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California's Drought Endangers Clean Supply of Water

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The California drought this year has put many in danger, from the loss of farmers' products to the drinking water in smaller communities that depend on wells. When abundant water is not available, the already contaminated groundwater becomes undrinkable due to a higher concentration of chemicals and pesticides in the water. Many of these groundwater systems are contaminated with nitrates from fertilizers, animal feeding systems, chemicals from oil extraction and natural contaminants with such as arsenic. Also, as the small water collections dry up they add to the breeding of mosquitos which can harbor diseases and the dust can affect those residents with lung conditions. In addition, the risk of range fire is also greatly increased due to the lower amount of rain and snow in California this winter.

What's being done?

In January, Governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency due to the all-time low reservoir levels. In an effect to help the communities most affected, the government provided relief by trucking in water and helping to lay pipes connecting residents with nearby public water. Last Fall he also signed a bill AB 685, the "Human Right to Water" which states "Every human being has the right to safe, clean, affordable, and accessible water adequate for human consumption, cooking, and sanitary purposes. Unfortunately, many residents, especially in small farming communities, are still exposed to unsafe chemicals in the water and have opted to spend excessive amounts of money to buy bottled water.

What Chemicals have been found?

Contaminated water
A woman in San Joaquin Valley, California who is exposed to nitrate and arsenic groundwater contamination
Credit: Erin Lubin

An example of the chemicals found in these communities' water in excess are trihalomethanes and haloacetic acids. These are by-products from disinfectants and are said to cause kidney, liver, and central nervous system (CNS) damage as well as increased cancer risks in those exposed for prolonged periods. Another chemical that often is above the Maximum Contaminant Level, or MCL in these communities is Perchlorate, which comes from fertilizers and is said to inhibit Thyroid function. As a result, residents often receive warnings on their water bill not to drink the water unless regularly tested. Another major contaminate found in California's ground water by the state water board last winter was Arsenic. Arsenic in excess of .010 parts per billion can cause skin discoloration, gastrointestinal issues, blindness and linked to cancer of many areas such as skin, kidney, liver, lungs and many others.

Next Steps

Luckily steps are being taken to try to improve the situation. The California Department of Public Health (CDPH) is working on the process to make emergency funding available for local water areas with immediate, and emergency needs. They are also pairing with state and local partners to support projects that will improve water systems delivery of safe drinking water. They are also monitoring levels of these above discussed chemicals in the drinking water. On the other side, The California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) is working with the state and local farmers to find methods to be more accurate with fertilizer placement so less will run into the groundwater. In addition, these regulatory agencies and the California Water board are setting up committees and task forces to better identify risks and find means of improvements. In time, hopefully groundwater contamination of California's drinking water will be an issue of the past.

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