Nitrate—the oxidized form of dissolved nitrogen— is the main
source of nitrogen for plants. It occurs naturally in soil and
dissipates when the soil is extensively farmed. Thus, nitrogen
fertilizers are applied to replenish the soil. However, these
nitrates can be toxic, especially when they enter the food chain
via groundwater and surface water.
The State Water Resources Control Board announced the
completion of its first-ever comprehensive look at California
water systems that are struggling to provide safe drinking
water to communities and how to help them. With criteria for
the state’s Human Right to Water list recently expanded, the
assessment identifies both failing water systems and those at
risk of failing, offering the most indepth view of long-term
drinking water safety the state has ever had.
California remains far behind its targets for addressing
exposed playa around the Salton Sea, according to data released
in the 2021 Salton Sea Management Program annual report.
But state officials expressed optimism in a public
workshop that they are finally beginning to catch up to those
goals. The state was supposed to implement dust suppression
projects or build wetlands habitat across 3,500 acres of
exposed playa by the end of 2020 to tamp down dust that’s
imbued with a century’s worth of salts, pesticides and other
According to USGS, 56 percent of streams sampled had one or
more pesticides in water that exceeded at least one
aquatic-life federal standard. Many of these pesticides are
also linked to a range of human and environmental health
effects including cancer, birth defects, neurological and
reproductive health impacts. … [A] report released by UC
Davis examined the the four-county Tulare Lake Basin and the
Monterey County portion of the Salinas Valley. The study found
that … agricultural fertilizers and animal wastes applied to
cropland are by far the largest regional sources of nitrate in
groundwater; nitrate loading reductions are possible, some at
modest cost. Large reductions of nitrate loads to groundwater
can have substantial economic cost…
As a scholar, my work is situated at the intersection of
climate change, public health, and public policy. I am an
interdisciplinary researcher, and my interests are centered on
environmental justice….During California’s last extreme
drought, I was doing my field work and visited East
Porterville, which was ground zero for how water injustice was
hitting migrant communities, particularly undocumented Latino
migrants. They had very little water, and what they had was
An estimated 100,000 Central Valley residents impacted by
nitrate groundwater contamination will soon be supplied with
safe drinking water on a temporary basis while more permanent
solutions are developed. These solutions in the form of
bottled water deliveries or bottle-filling kiosks are outlined
in Early Action Plans submitted to the Central Valley Regional
Water Quality Control Board for six geographic zones
deemed to have the most serious groundwater contamination
An invisible line splits the rural road of Avenue 416 in
California’s Tulare county, at the point where the nut trees
stretch east toward the towering Sierra Nevada mountains in the
distance. On one side of the line, residents have clean water.
On the other side, they do not. On the other side lies East
Orosi, an unincorporated community of about 700 where children
grow up learning to never open their eyes or mouths while they
shower. They know that what comes out of their faucets may harm
them, and parents warn they must not swallow when they brush
their teeth. They spend their lives sustaining themselves on
bottled water while just one mile down Avenue 416, the same
children they go to school with in the community of Orosi can
drink from their taps freely and bathe without a second
Emily Rooney, president of the Agricultural Council of
California, is a member of the advisory group for California’s
Safe and Affordable Funding for Equity and Resilience (SAFER)
drinking water program. She spoke with Agri-Pulse about an
unexpected coalition that helped bring about the 2019 law and
why the issue is important to agriculture.
The stage is finally set for years of talking to be translated
into actual clean drinking water for potentially thousands of
San Joaquin Valley residents. But activists fear the effort
will flop before the curtain rises if more isn’t done to engage
the people who are drinking that water. The issue is nitrate,
which is rife the valley’s groundwater and considered
dangerous for infants and pregnant women.
The newly formed Kaweah Water Foundation will be hosting a
series of Safe Drinking Water public workshops in January 2021
for residents within Tulare County. The workshops will
focus on nitrates in the Kaweah area and short-term drinking
water solutions for community water systems and domestic well
The beneficial effects of wetlands on water quality are well
documented, and wetlands are widely used both in urban and
rural settings to remove pollution arising from human
activities. The biogeochemical conditions in wetlands
particularly favor the removal of nitrate, which is often the
dominant form of nitrogen pollution in water.
