A Current Issue in California’s Drinking Water Future

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Agriculture in California represents a major part of not only the state’s economy, but also the economy of the United States. Thousands of jobs and millions of dollars are created through California’s agricultural sector, and it has helped turn the state into what it is today. The focal point of California’s agriculture is the Central Valley, which stretches from Redding to Bakersfield in the middle of the state. Dominated by fertile soils and a consistent climate, a wide variety of crops and animals are raised in the area.

But, with no large sources of natural surface water, residents of the Central valley are forced to rely on either the California Aqueduct or groundwater basins that lie below earth’s surface. Over time these basins have become contaminated with increased amounts of nitrates arising from common agricultural practices, including the use of nitrogen fertilizers. The general problem is that nitrates from fertilizers and animal waste leach into California’s groundwater stores, especially in the Central Valley. The specific problem is that many of the communities that are affected by groundwater pollution don’t have the economic means to clean their drinking water and are in danger of many health issues as a result.

Nitrogen occurs naturally in groundwater, but only at levels below 10 mg/L, which is listed as the Maximum Containment Level (MCL). These levels rise as more fertilizers are applied and leach into the ground (Burrow, 1998). Nitrates can also seep into the soil via animal waste which can also leach nitrates (Burrow, 1998). This process is extremely slow, and can take years to cycle through groundwater basins. The process of removing nitrates can also take a long time and is often expensive. (UC Davis, 2012). This is not feasible for many of the communities who are most affected by this issue, as they often don’t have the means to clean their water. Nitrates in drinking water are dangerous as they can lead to many health effects, especially in children. (Ward, 2005). Because of this, small rural communities are suffering greatly.

Nitrates entering California’s groundwater has been a largescale problem ever since nitrogen-based fertilizers have been used, but has only started to gain understanding in recent history. The issue was originally realized in the 1950’s with the advent of industrial agriculture. Growers began to understand how their farming practices could negatively affect the land around them, but it would take years for the health effects of nitrate consumption to be realized. (Lohan, 2017). This caused initial efforts to fix the problem to stall as there was no pressing reason to find a solution. Everything changed when the health effects were understood, and soon the state began to look at cleaning up California’s groundwater. In the past decade the SWCRB has stepped up to begin tackling this issue by testing public wells and assisting with cleanup efforts, though these often took a long time and weren’t very time effective (Lohan, 2017).

This changed when the University of California, Davis released a report in 2012 stating that 250,000 people in the Salinas and Tulare Valleys alone were at risk of drinking water that was overly contaminated with nitrates. (Ashton 2016) This led to the state ramping up their cleanup efforts by encouraging farmers to limit their fertilizer use while also helping people in rural communities by passing out bottled water and filters to use on their taps. This problem is important because thousands of families are still in danger of nitrate contamination due to the lack of a true solution. Finding one quickly is important as it can take years to remove nitrate from water.

Current Issue

The current issue taking place today is that most of the communities dealing with nitrate poisoning do not have the means take care of this problem. These rural communities are in great danger of suffering from nitrate poisoning, specifically methemoglobina, which effects the breathing abilities of young children. The state of California right now lacks solution to this problem that is not only timely and effective, but price wise is cheap enough that the people hurting the most can afford it. This task gets even more challenging when considering that most of the people have private wells, so the state may not even have the jurisdiction to take action. It’s important that a problem be found quick so that everyone in California has clean drinking water available to them in their homes no matter where they live.

The key players associated with this problem are The State Water Resource Control Board, the agricultural sector of California, rural farming communities, specifically in the Central Valley, and researchers. The SWRCB and the State of California are required to analyze and maintain MCLs for public wells across the state (purple). They are the ones primarily in charge of removing pollutants from groundwater basins, yet don’t have really any jurisdiction over private wells. They want to find ways to give everyone clean water but are also trying to balance the needs of everyone involved, which includes finding a feasible long term solution and giving out immediate assistance.

The next major player in this issue is the agricultural sector, who are mostly behind the nitrate pollution through their use of nitrogen-based fertilizers or run off of animal manure. As far as this issue goes, they have shown to be willing to aid in finding a solution, but only if it doesn’t have a major effect on their growing or raising of animals. They have worked to limit their fertilizer use and change how water runs off their land and into groundwater basins, but they will only go as far as their farming practices will allow.

Another major player in this issue are the rural communities who are most affected by groundwater pollution around the state. These people rely on wells, mostly private, for their water needs, and are either forced to drink polluted water or rely on bottled water or filters for their water needs. They want to find a long term, reliable solution that is cost efficient. And the final major player in this issue are the researchers who are not only studying the effects of nitrogen poisoning but are also studying new ways to clean groundwater.

