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In Bakersfield, Complex Web Of Water Systems Makes Pollution Cleanup Difficult

Aug 24, 2017

From Keith Pickett’s front yard just east of Bakersfield you can see the trees of where the official city begins. He’s on the board of a tiny water system with less than 30 homes. It’s called the East Wilson Road Water Company and the water he’s washing his dishes with is polluted with nitrates.

"Hopefully at some point the litigation will be resolved and we can recover those costs at a zero impact to our customers." - Mike Mares, California Water Service

“It doesn’t taste funny, but because it’s high in nitrates we do not cook with it, we don’t drink it,” says Pickett as he loads his dishwasher with a mug. “But we shower and use it for everything else.”

Drinking nitrates is most harmful to infants. It restricts the flow of oxygen to the body and can lead to so-called “blue baby syndrome” or even death. Pickett’s neighborhood discovered the problem eight years ago. They’ve known about it for a long time, but the fix hasn’t come yet because they’re district is too small and solving the problem is really expensive.

“To do this it’s between $80,000 and $100,000 per household,” says Pickett. “We’re considered low income. We’re less than $49,545 per household.”

As of now he says they could have clean water in a couple years if a large water district nearby helps solve their problem by extending water lines to the community. They’ll also need to dig a new well. Pickett’s community isn’t alone, one of the many of things that makes Bakersfield unique is that there are over 25 water systems in this area. That makes it difficult to find long-term solutions for all these communities with contamination issues.

“All the paperwork’s done, everything's ready, they’re just waiting to present it to the California water board again for approval,” says Pickett. “Every time we get what they say is funded and go in front of the board they say it’ll be about two years. I’ve been working on it for five years now.”

The East Wilson Road Company water system could have clean water within a couple years, but first the state will have to approve consolidating with a larger district nearby.
Credit Ezra David Romero / Valley Public Radio

But why is it this way in Bakersfield? Art Chianello is the director of Bakersfield’s Water Resources Department. He says there are so many water systems here because as Bakersfield has grown, it’s engulfed unincorporated communities and also allowed new developments to dig their own wells and govern their own water systems.

“A lot of it had to with history, because being predominantly agricultural it was common then that a group of  homes would drill a well and maybe have a water storage tank and create a mutual water company to provide water,” says Chianello.

"It's very different for the small ones . . . They can't shutdown. They'll have to wait until the litigation is settled to really pursue and install treatment." - Tricia Wathen, SWRCB

Lots of these systems, including the two largest, are in the process of meeting a January cleanup deadline for a contaminant called 123-TCP. It’s a component of a fumigant that was used heavily in agriculture to kill tiny worms that eat plants. It’s invisible and when consumed over a long period of time can cause cancer. The state will start regulating the chemical in January and water companies will have to start testing for it every month. The largest water systems in the area are racing to fix the problem.

This plant treats 123-TCP. Over the next year Bakersfield water companies will be building 61 one of these to do deal with the regions contamination issues.
Credit Ezra David Romero / Valley Public Radio

Geoff Fulks is the assistant district manager for California Water Service in Bakersfield. They’re in charge of 136 wells serving 70,000 connections. We’re at one of the sites that already has a giant filter that removes 123-TCP. He says it’s like a giant Brita water filter.

“It’s a very similar thing to what’s inside your refrigerator filter,” Fulks says. “It’s 20 feet tall, big giant egg looking vessels, but they’re filled with this granular activated carbon. That media does the filtering of TCP.”

Cal Water also operates the City of Bakersfield's 61 wells that service another 40,000 connections. Together 68 of the wells test above the state’s future standard for 123-TCP. Cal Water is paying out of pocket to build the cleanup sites, but the city may have to take out bonds to pay for them and may increase water rates. To pay for this both are suing the companies that created the fumigants in hopes of a payout. California Water Services Bakersfield District Manager Mike Mares says if they win the lawsuits then they can use the money to reimburse themselves.

“Hopefully at some point the litigation will be resolved and we can recover those costs at a zero impact to our customers,” says Mares. “However if there is a situation where we do need to recover funds to pay for this that’ll be brought up in a future rate case.”

The larger systems can afford to cleanup their water. Mares says the worst wells will be fixed by the first of the year. And the city says it’ll cost around $55 million to cleanup their 41 contaminated wells. But smaller water systems dealing with 123-TCP contamination are at a standstill. Many can’t afford the millions it’ll take to cleanup their water. All the small districts dealing with 123-TCP contamination I spoke with refused to go on record because they’re currently in litigation. Tricia Wathen oversees Bakersfield for the State Water Resources Control Board.

“It’s very different for the small ones that are disadvantaged that have one source,” says Wathen. “They can’t shutdown. They’ll have to wait until the litigation is settled to really pursue and install treatment.”

Still Wathen says Bakersfield is ahead of the game when it comes to fixing their problems with 123-TCP. But for small water systems it may be years and years before they find a long term solution. Wathen also says that the litigation if successful could actually solve some of the city’s other water problems by further consolidating the city's dozens of water systems.