Local leaders, farmers and others in the Central Valley report
additional progress in addressing salinity in surface water,
and salt and nitrates in groundwater, in compliance with a
program adopted last fall by the State Water Resources Control
Environmental Working Group analyzed California State Water
Resources Control Board data on the San Joaquin Valley
communities with nitrate levels in drinking water meeting or
exceeding the federal legal limit. We found that almost six in
10 are majority-Latino. Latinos are also a majority in Valley
communities with nitrate at or above half the legal limit,
which is linked to increased risk of cancer and other diseases.
An innovative process that uses naturally occurring bacteria to
remove nitrate from contaminated groundwater has received
approval from California’s State Water Board as a treatment
method. The validation stems from a recent pilot study in
The recovery from the COVID shutdown gives us a rare
opportunity to rethink our relationship with the global
ecosystems on which we depend. Like so many others, I long for
a return to normalcy. But that’s not what we need. We must come
out of this pandemic looking to address other looming crises.
Our unsustainable agricultural system, along with climate
change, are at the top of the list.
The report, recently released by the city, shows minimal, or
“zero,” levels of cancer-causing chemicals and dissolved solids
that were present as little as four years ago when the city
relied on well water. Today the city obtains its water from the
Sacramento River after which it is treated and delivered to
homes and businesses.
For the first time in five years, Seville residents can safely
drink and cook with the water that flows from their taps. The
small agricultural community of about 500 nestled at the scenic
base of the Sierra Nevada has been ground zero for Tulare
County’s water crisis for more than a decade.
It was standing room only as supporters of Curtimade Dairy
lined the walls of Corcoran City Council chambers during last
night’s city council meeting. Corcoran is currently suing the
Curti family for $65 million dollars for damages incurred when
their dairy allegedly contaminated the city’s water supply at
the height of the drought in 2015.
At a breakfast event hosted by the Water Association of Kern
County shortly after the amendments were adopted, a panel
discussed what the new program from the Central Valley Regional
Water Quality Control Board means for dischargers in the
Central Valley. The panel speakers were Clay Rodgers, Assistant
Executive Officer at the regional water board; Tess Dunham, an
attorney with Somach Simmons & Dunn; and Richard Meyerhoff, a
water quality specialist with GEI Consultants.
The city of Corcoran and Curtimade Dairy have been neighbors
for more than 100 years. But about four years ago, their
relationship turned contentious. The city said it planned to
sue the dairy for contaminating its drinking water wells with
nitrates, a contaminant that if consumed, can interfere with
the ability of red blood cells to carry oxygen to body tissues.
Nitrogen pollution, largely from burning fossil fuels,
industrial agriculture and wildfire can reduce drinking water
quality and make air difficult to breathe. Thanks to a $1.1
million grant from the National Science Foundation, we will
soon have a better understanding of how much nitrogen arid
ecosystems can absorb before they produce negative effects.
California might have the fifth largest economy in the world,
but many people in the state’s disadvantaged communities feel
like they are living in a third world country because they
don’t have safe, clean and affordable drinking water.
In recent years the idea of nutrient management has been become
even more important with increasing regulations related to
nitrate levels in groundwater. Cooperation between water
agencies and CDFA has helped to provide better education and
outreach for the development of balance sheets for nutrient
As the state focuses on providing clean and affordable drinking
water for millions of residents, those on private wells
typically face an uphill battle. Private well owners confront
significant financial challenges digging new wells, and
connecting to a public water system involves a daunting local
and state bureaucratic process…
Action by the state water board sets in motion a 35-year
program of activity and research to address nitrate and salt
content in Central Valley groundwater, in order to achieve
A decade in the making, regulators on Wednesday approved new
rules that will require the agricultural industry and others to
shield nitrates and salt from seeping into groundwater
supplies. “This is huge,” said Patrick Pulupa, executive
officer of the Central Valley Water Quality Control Board.