Some solutions to this problem that are being offered today include short term, state funded fixes, longer term solutions that are carried out by the communities themselves, and newer technological solutions that are still being tested and considered. State funded solutions include ‘instant’ fixes such as bottled water on filters and well heads, which are effective but not feasible to rely on for long periods of time (Lohan, 2017). Other more permanent solutions coming from the state include drilling new wells into cleaner groundwater systems, and a new bill that is currently in the works that would give rebates to anyone involved that helps with the problems, such as growers who cut back on fertilizer use (Lohan, 2017).

It is important to note that the SWRCB is committed to finding a solution and is constantly doing research to do so (purple). Other longer-term solutions are being carried out by the people in these rural communities, which includes the creation of non-profits that help provide things like bottled water at little to no cost. (Lohan, 2017) And finally, technological solutions are coming onto the scene that are helping mitigate this issue. These are often brand new and untested on the scale that this problem reaches and are also very expensive but could represent a future fix to groundwater pollution. (Lohan, 2017)

The issue of nitrate pollution under California’s rural communities is extremely widespread, which is one of the reasons it is such an important topic. This problem impacts the environment, and the agricultural and rural communities. The environment is the most obvious area impacted, as it is being directly polluted. It can take years for the nitrogen to cycle through the water, making this a long-term problem. It is important to note that nitrogen contamination has few negative impact until animals consume the water, but either way this issue leaves the environment less healthy then before.

The agriculture community is impacted as they are being put under increased pressure to change their ways. Because they represent the main source of nitrate pollution, they have to be conscious of their nitrogen runoff. They have had to make changes to their work because of this issue. And finally, rural communities are being impacted as they are losing their sources of safe drinking water. They are being forced to either rely on bottled water or filters on their tap, or deal with the consequences of drinking unsafe water.

Personal Evaluation

There is no doubt that the issue of groundwater pollution is important. I believe that it should be a basic right for people to have safe drinking water in their homes. This is not something people in the 21st century should have to worry about, but years of neglect have put some people into this situation. I side with the people in these rural communities because of this and feel that the state should put forth a massive effort to clean up their water. Ensuring safe drinking water should be of a high priority, and greater government research and regulation can help make this possible. I also believe that, while short term solutions like bottled water are feasible now, more focus should be put on long term fixes as they represent the only true solution.

In order to solve this problem my recommended policy is for tax payer money to be put towards funding research on a long-term solution to the problem. A tax on the agricultural sector, including on fertilizer sales could help the government further investigate how to permanently clean up groundwater basins while simultaneously working on how to prevent further nitrate leaching. I would also recommend further research into how we could improve the diversion of water to limit percolation into certain areas. I think we could use tax payer money to fund this research, especially taxes on the agricultural community. Because they are the main sources of the problem, it would make sense that their money should be put towards fixing it. Higher taxes on things that nitrogen-based fertilizers can also be used, which would not only provide money, but may also further dissuade the use of fertilizers entirely.

The likely outcome of my recommendation is a long-term solution that might not have a large effect today, but in the future can ensure everyone has clean water while also allowing for nitrogen fertilizers to be used if needed. It may take time for a long-term solution that is cheap and feasible to be put in place, but in the meantime smaller fixes like bottled water and filters can be relied on. By investing time and effort into funding a permanent solution, we can essentially put this problem to bed in the State of California, while other areas with similar problems can use this as a model for their own fix.

My recommended policy could contribute to California’s water future by helping ensure that every person in this state is guaranteed safe drinking water in their homes. In the United States having clean drinking water is something everyone should have a right to, and the actions of another group should not affect this. With that being said, clean drinking water isn’t something that’s guaranteed, but we can become the first state that actively works to ensure this is true. The issue isn’t that there isn’t enough water for these people, it’s that there isn’t enough clean water, so working to change that could be monumental. The implementation of this policy should be paid for by taxpayers, specifically people in the agriculture business as they are the ones causing this problem. Tax everyone will supply a bank of money that can be used for research, while taxing products like nitrogen-based fertilizers can encourage people to stop using them, which attacks the issue in two different ways.

Governor Brown should choose to enact this policy as it balances the funding of short term solutions already in place with the need to develop a long-term solution that will be reliable for years. This is a combination of the many policies already in place and strikes a balance between the good of all of them, while leaving out all the bad pieces. This will benefit anyone who lacks access to clean water in their homes, but specifically those who live in rural communities in the central valley that are most effected. It will be payed for by tax payers, specifically people working in the agriculture industry. It is incredibly important as it will help ensure everyone has access to clean drinking water, which, as laid out by the public trust doctrine, everyone has the right to.

Cite this paper

A Current Issue in California’s Drinking Water Future. (2021, Aug 25). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/a-current-issue-in-californias-drinking-water-future/

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