From Source to Tap: Protecting California’s Drinking Water
For most people in the United States, clean, safe drinking water is a given – a part of daily life that is assumed to be a constant, readily accessible commodity. Underpinning that fact are the vast, mostly unheralded efforts of the many people throughout the country who work everyday to take the raw source water from the environment and turn it into the safe drinking water that makes life possible.
The limited availability of water suitable for human use is all the more important considering that only 3 percent of the water on Earth is fresh – and most of that is frozen in glaciers and polar ice caps. Modern day technologies keep pace as new drinking water challenges emerge in the form of new constituents and the need to meet stricter standards. But there is increasing focus on keeping surface water as clean as possible, a matter that connects wastewater dischargers and drinking water providers.
“There’s an inherent conflict in trying to figure how to manage surface water in a way that provides beneficial uses but also drinkable water,” said Bruce Macler, drinking water toxicologist with U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Region IX in San Francisco. “There’s not a strong mandate on that last piece.”
Macler was part of a September Clean Water Symposium sponsored by the California Public Utilities Commission, Department of Health Services (DHS), State Water Resources Control Board (State Board) and Department of Water Resources. The meeting featured a discussion of some of the more pertinent water quality regulations designed to improve source water quality.
The juxtaposition of the federal Clean Water Act (CWA) and the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) does not always foster the seamless operation of the two rules, critics say. This occurs for many reasons, the primary of which is the fundamentally different mission of each law. The CWA does not explicitly address drinking water risks, while the SDWA is all about managing the risks to consumers. In addition, monitoring and assessment of drinking water constituents is not always coordinated between dischargers and drinking water providers.
“Currently, the SDWA and CWA requirements and implementation sometimes do not adequately protect drinking water sources, especially where multiple regulatory agencies are responsible for implementation of these two acts,” wrote Thomas W. Curtis, deputy executive director of the American Water Works Association, in an August letter to EPA. “While the SDWA regulates the quality of treated drinking water, the CWA should protect the contributing source water. Protection of drinking water supply watersheds and wellhead protection areas under the CWA is important for achieving the public health goals of the SDWA on a consistent basis.”
The complexity of drinking water treatment has increased remarkably through the years, advancing beyond the prospect of mere disinfection of water. Today, treatment encompasses an elaborate and sometimes expensive process that incorporates years of scientific research, monitoring, data analysis and remarkable cutting-edge technology. Yet, there are still occasional problems with waterborne disease outbreaks.
EPA, which has ultimate jurisdiction over drinking water, notes that “although water disinfection has been highly effective in reducing the incidence of certain diseases, such as cholera and typhoid, the continued occurrence of waterborne disease outbreaks demonstrates that contamination of drinking water with pathogenic bacteria, viruses, and parasites still poses a health risk when treatment is inadequate.”
The disinfection process, which removes disease-causing microorganisms, also has the unintended consequence of creating disinfection byproducts (DBPs) that have adverse health effects associated with them.
The threat posed by bacterial infection assumed national prominence in September with the occurrence of an outbreak of E. coli contamination that was traced to bagged spinach. While the outbreak was not associated with drinking water, it nonetheless illustrated the risks that continue to exist, as contaminants are introduced and circulate through the environment. In a 2005 book, The Environmental Science of Drinking Water, authors Patrick Sullivan, Franklin J. Agardy and James J.J. Clark note that “it should not be surprising” that drinking water contains chemical and biological pollutants, given the extent of activities that create the impurities.
“An increasing population … pollutes water resources with chemicals and biohazards from the production and use of consumer products, agricultural and animal production and human waste disposal,” the authors wrote. “This ever increasing spiral of population and pollution means that naturally pure sources of drinking water are almost extinct.”
Drinking water is treated to remove a variety of natural and synthetic contaminants, some of which are being detected at increasingly minute levels. The advent of improved scientific knowledge about the extent of these contaminants has kept regulatory agencies and the water community consumed with the pursuit of determining the threat posed to human health and the most effective means to limit exposure to harmful constituents. This has been at times a tumultuous process, as the costeffectiveness of proposed regulations is debated.