When nitrogen-based fertiliser runs into water systems it can
result in toxic algae blooms, leading to oxygen depletion and
vast oceanic ‘dead zones’. Evidence suggests their use also
contributes to air pollution, increased rates of cancer and
reduced biodiversity, as well as emitting nitrous oxide – an
extremely potent greenhouse gas. … A team of scientists, led
by the University of California, Davis, has come up with a
five-step plan to tackle this two-sided problem.
Access to safe and affordable water is a basic human right.
Many of our communities have been without safe water for years
or even decades because of contamination of our drinking water
sources. Living in communities without safe water is a public
health crisis. It is also a crisis of basic justice and equity.
Later this week, the State Water Resources Control Board will
vote on a long-anticipated plan to reduce some of the
pollutants flowing into Central Valley water. However, not
everyone agrees on the details.
Farmers clearly appreciate the yields that fertilizers
facilitate, but many acknowledge that these chemicals are
tainting the land and water. Enter the Central Coast Wetlands
Group and the Coastal Conservation and Research, Inc. and their
new bioreactor designed to process agricultural runoff, turning
algae-bloom-triggering waste into benign nitrogen gas.
Senate Bill 513, authored by Senator Melissa Hurtado
(D-Sanger), is headed towards Governor Gavin Newsom’s desk for
approval. The bill, which received bi-partisan support, will
provide relief for families without reliable access to water by
delivering a temporary alternative source of water supply.
In 2012, California became the first state in the country to
declare that “Every human being has the right to safe, clean,
affordable and accessible water” when the state legislature
inserted that statement into its state water code. Now, a new
UCLA study finds, the state may be making progress on turning
that goal into a reality.
The Exeter City Council on Tuesday voted unanimously to scrap
plans to connect Exeter’s water system with Tooleville, a rural
community of about 80 households that has struggled for years
with dirty water.
A lot of money will soon be flowing into California communities
with contaminated drinking water thanks to the new Safe and
Affordable Drinking Water Fund. Today at its meeting, the State
Water Board will talk about how to implement that $1.4-billion
program. One community that could use the help is north of Moss
California’s water regulator voted Tuesday to spend $1.3
billion over the next 10 years to provide safe drinking water
to communities throughout California. The money allocated by
the State Water Resources Control Board comes from the Safe and
Affordable Drinking Water Fund, created last month when Gov.
Gavin Newsom signed Senate Bill 200.
The more than 1 million Californians without access to safe,
affordable drinking water may soon see money flowing for water
districts to regionalize, consolidate, install treatment, or
take other actions to improve water quality.
Where Napa’s water quality is concerned, no news may be good
news. A three-year analysis of the city’s water sources showed
reservoirs meeting all federal and state limits on a variety of
contaminants, a recently released report states.
I’m here with Dr. Peter Gleick, co-founder and president
emeritus of the Pacific Institute. Peter serves on the Circle
of Blue Board of Trustees from his base in California, where
Governor Gavin Newsom just signed a bill directing some $130
million to improve access to clean drinking water for many
Gov. Gavin Newsom on Wednesday signed into law the Safe and
Affordable Drinking Water Fund bill in the tiny Fresno County
community of Tombstone Territory — where residents rely on
bottled water because their private wells are contaminated.
Starting next year, Senate Bill 200 will provide $130 million
annually to clean up drinking water in California communities
like Tombstone that lack access to safe water.
The “Water Justice Act” would invest nearly $220 billion in
clean and safe drinking water programs, with priority given to
high-risk communities and schools. As part of that, Harris’
plan would declare a drinking water infrastructure emergency,
devoting $50 billion toward communities and schools where water
California Influencers this week answered one or both of the
following the questions: What are your thoughts regarding Gov.
Gavin Newsom and the Legislature’s decision to use money from
the state’s cap-and-trade funding to improve drinking water for
at-risk Californians? How can California best provide safe and
clean water for all of us?
Brokered in large part by rookie state senator for California’s
14 Senate District, Melissa Hurtado, the southern portion of
the Valley has gained tens of millions of dollars of investment
in drinking water, asthma mitigation, aging and disability
resource centers and Valley Fever research.
