <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aaac65" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">researchers</a> find an even higher margin, with 2.6 to 3.1 times more people exposed to serious flooding in a 100-year storm than FEMA estimates.</p>
What FEMA’s Flood Maps Miss<p>Understanding why areas outside the 100-year flood zones are flooding more often than the FEMA maps suggest involves larger social and environmental issues. Three reasons stand out.</p><p>First, some places rely on relatively old FEMA maps that don't account for recent urbanization.</p><p>Urbanization matters because impervious surfaces – think pavement and buildings – are not effective sponges like natural landscapes can be. Moreover, the process for updating floodplain maps is locally variable and can take years to complete. Famously, New York City was updating its maps when Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012 but hadn't finished, meaning flood maps in effect <a href="https://projects.propublica.org/nyc-flood/" target="_blank">were from 1983</a>. FEMA is required to assess whether updates are needed every five years, but the <a href="https://www.fema.gov/cis/nation.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">majority of maps</a> <a href="https://www.oig.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/assets/2017/OIG-17-110-Sep17.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">are older</a>.</p><p>Second, binary thinking can lead people to an underaccounting of risk, and that can mean communities fail to take steps that could protect a neighborhood from flooding. The logic goes: if I'm not in the 100-year floodplain, then I'm not at risk. Risk perception <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/ab195a" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">research</a> backs this up. FEMA-delineated flood zones are the major factor shaping flood mitigation behaviors.</p><p>Third, the era of climate change scuttles conventional assumptions.</p><p>As the planet warms, extreme storms are becoming <a href="https://nca2018.globalchange.gov/" target="_blank">more common and severe</a>. If greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase at a high rate, computer models suggest that the chances of a severe storm dropping 20 inches of rain on Texas in any given year will increase from about 1% at the end of the last century to 18% at the end of this one, a chance of <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1716222114" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">once every 5.5 years</a>. So far, <a href="https://www.rstreet.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/195.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">FEMA hasn't taken into account the impact climate change is having</a> on extreme weather and sea level rise.</p>
Racial Disparities in Flooding Outside the Zones<p>So, who is at risk?</p><p>Years of research and evidence from storms have highlighted social inequalities in areas with a high risk of flooding. But most local governments have less understanding of the social and demographic composition of communities that experience flood impacts outside of flood zones.</p><p>In analyzing the damage from Hurricane Harvey in the Houston area, I found that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aba0fe" target="_blank">Black and Hispanic residents disproportionately experienced flooding</a> in areas beyond FEMA's 100-year flood zones.</p><p>With the majority of flooding from Hurricane Harvey occurring outside of 100-year flood zones, this meant that the overall impact of Harvey was racially unequal too.</p><p>Research into where flooding occurs in Baltimore, Chicago and Phoenix points to some of the potential causes. <a href="https://www.nap.edu/read/25381/chapter/4#16" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">In Baltimore and Chicago</a>, for example, aging storm and sewer infrastructure, poor construction and insufficient efforts to mitigate flooding are part of the flooding problem in some predominantly Black neighborhoods.</p>
What Can Be Done About It<p>Better accounting for those three reasons could substantively improve risk assessments and help cities prioritize infrastructure improvements and flood mitigation projects in these at-risk neighborhoods.</p><p>For example, First Street Foundation's risk maps account for <a href="https://firststreet.org/flood-lab/research/flood-model-methodology_overview/" target="_blank">climate change</a> and present <a href="https://floodfactor.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">ratings</a> on a scale from 1 to 10. FEMA, which works with communities to update flood maps, is <a href="https://www.fema.gov/media-library-data/1521054297905-ca85d066dddb84c975b165db653c9049/TMAC_2017_Annual_Report_Final508(v8)_03-12-2018.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">exploring rating systems</a>. And the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine recently <a href="https://www.nationalacademies.org/news/2019/03/new-report-calls-for-different-approaches-to-predict-and-understand-urban-flooding" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">called for a new generation of flood maps</a> that takes climate change into account.</p><p>Including recent urbanization in those assessments will matter too, especially in fast-growing cities like Houston, where <a href="https://authors.elsevier.com/a/1boBRyDvMFW6W" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">386 new square miles</a> of impervious surfaces were created in the last 20 years. That's greater than the land area of New York City. New construction in one area can also <a href="https://scalawagmagazine.org/2018/01/city-in-a-swamp-as-houston-booms-its-flood-problems-are-only-getting-worse/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">impact older neighborhoods downhill</a> during a flood, as some Houston communities discovered in Hurricane Harvey.</p><p>Improving risk assessments is needed not just to better prepare communities for major flood events, but also to prevent racial inequalities – in housing and beyond – from <a href="https://www.npr.org/2019/03/05/688786177/how-federal-disaster-money-favors-the-rich" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">growing</a> after the unequal impacts of disasters.</p>
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