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Hundreds of Communities Rely on Contaminated Water

Jun 7, 2013

More than 600 communities in California rely on contaminated groundwater. Nowhere is the problem more acute than in the Tulare Lake Basin and the Salinas Valley.  It’s estimated that a quarter of a million people there rely on groundwater contaminated with nitrates, including some of the poorest people in the state. In the first of two stories, Amy Quinton reports on how one community struggles to deal with the problem. 

Springfield lies along a single dusty road near Watsonville in Monterey County. Strawberry fields surround the road. In the middle of one of those fields is the source of the community’s frustration. 

“This is the well that serves this system," says Don Rosa with the Pajaro Sunny Mesa Community Services District. which operates the groundwater system. They took it over in 2004 to upgrade it.

"The cement housing around the protection for the well was so degraded that the irrigation water, and the rainwater and everything else was just going right down the sides of the column," says Rosa.

The well should be where 165 Springfield residents get their drinking water. But this mostly Spanish-speaking poor farming community can’t drink or cook with it, because it’s contaminated with nitrates. That’s the result of decades of fertilizers and animal wastes seeping into the groundwater. Rosa regularly tests the water. 

“The latest result is 253 parts per million and the maximum contaminate level for nitrates is 45," says Rosa.

The nitrate level is often six times higher than what the EPA considers safe to drink. Nitrate levels that high can cause a potentially fatal blood disorder in infants called “blue baby syndrome.”  Springfield has had polluted water since at least 1986.

"We have communities that are really struggling and don’t have access to something most Californians take for granted," says Jeanette Pantoja, with California Rural Legal Assistance. She says poor areas like Springfield simply lack the funding and political clout to fix the problem.  Laura Pendo says she’s had to buy bottled water for decades.

“Ever since we moved here they told us, cause that’s when all my kids were little, they’ve been telling us don’t drink the water, and boiling it doesn’t help, it makes it worse with the nitrates and I boil my spaghetti, I’ll boil food in the water from the tap because you start pouring gallons and gallons of water you’re buying in there and it gets very expensive," says Pendo.

At a community meeting, Pantoja tells neighbors about the organization’s efforts to secure an emergency state grant to pay for bottled water in Springfield. Resident Marta Saldibar says the cost of bottled water adds up.

“I pay ten dollars for a five gallon bottle, so I take two of those or two and a half of those it’s about $25 dollars a week, more or less like $100 dollars a month for just water," says Saldibar.

That’s in addition to a monthly water bill. The California Department of Public Health oversees the state’s Safe Drinking Water Program. It administers federal loans and grants to fix local drinking water problems. But Don Rosa says getting that funding hasn’t been easy.

"We’ve been applying for monies anywhere we can possibly think of to apply for monies, and we’ve been uh..unsuccessful at this point as far as getting a loan or grant or anything of that nature," says Rosa.

Rosa sighs a lot when talking about efforts made to get funding for a new well. One state grant received in partnership with a nearby school that lacked clean water was rescinded after the school shut down. In 2008, another loan request was denied.

"The biggest reason was the projected increase to the monthly residential bill was going to be $521.90 per parcel per water user per month," says Rosa.

No water user in Springfield can afford that. But living with toxic water hasn’t been easy. Maria Guiterrez says when she runs out of bottled water, the nearest store is 15 minutes away. She says it’s hard to live like this.

“I am worried about my health because the water tastes horrible and even when you have to brush your teeth you think about it and you think back to when they didn’t live here and what a difference that felt and it’s on your mind," says Guiterrez.

Some people say if they could afford to leave Springfield, they would. For now, buying bottled water is their only option.