The news was not strange in a country used to pollution. Agricultural runoff had led to the elimination or disconnection of water fountains in schools. The water was an ugly brown. The nitrates so high they were extremely dangerous to human health. And the end result, deadly and painful, was there for all to see.
Were we in China, or some third world country? Not at all. We were in California, in a town with residents entirely bound into the growth of food for most of the United States.
Home to 350 residents, Seville is supported by the agriculture and dairy industries. Known as the breadbasket of America, the central valley is responsible for over sixty percent of California’s agriculture production. However, according to community activists it is these very industries that are harming the drinking water of the valley’s residents. “We live in one of the most agriculturally intensive areas in the world, yet there are no programs to protect our groundwater sources from pollution,” said Susana De Anda of the Community Water Center in Visalia. “It’s not a coincidence that many communities in the valley like Seville have lacked clean drinking water for decades.”
It would be at least somewhat comforting if we could say that this endless, recycling and devastating result were being addressed in some way.
Yet, it appears that the situation in California's Central Valley has stimulated largely neglect. The major concern of our federal government remains whether there will be enough runoff and other sources of water to provide a sustainable "breadbasket" for the United States. Not the growing pollution affecting more and more of our population.
As if the problems of recycled agricultural waste are not enough, the problems of the Central Valley also include a dump site owned and/or operated by Waste Management that is claimed to be allowing toxins to permeate the soil into the area's drinking water.
Some residents in the Central Valley town of Kettleman City, are concerned about a toxic dump, pollution and a cluster of birth defects. A state investigation recently exonerated pollution from the dump as the cause of the birth defects, but residents say that report is flawed.
In searching for answers to the growing water use and shortage problems throughout California, instead of recommending research into sustainable ways in which to handle pollution, the environmental lobby and others are trying to increase the circulation of waters in ways bound to increase pollution to more and more of the population.
California's water hub – the San Francisco Bay-Delta – can no longer do it all. Years of drought, worsening water pollution, rising water demands and the disappearance of wildlife and habitat have left the Bay-Delta in a state of environmental collapse. As a result, a multibillion-dollar agricultural economy, coastal fishing fleets and the 25 million Californians who rely on the Delta for clean drinking water are at severe risk. * * * We can either complete the much-needed long-term California Bay-Delta Conservation Plan on which the Obama administration, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, water users and other partners have made significant progress, or fall back into an endless cycle of conflict, litigation and paralysis. * * * [S]cientists and policymakers alike have concluded that California's economic and environmental health can no longer tolerate exclusive reliance on a 50-year-old system of pumping water directly through the Delta – a system that reverses river flows, causes direct harm to fisheries, leads to unreliable water supplies and leaves many Californians at risk of losing clean water supplies if there were an earthquake. Therefore, rather than simply pumping water from north to south through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, there is an emerging consensus that we should reduce pressure on the system by also moving water around the Delta through a water conveyance system, such as a canal or a tunnel.
While California is by far the greatest example of continuing intentional and largely unaddressed pollution through agricultural runoffs, the delays imposed on fixing the pollution problems in many of our country's most important waters are monumental. Take the experience of those living on and near the Chesapeake Bay.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is supposed to be America’s clean water cop. But time and again over the last 25 years, the law officer has been missing from duty in the Chesapeake Bay.
The result of this neglect has been a tragic loss. As the cop slept, polluters have taken a treasure from 17 million people in the Chesapeake Bay watershed—a jewel that is the center of their identity, economy, and well being. Watermen are out of work. People are warned to limit their fish consumption due to pollution. Harmful algal blooms and dead zones are commonplace each year. Blue crab and oyster populations are near historic lows. Fish kills plague our rivers and streams.
The Environmental Protection Agency is supposed to be our protector. Yet, it delays and often works with state environment agencies in delaying or failing properly to monitor water resources.
Washington State serves as a powerful reminder of how manipulative, unfair and downright dangerous state authorities can be, and how stupid, ignorant or complicit the EPA can be.