The California Senate on Monday sent legislation to Gov. Gavin
Newsom that will spend $130 million a year over the next decade
to improve drinking water for about a million people. …
Newsom had proposed a tax on most residential water bills to
address the problem. Instead, the Senate approved a bill that
would authorize spending up to $130 million each year on the
state’s distressed water districts, with most of it coming from
a fund aimed at fighting climate change.
Over 10 years, it would funnel $1.4 billion to the fund for
clean water solutions. The budget has been approved by the
California Legislature, but still needs Gov. Gavin Newsom’s
signature to pass. It also still needs trailer bills that
authorize some of the spending – including the drinking water
State Senator Melissa Hurtado (D-Sanger) announced Monday she
has secured a $15 million one-time investment of General Funds
for the southern Central Valley. The funds will address failing
water systems that deliver safe clean drinking water to
California’s most vulnerable communities.
After several failed attempts, there is momentum this
legislative session to establish a fund for small water
agencies unable to provide customers with clean drinking water
because of the high treatment costs. But several hurdles remain
before the June 15 deadline for the Legislature to pass a
budget — most precariously, a resistance among lawmakers to tax
millions of residential water users and others while California
enjoys a surplus of more than $21 billion.
The United States has one of the world’s safest drinking water
supplies, but new challenges constantly emerge. For example …
many farm workers in California’s Central Valley have to buy
bottled water because their tap water contains unsafe levels of
arsenic and agricultural chemicals that have been linked to
elevated risks of infant death and cancer in adults. … So I
was distressed to hear EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler tout
the quality of drinking water in the U.S. in an interview on
March 20, 2019.
Community activist Dolores Huerta joined local leaders in East
Bakersfield to urge elected leaders Tuesday to vote in favor of
legislation they say will ensure safe drinking water for
communities in the valley. Specifically, Huerta urged the
legislature to support what’s being termed the Safe and
Affordable Drinking Water Fund. It would be financed by the tax
payers, estimated to be a one dollar per month tax increase on
every water bill in California.
The Senate voted 37-1 on Wednesday to approve a bill that would
create a fund dedicated to improving the state’s drinking
water. But the bill is clear the money could not come from a
new tax on water bills. Instead, Senate leaders have signaled
their intention to use $150 million of existing taxpayer money
City water will be flowing to yet another community living in
county jurisdiction with the state forcing the City Council’s
Monday action to supply water service to the privately owned
Ceres West Mobile Home Park. … The park, which was approved
by the county in 1969, had limited options to supply drinking
water to its residents because water from an on-site well
exceeds state limits for arsenic and nitrates.
In 2016, California became the first state to pass legislation
regulating dairy methane, requiring the farms to cut their
manure emissions 40% by 2030. … Enter Neil Black. Black’s
company builds multimillion-dollar projects at the state’s
largest dairies to capture the gas.
Contaminated groundwater is an ongoing problem in some of the
state’s poorest rural communities, particularly in the San
Joaquin Valley. One big threat is nitrate, caused mainly by
many decades of crop fertilization with chemical fertilizers
and dairy manure. We talked to Anja Raudabaugh of Western
United Dairymen about what can be done to address these
Napa County’s latest watershed symposium came at a time when
tensions are high over how to protect trees and reservoirs in
the area’s mountains. Close to 200 people from various
backgrounds came to Copia on Thursday for an A-to-Z look at
what’s happening in the watersheds. Scientists, elected
officials, wine industry members and citizen activists all
A well for the Vineyard Avenue Acres Mutual Water Co. tested as
having water with more than 10 milligrams of nitrates per
liter, the limit set by the California State Water Resources
Control Board, according to a letter sent to customers by the
utility under state orders. The utility serves a discrete area
of El Rio, so the problem does not affect other parts of the
The new funding includes about $250 million for climate-related
programs, thanks to the state’s cap-and-trade program, and $75
million to fund an assessment of wildfire protection plans. …
Newsom also defended a controversial tax on water bills that
would fund programs to rebuild broken or degraded drinking
water infrastructure in some of the state’s poorest
No family should have to live in a community in which the water
that comes from their taps puts their children’s health at
risk. Over the last several years, the state has authorized
millions of dollars for emergency actions and one-time patches,
but has shied from doing what’s necessary to sustainably solve
Vertical farming also brings potential for solving our current
and projected water issues in California. By using hydroponic
system technology, water is constantly recycled and uses 98%
less water per item than traditional farming. Adopting this
technology would be greatly beneficial for our future,
considering that California’s agricultural sector uses 40% of
One of California Gov. Gavin
Newsom’s first actions after taking office was to appoint Wade
Crowfoot as Natural Resources Agency secretary. Then, within
weeks, the governor laid out an ambitious water agenda that
Crowfoot, 45, is now charged with executing.
