Nitrates in Drinking Water: New Attention from State Water Board

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The drinking water in the town of Tulare County's Tooleville is contaminated with nitrates. (Photo: Sasha Khokha)
The drinking water in the Tulare County community of Tooleville is contaminated with nitrates. (Photo: Sasha Khokha)

As Sasha Khokha detailed on The California Report this morning, a major U.C. Davis report released today found that more than 250,000 people living in some of California's prime farming areas are at risk of drinking water contaminated with nitrates. The contamination is largely from fertilizer used widely across California farmland and from animal manure from large dairies and other confined animal facilities.

Nitrates are linked to health problems including thyroid illnesses, some cancers and a type of "blue baby syndrome," a blood disorder caused by a high concentration of nitrates which can be fatal to babies.

The new report--Addressing Nitrate in California's Drinking Water--looks at the Tulare Lake Basin, including Fresno and Bakersfield, as well as the Salinas Valley, including Salinas and areas near Monterey. 

Khokha has been reporting on the issue of nitrates in drinking water for five years. In 2010, Khokha and The California Report collaborated with California Watch on a multi-platform series "Living with Nitrates." The series later was honored with awards by the Society of Professional Journalists and the Knight-Risser Prize for Western Environmental Journalism.

In that 2010 series, Khokha interviewed a State Water Resources Control Board official who said nitrates took a backseat to more pressing water concerns, such as perchlorate and dry cleaning solvents.


“On the scale of things we deal with, while nitrates is certainly a concern and we’re managing for it, I don’t rank it high up there as something that makes me stay awake at night,” Darrin Polhemus, then-deputy director of the Board's division of water quality, said at the time.

But in reporting today's story, Khokha talked to Jonathan Bishop, Chief Deputy Director of the State Water Board, which commissioned today's study. When she asked him about what Mr. Polhemus told her back in 2010, Bishop said, “I’m sure that his comment is something he regrets, now, and then.” Bishop said. Then he added, “I don’t think you’d find anyone that would say, 'well, we just don’t need to worry about these small disadvantaged communities. There’s just not enough people; we won’t worry about them.' I think everyone is concerned about them. It [nitrates in drinking water] had never been looked at in this comprehensive of a way.”

Ironically, people who live in these small communities Bishop cites may pay more for tap water than people who live in major urban areas. But if that tap water is contaminated with nitrates, then they also have at the expense of buying bottled water.

"This report is going to be a challenge to many," said co-author Thomas Harter, of the U.C. Davis Department of Land, Air and Water Resources. "What I hope is that this report provides a way for us to all sit together and find ways to move forward. There are many promising options outlined in the report in terms of practices and technologies. I hope we can find sources of funding to do this."

Sources of funding are bound to be a big challenge as the report estimates that fixing drinking water systems just in the two basins examined could run up to $35 million a year for decades. Among other ideas, the report suggests a sales tax on fertilizer, something farmers currently do not pay. This idea is likely to be met with resistance from California's powerful agriculture lobby.

But it's a problem that must be addressed, the authors urge. "California is not alone in this problem," Harter says. "To the degree that we will need to feed ten billion people in the year 2050 that will demand food and fiber at about twice the rate that is being produced today. We all need to tackle this challenge and figure out how to do this sustainably. We can also lead and teach the world on how to do this. This is really a global responsibility that we carry here in California."

Learn more:

KQED's Forum March 14, 2012

California Watch on today's U.C. Davis report:

Sasha Khokha's 2010 series "Nitrates in Our Drinking Water:"