Despite requirements for water analysis and treatments, Washington State managed to obtain a water testing exception, allowing water districts to test water more than one time to determine whether compliance was occurring. The testing required allows systems to flush their water, and take other measures, to ensure that the second test passes. It also grants some waivers on dangerous pollutants if a test has shown that the amount of the pollutant is very low. And this farce is what occurs in one or more systems within the state. There is no limit on the number or types of pollutants that can be found. Just that the second test is acceptable.
In a telling sign for the state of our current water system testing, the EPA is just getting around to developing new standards for drinking water safety. And it invited the State of Washington's water treatment engineer for its Office of Drinking Water to express his views. Which of course included the recommendation of "waivers" for "low risk sources."
Sam Perry, Water Treatment Engineer for the State of Washington Office of Drinking Water, presented a state regulatory perspective on contaminants as groups. 2 Mr. Perry, using some examples such as algal toxins, discussed a number of factors that he recommended be considered when grouping contaminants for regulatory purposes. The considerations he suggested include: analyze approaches for regulating contaminants as a group in other other countries/states; do the contaminants occur together; can the contaminants be analyzed together; do the contaminants have common health endpoints; what is the state of knowledge about treatment efficacy; and ensure waivers be provided for low risk sources.
The use of waivers for "high quality" drinking water sources is something new, creeping its way into our systems with every sign that it will succeed in the near future. Under this system, testing will not occur at all for an undefined period of time depending entirely on industry submissions.
Waiver criteria for high quality source water are based on characteristics including: production, depth of open interval, number of bedrock/groundwater layers, water quality history, construction and land use data, available land use data water quality history, and pesticide application maps. Utilities fill out a roughly 10‐page waiver application to help regulators determine the vulnerability of the source water. The timeframe for the waiver is built into the protocols.
Even President Obama and his family been surrounded by water pollution on a massive and continuing scale during his three most recent family trips. In Florida (oil pollution), Massachusetts (fecal matter pollution) and now Hawaii (sewage runoff), the limits of our old, worn out, and dangerous systems are available for all to see just by watching Obama and his children near our oceans.
Imagine what would occur if he were to vacation in California's Central Valley. As if he or any other Administration official ever would.
The EPA also uses industry studies to support its views concerning the efficacy of using fertilizers and herbicides. An example is Atrazine, a product banned in Europe even in its own country of manufacture (Switzerland) because of its adverse effect on humans.
Companies with a financial interest in a weed-killer sometimes found in drinking water paid for thousands of studies federal regulators are using to assess the herbicide’s health risks, records of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency show. Many of these industry-funded studies, which largely support atrazine’s safety, have never been published or subjected to an independent scientific peer review.
This is but the tip of the iceberg when addressing industrial runoff and waste. Coal companies are among the largest polluters who seemingly continue to operate with impunity through open pit mining and other activities that treat some of our Nation's waters as their own to pollute and ruin with relative impunity.
Combined with waivers, efforts to sustain chemicals prohibited in other countries, and the continuing problems with pollution of our Nation's most important aquifers largely through agricultural runoffs, the United States has reached a cross-roads of historic proportions.
Are we to continue to fail to meet the requirements of landmark legislation created nearly forty years ago? Or can we examine the current situation more carefully, refuse to accept waivers for our most precious and life-sustaining resource, and move toward better infrastructure for the future?
So on this, the most joyous of Holiday Seasons for most in the United States, let us take a minute to wish for a special present for all of us. An EPA that begins to work and act like the most important part of the eco-systems in the United States are all of us who live here. From our immigrants, many of whom inhabit our Nation's breadbasket, to our inner-city youth, to our suburban families, all of whom require clean water to sustain life. And to that end, for the EPA to begin a much deeper relationship with its constituents, following up with and testing for water quality as it should be doing. Rather than depending largely on states to manage this effort for them.