That agenda includes the governor’s desire for a “fresh approach”
on water, scaling back the conveyance plan in the Sacramento-San
Joaquin Delta and calling for more water recycling, expanded
floodplains in the Central Valley and more groundwater recharge.
Low-income Californians can get help with their phone bills, their natural gas bills and their electric bills. But there’s only limited help available when it comes to water bills.
That could change if the recommendations of a new report are implemented into law. Drafted by the State Water Resources Control Board, the report outlines the possible components of a program to assist low-income households facing rising water bills.
One in seven Americans drink from private wells, according to
the U.S. Geological Survey. Nitrate concentrations rose
significantly in 21% of regions where USGS researchers tested
groundwater from 2002 through 2012, compared with the 13 prior
years. … “The worst-kept secret is how vulnerable
private wells are to agricultural runoff,” says David Cwiertny,
director of the University of Iowa’s Center for Health Effects
of Environmental Contamination.
The budget specifically calls out funding for Safe and
Affordable Drinking Water. It discusses the need to find a
stable funding source for long-term operation and maintenance
of drinking water systems in disadvantaged communities, stating
that existing loan and grant programs are limited to capital
A day after proposing a tax on drinking water, Gov. Gavin
Newsom took a “surprise” road trip to meet with Stanislaus
County residents in a community known for having unsafe wells.
Newsom and his cabinet made their first stop at the Monterey
Park Tract in Ceres, where he held a roundtable discussion with
people who for years had to use bottled water for drinking and
cooking because their community’s two wells were
long-contaminated with nitrates and arsenic.
Tackling what promises to be a controversial issue, Gov. Gavin
Newsom proposed a tax on drinking water Thursday to help
disadvantaged communities clean up contaminated water systems.
Newsom’s plan for a “safe and affordable drinking water fund,”
included in the new governor’s first budget proposal, attempts
to revive an idea that died in the Legislature last year.
The growing leadership of women in water. The Colorado River’s persistent drought and efforts to sign off on a plan to avert worse shortfalls of water from the river. And in California’s Central Valley, promising solutions to vexing water resource challenges.
These were among the topics that Western Water news explored in 2018.
We’re already planning a full slate of stories for 2019. You can sign up here to be alerted when new stories are published. In the meantime, take a look at what we dove into in 2018:
At the Groundwater Resources Association’s Western Groundwater
Congress, a panel of experts discussed emerging issues as
agencies work to develop their plans to comply with the
Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, which became law in
California in 2014.
The depletion of California’s aquifers by overpumping of
groundwater has led to growing interest in “managed aquifer
recharge,” which replenishes depleted aquifers using available
surface waters, such as high flows in rivers, runoff from
winter storms, or recycled waste water. At the same time, there
is growing concern about contamination of groundwater supplies
with nitrate from fertilizers, septic tanks, and other sources.
The U.S. drinking water standard for nitrate was set decades
ago at a level to prevent infant deaths. But recent research
suggests that the standard, decided in 1991, is out of date.
Scientists are accumulating evidence that the U.S.
Environmental Protection Agency’s nitrate limit may need to be
lowered because it does not account for potential long-term
health damage, including the risk of cancer, that harms people
into their adult years.
More than a decade in the making, an ambitious plan to deal
with the vexing problem of salt and nitrates in the soils that
seep into key groundwater basins of the Central Valley is
moving toward implementation, but its authors are not who you
might expect. An unusual collaboration of agricultural
interests, cities, water agencies and environmental justice
advocates collaborated for years to find common ground to
address a set of problems that have rendered family wells
undrinkable and some soil virtually unusable for farming.