Water agencies, often bracketed by financial constraints, find themselves in a difficult situation, given the requirements of regulatory compliance and the increasing public awareness of high-profile pollutant issues. Two prominent issues are perchlorate, a contaminant most closely associated with rocket fuel – and arsenic, the naturally-occurring toxic element found in many small, rural areas.
Long-term consumption of drinking water with high arsenic levels causes arsenicosis, the effects of which include cancer. Arsenic treatment is expensive, including the necessary disposal of the resulting toxic waste. EPA in 2001 lowered the drinking water standard for arsenic from 50 parts per billion (ppb) to 10 ppb. One ppb is equivalent to a drop in an Olympic-sized swimming pool.
The new arsenic rule is “precedent setting” from a technology upgrade and public relations perspective, given the lengths to which drinking water agencies must go to achieve compliance, said Krista Clark, director of regulatory affairs with the Association of California Water Agencies (ACWA).
“There is great general acknowledgement that small rural systems are going to just crumble under the weight of the [arsenic] regulation,” Clark said. “And what are we going to do to help them out because the alternative is just shut some of them down and go home and that’s not an option.”
In the city of Hanford in Kings County, which is under an EPA compliance order to meet the federal arsenic standard, officials are dealing with the problem by abandoning some wells, drilling new ones and rehabilitating those with unsuitable concentrations. Costs for the effort could run as much as $8 million, a more manageable figure than the $18 million to $20 million for wellhead treatment, said Gary Misenhimer, the city’s director of public works. As such, he is hopeful the standard won’t be tightened further.
“If it goes below 10 ppb, we wouldn’t have any option but to put in treatment,” he said. “That becomes a tough nut to crack.”
Among the more prominent pollutants is perchlorate, the salt associated with various industrial activities that has bedeviled water providers in California as numerous wells have succumbed to contamination. The chemical poses a threat to humans, specifically developing fetuses, infants and children. Perchlorate is controversial for many reasons, not the least of which is the debate over what constitutes a proper regulatory standard. EPA has not established a drinking water standard, citing the need for more information, while DHS has proposed a level of no more than 6 ppb in drinking water.
The struggle regarding the level of protection needed for drinking water has sparked controversy because of the belief by some that the proposed standards are overly stringent given their cost effectiveness. Others say the vetting process by which regulations are developed facilitates an adequate debate regarding the feasibility of mandatory controls.
This issue of Western Water looks at some of the issues facing drinking water providers, such as compliance with increasingly stringent treatment requirements, the need to improve source water quality and the mission of continually informing consumers about the quality of water they receive. For more information on the subject, please refer to the Water Education Foundation’s Laypersons Guide to Drinking Water.
NOTE: A complete copy of this 16-page magazine is available from the Foundation for $3. Visit our Products Page and add the November/December 2006 issue of Western Water to your shopping cart, http://www.watereducation.org/store/default.asp?parentid=7
China is a country struggling with big decisions about their water resources. It is a country with tremendous water pollution. However, some people and leaders are waking to the idea that clean water is a valuable asset.
I recently visited China on a personal vacation with the Commonwealth Club of San Francisco. One highlight was a boat trip down the Yangtze River through the dramatic Three Gorges. I saw the controversial Three Gorges Dam that has been under construction for many years on the world’s third longest river. Construction began in 1994, but plans went back to the 1930s. A famous poem of Chairman Mao says to “modify the Yangtze river to a lake” and thus reduce flooding and improve navigation through a series of ship locks. A big purpose of the project is to produce an additional 10 percent of the country’s power generation. China made a gigantic investment in building the world’s biggest dam, built on a complex geologic area and inundating natural and historical sites. About 1.3 million people who lived along the river have been moved, mostly from rural areas to high-rise cities. There are silt and fishery problems. So time will tell whether or not the project will be successful.
