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Hundreds Of Calif. Communities Rely On Contaminated Drinking Water

Aired 6/6/13 on KPBS News.

More than 600 mostly disadvantaged farming communities statewide rely on contaminated groundwater, mostly from nitrates. The EPA says the state is in violation of the Safe Drinking Water Act. Lawmakers are hoping legislation will fix 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..."

Don Rosa is 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," Rosa explained.

Amy Quinton, Capital Public Radio

Springfield's Well

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," Rosa said.

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.

Amy Quinton, Capital Public Radio

Jeanette Pantoja, California Rural Legal Assistance, Kenia Acevedo, California Rural Legal Assistance and Don Rosa, with the Pajaro Sunny Mesa Community Services District

"We have communities that are really struggling and don't have access to something most Californians take for granted," said Jeanette Pantoja with California Rural Legal Assistance.

She said poor areas like Springfield simply lack the funding and political clout to fix the problem. Laura Pendo said 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," Pendo said.

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 said the cost of bottled water adds up.

Amy Quinton, Capital Public Radio

Community Meeting in Springfield

"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," Saldibar said.

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 said 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 unsuccessful at this point as far as getting a loan or grant or anything of that nature," Rosa explained.

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," Rosa said.

No water user in Springfield can afford that. But living with toxic water hasn't been easy. Maria Guiterrez said when she runs out of bottled water, the nearest store is 15 minutes away. She said 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," Guiterrez said.

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

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