More than a decade in the making, an
ambitious plan to deal with the vexing problem of salt and
nitrates in the soils that seep into key groundwater basins of
the Central Valley is moving toward implementation. But its
authors are not who you might expect.
An unusual collaboration of agricultural interests, cities, water
agencies and environmental justice advocates collaborated for
years to find common ground to address a set of problems that
have rendered family wells undrinkable and some soil virtually
unusable for farming.
Joaquin Esquivel learned that life is
what happens when you make plans. Esquivel, who holds the public
member slot at the State Water Resources Control Board in
Sacramento, had just closed purchase on a house in Washington
D.C. with his partner when he was tapped by Gov. Jerry Brown a
year ago to fill the Board vacancy.
Esquivel, 35, had spent a decade in Washington, first in several
capacities with then Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and then as
assistant secretary for federal water policy at the California
Natural Resources Agency. As a member of the State Water Board,
he shares with four other members the difficult task of
ensuring balance to all the uses of California’s water.
When folks talk about “black gold” in California’s Central
Valley, it’s usually a reference to oil – unless you’re in the
dairy business. No state in the country produces more milk than
California, thanks to its 1.7 million cows. Those cows also
produce a lot of manure – 120 pounds per cow per day.
Porterville, California, a town of about 50,000 people,
lies nestled at the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains,
near the gateways to Sequoia and Kings Canyon
national parks. It’s an idyllic setting, but in the nearby
rural communities of East Porterville, Poplar, Terra Bella and
Ducor, many residents get their drinking water from private
wells that are rarely tested for contaminants.
For years, Rebecca Quintana had been a highly visible activist
in the fight for safe drinking water, speaking regularly with
reporters, rallying residents and helping to spark an
unprecedented United Nations inspection in northern Tulare
County. … Across a wide, rural swath of the San Joaquin
Valley, people have long been unnerved about drinking the
sporadically contaminated tap water.
Federal inspections of cattle and hog feedlots, turkey houses,
and other animal feeding operations dropped for a fourth
consecutive year, according to U.S. Environmental Protection
Agency data. The number of fines and orders to change
management practices for those same facilities fell for a fifth
Many Californians don’t realize that when they turn on the
faucet, the water that flows out could come from a source close
to home or one hundreds of miles away. Most people take their
water for granted; not thinking about the elaborate systems and
testing that go into delivering clean, plentiful water to
households throughout the state. Where drinking water comes from,
how it’s treated, and what people can do to protect its quality
are highlighted in this 2007 PBS documentary narrated by actress
A 30-minute version of the 2007 PBS documentary Drinking Water:
Quenching the Public Thirst. This DVD is ideal for showing at
community forums and speaking engagements to help the public
understand the complex issues surrounding the elaborate systems
and testing that go into delivering clean, plentiful water to
households throughout the state.
This 15-minute video explains in an easy-to-understand manner the
importance of groundwater, defines technical terms, describes
sources of groundwater contamination and outlines steps
communities can take to protect underground aquifers. Includes
extensive computer graphics that illustrate these groundwater
concepts. The short running times makes it ideal for
presentations and community group meetings. Available on VHS and
The 28-page Layperson’s Guide to Groundwater is an in-depth,
easy-to-understand publication that provides background and
perspective on groundwater. The guide explains what groundwater
is – not an underground network of rivers and lakes! – and the
history of its use in California.
Nitrate—the oxidized form of dissolved nitrogen— is the main
source of nitrogen for plants. It occurs naturally in soil and
dissipates when the soil is extensively farmed. Thus, nirtrogen
fertilizers are applied to replenish the soil. However, these
nitrates can be toxic, especially when they enter the food chain
via groundwater and surface water.
In California, the State Water Resources Control Board lists
nitrate as one of California’s most challenging and growing water
California boasts some of the finest quality drinking water on
the planet. Every day, people turn on their tap and receive
clean, safe water with nary a thought. But the water people take
for granted isn’t so reliable for residents of small water
systems and many disadvantaged communities (DACs) in rural