China uses 7 percent of the world’s fresh water resources to support 21 percent of the world’s population. Clean water is not available to a large part of the population. About 300 million rural people do not have access to safe drinking water. There are more than 50 diseases in China transmitted through unsafe drinking water. Now the central government has made a pledge to get safe drinking water to these people over the next 10 years.
The Chinese people are achieving a higher standard of living and thus using more water and energy. There are a lot fewer bicycles – and more cars – in the cities than there were a few years ago. Ecological damage has accompanied the country’s industrial boom. Apparently many factories ignore pollution hazards and dump toxic waste into rivers and lakes. There is increased use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers, which have put surface water and shallow groundwater sources in danger. In some ways, China is similar to the U.S. before the 1970s when our Congress passed the Clean Water Act and Americans began massive investments in point source pollution clean-up. While I was in Beijing, an international water association met in Asia for the first time and encouraged overseas capital to invest in China’s water conservation, sewage treatment and wastewater recycling.
Cleaning up China’s environment will be a tough job, but as the sixth century B.C. Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu said, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”
In the News
Salton Sea Restoration Alternatives Released
Eight alternatives to restore California’s Salton Sea were released by the state Resources Agency in October. The alternatives outlined in the 3,000-page draft programmatic Environmental Impact Report (EIR) range in cost from $2.3 billion to $5.9 billion and include various options for building dams and dikes to divide the sea into smaller lakes and/or shallow wetland habitat. (Two no-action alternatives also are included in the report.) A final EIR that identifies a preferred alternative will be presented to the state Legislature in April. Additional legislation will be needed to implement and finance the restoration plan.
Each of the alternatives has some benefits, but each comes with tradeoffs. Under existing legislation, the state is to develop a plan that 1) provides the best restoration of long term stable aquatic and shoreline habitat for the historic levels and diversity of wildlife, 2) eliminates air quality impacts from the restoration project and 3) protects water quality. The Salton Sea Authority (SSA) also wants to somehow maintain a deep marine sea for recreation, which will increase political support and, potentially, local funding for the preferred alternative. How to mesh environmental values – and the state’s legal obligations - with recreation is a central question.
Formed in 1905 when the turbulent Colorado River broke through a series of dikes, the Salton Sea has grown saltier each year because of a combination of salty agricultural drainage inflow and the lack of a natural outlet. Already the sea is 30 percent saltier than the Pacific Ocean and scientists predict that if no action is taken to save it, the only surviving fishery, the tilapia, will eventually collapse. The end of the fishery would result in irrevocable harm to hundreds of thousands of fish-eating birds that now depend on the Salton Sea, one of the most important wetlands in North America. Some 250 species of resident and migratory birds are regularly found at the sea.
The Imperial Valley-San Diego water transfer is expected to accelerate this process and result in a smaller sea. The transfer is a key component of California’s Quantification Settlement Agreement and the state’s plan to reduce dependency on Colorado River water.
None of the alternatives released by the state received an “A” grade from environmentalists. But the Salton Sea Coalition, whose members include 10 environmental groups, believes a “hybrid” plan – taking various elements from several of the alternatives – will meet the goals of creating wildlife habitat and providing for recreation.
Most local residents favor the plan developed by the SSA because it would provide the largest and deepest bodies of water, enhancing recreational opportunities. The original alternative generated controversy, however, because it assumed that more water would flow into the sea than projected by state officials. Critics also said it would not provide enough water for habitat. The SSA has since amended the proposal so it uses the same water/inflow baseline as the state and provides more wildlife habitat. Officials plan to submit these changes within the confines of the 90-day public comment period.
State officials hope that a consensus will develop around one of the alternatives, or a modified plan. “My goal is to try to get as many people on board as possible,” said Dale Hoffman-Floerke, chief of the Colorado River and Salton Sea office for the California Department of Water Resources (DWR), which took the lead in developing the draft EIR.