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Nitrates in Our Drinking Water, Part 3 - Cleaning up the Past

— Over the past several days, we've brought you stories about drinking water contaminated with nitrates. They're byproducts of fertilizer, dairies, and septic tanks, and they affect wells serving millions of Californians. In the final installment of our series, we learn about some of the challenges facing cities and towns trying to clean up the problem.

Nitrates are colorless and odorless contaminants that are especially dangerous to pregnant women and infants. They can cause blue-baby syndrome, cutting off oxygen to fetuses and newborns. Nitrates have also been linked to cancer in lab animals.

Above: Nitrates are colorless and odorless contaminants that are especially dangerous to pregnant women and infants. They can cause blue-baby syndrome, cutting off oxygen to fetuses and newborns. Nitrates have also been linked to cancer in lab animals.

When John Anderson was growing up, the Chino basin was dappled with orange trees and dairy farms. It was a world apart from the twisting freeways and skyscrapers of Los Angeles. But then, the metropolis marched eastward, swallowing up swaths of farmland and with it, a way of life.

These days, when the 75-year-old Anderson goes to order a slice of pie at Flo's café, there are just a few other farmers left for him to talk with.

"What used to be farmland is now houses," says Anderson.

A dairyman sitting nearby interjects: "Well, they're the last crop. The crop of houses!"

Today, a traffic light flashes at the busy intersection where John Anderson once sold corn, tomatoes and melons at his rural farm stand. And a cluster of office buildings sits where his family farmhouse used to be.

"This was all vegetable crop, which was mostly sweet corn and potatoes, and my grandpa moved there in 1884," explains Anderson.

There's something else new on this old farm ground: a multi-million dollar water treatment plant. It filters out nitrates.

'WE WERE CARELESS'

Nitrates are colorless and odorless contaminants that are especially dangerous to pregnant women and infants. They can cause blue-baby syndrome, cutting off oxygen to fetuses and newborns. Nitrates have also been linked to cancer in lab animals.

Nitrates have leached into the ground from fertilizer and dairy manure in the Chino basin, which used to be the biggest dairy region in the state. Residents can't drink untreated groundwater because it tests four times above the EPA health standard.

"We were careless, we were careless with what we had," says Anderson, who now sits on the board of the Inland Empire Utilities Agency.

The agency delivers drinking water to 850,000 residents in seven cities. Anderson says it was hard at first to convince other farmers that the Inland Empire needed a fancy treatment plant to provide clean water to all the new suburban residents. But, he says, eventually everyone agreed to help pay for the plant as part of their water bill. And, as a step to prevent future pollution, regulators at the regional water board passed rules imposing limits on dairies and restricting the amount of manure that could be spread on farmland.

"Everything's a cycle. Life's a cycle, we come, we go, grandkids come, and they go. If they have to pay for cleaning up our mess because we don't pay for it, it's going to cost them an arm and a leg, or else they're just going to have poorer health," Anderson says.

Inside the water-treatment plant, sophisticated membranes filter out salts like nitrate using reverse osmosis. This kind of technology cost the Utilities Agency over 300 million dollars. General manager Richard Atwater says the district relies on groundwater for two-thirds of its water supply.

"During the last two years of drought, we've cut imported water from Northern California in half, and increased our groundwater pumping," he explains. "And if we didn't have these groundwater desalters, we wouldn't be able to do that."

The Chino basin was one of the first to build this kind of treatment plant. Cities like Pomona and Modesto have also installed them. In fact, state law requires public-water systems to remove nitrates. Nevertheless, many small, rural communities can't afford these treatment plants.

Take Tooleville. It's a two-street community in Tulare County, on the eastern edge of the Central Valley, where the groundwater is also contaminated with nitrates.

"The only thing I can use this water ? is to wash my dishes, or bathe, or wash my clothes, but I can't drink this water. It's very frustrating," says Eunice Martinez.

Martinez has lived in Tooleville all her life, and says it's ironic that residents in poor communities like hers pay higher water bills than residents in cities with pristine drinking water.

"We're paying double for our water. We pay our monthly $40 bill, and bottled water, which is anywhere from $20 to $85 a month," she explains.

And Martinez laughs at the idea that Tooleville will ever be able to install a multi-million dollar treatment plant. Unlike in the Chino basin, there just aren't enough residents to share the cost.

"We're just a little two-street, 77-home, 300-people community. We're poor folk. What can we do?" says Martinez.

LOOKING TO SACRAMENTO

"It's really a question of whether we as California are going to ensure that all Californians have safe and clean drinking water, or whether we're going to let these small water systems be on their own," says Eli Moore of the Pacific Institute, an Oakland-based water-policy think tank. Moore is spearheading a project to calculate the toll pollution from nitrates is taking on Californians' health and wallets.

Getting more state money to pay for water treatment won't be easy, says Democratic state Senator Dean Florez, a Kern County Democrat. He chairs the Senate Agriculture Committee.

"We probably don't pay enough attention to the issue of nitrates," he says. "I think people think the battles in agriculture center on wages, but I think at the end of the day, this is an issue that rural California has had for many, many years, and it's getting worse. So I imagine people in Sacramento, their eyes will raise, and the question is whether they'll act, which I think is always a tough one for the Legislature."

And it's especially tough in the midst of the state budget crisis.

Californians have voted twice for water bonds totaling more than two billion dollars for a variety of clean drinking water projects. But that's just a fraction of what it will cost to build treatment plants and the extra infrastructure needed to eliminate nitrate pollution.

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