Report Finds Deteriorating Infrastructure, Pollution Damaging California Drinking Water Supplies

Fresno and San Francisco water rated among the worst; Los Angeles and San Diego water termed not much better

SAN FRANCISCO (October 30, 2002) -- Deteriorating water works, pollution, and outdated treatment technology are combining to deliver drinking water that might pose health risks to residents in four of California's largest cities, according to a new report issued today.

The report, What's On Tap? Grading Drinking Water in U.S. Cities (Early Release California Edition), by NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council) reviews tap water quality in Fresno, Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco, focusing on the effects of aging infrastructure and source water pollution.

"Most Californians take it for granted that their tap water is pure and their water infrastructure is safe," said Erik Olson, the report's principal author. "Our report shows that they shouldn't."

The four-city California report is part of a larger one on water supplies in 19 cities nationwide that NRDC will publish in the next few months. NRDC released the California section of the report today, in advance of a November 5 ballot initiative (Proposition 50) that would authorize $3.4 billion to protect water resources.

The NRDC report found no confirmed violations of enforceable federal tap water standards in the four cities, but concluded that infrastructure and other problems in each of the municipal water supplies might pose health risks to some residents. Although the report does not advise residents to stop drinking tap water, it cited medical experts who suggest that pregnant women and parents of infants consult with their health care providers. Echoing recommendations by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), NRDC also urged that people who have serious immune system problems (such as those taking some cancer chemotherapy drugs or people with HIV/AIDS) consult with their health care providers regarding the safety of their tap water.

Fresno's water supply, which the report cited as the worst of the four, has serious problems caused by nitrates, pesticides and industrial chemicals. To address these concerns, the report recommended that Fresno improve its waterworks infrastructure and source water protection. Seemingly acknowledging the problem, the city of Fresno this year urged that pregnant women and parents of infants consult with their health care providers about their tap water.

"Nitrates and other contaminants are a serious problem in Fresno's tap water," said Dr. Beatte Ritz of Physicians for Social Responsibility, an assistant professor of epidemiology at UCLA School of Public Health. "Last year the city itself told pregnant women to avoid drinking it. That's good advice."

San Francisco's water supply exceeds a new Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) tap water standard for trihalomethanes, a family of toxic chemicals unintentionally created when chlorine is used as a disinfectant. The standard took effect nationally in 2002, but EPA has granted the city an extension until 2004 to meet it. The report recommended that San Francisco make major water treatment and infrastructure improvements to address its water quality problems. But it also noted the city's source water protection effort, which includes working with ranchers in the Alameda watershed to prevent cattle from polluting waterways.

Los Angeles also has significant levels of chlorine byproducts, as well as substantial concentrations of arsenic. (Although below the new EPA standard, arsenic levels there are high enough, according to the National Academy of Sciences, to pose a significant cancer risk). In addition, sections of the L.A water supply have elevated levels of radioactive and cancer-causing radon, and levels of the rocket fuel perchlorate -- a thyroid toxin -- that exceed the California health warning level (action level) and the EPA's draft safe level. The system's water also is compromised by uncovered reservoirs, and some city well water shows elevated nitrate levels. All of these problems will require major infrastructure and treatment improvements, and stronger measures to protect the city's water sources from pollution, according to the report.

Finally, San Diego's water supply has a high level of trihalomethanes -- averaging slightly below the new EPA standard but still posing a risk to public health -- and perchlorate in parts of the system at levels higher than the state's action level and the draft EPA safe level. The water supply also has other contaminants that, while not at levels high enough to trigger violations, exceed EPA health standards. The contaminants include ethylene dibromide, a carcinogen and reproductive toxin; lead; and three cancer-causing radioactive elements. The report concluded that, like the other cities, San Diego needs to protect its source water from pollution and make significant investments to improve water treatment and infrastructure.

To protect drinking water sources, the report recommended that the state and cities upgrade drinking water treatment, invest in water conservation measures, and replace and update pipes and water distribution system components. The report also recommended that state and municipal authorities purchase land or easements, and adopt standards to protect watersheds and areas above aquifers draining into California water supplies.

"The problems NRDC's report found in four major California cities are emblematic of what both large and small municipalities are facing across the state," said Marguerite Young of California Clean Water Action. "And on November 5, California voters have an opportunity to do something about it: Pass Proposition 50. Prop. 50 will provide critically needed funds to improve drinking water quality infrastructure, prevent water pollution, and promote water conservation." Young also urged the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board to approve new controls for agricultural discharges, which pollute the drinking water supply of millions of Californians.

In addition, the report reviewed each of the cities' mandated right-to-know reports, which are designed to inform residents about water system problems. Among other things, it found that San Francisco failed to include a required warning for immune-compromised people regarding the potential risks posed by pathogens in its water, San Diego failed to disclose the levels of radioactive and other contaminants in its water, and Fresno buried critical information about high nitrate levels in footnotes. Meanwhile, the Los Angeles right-to-know report received relatively high marks for candidly revealing tap and source water problems.

"Fresno, San Diego and San Francisco don't adequately inform their residents about contamination," said NRDC's Olson. "Californians have a right to know what's in their tap water and whether it might harm them."

The Natural Resources Defense Council is a national, non-profit organization of scientists, lawyers and environmental specialists dedicated to protecting public health and the environment. Founded in 1970, NRDC has more than 500,000 members nationwide, served from offices in New York, Washington, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Clean Water Action is a national citizens' organization working for clean, safe and affordable water; prevention of health-threatening pollution; creation of environmentally safe jobs and businesses; election of pro-environment candidates; and empowerment of people to make democracy work. CWA organizes strong grassroots groups, coalitions and campaigns to protect our environment, health, economic well-being, and community quality of life.

Physicians for Social Responsibility is a national organization of 20,000 doctors and health professionals working to promote a sustainable environment, protective of public health, reduce weapons of mass destruction, and prevent handgun violence. PSR is the U.S. affiliate of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, the recipient of the 1985 Nobel Peace Prize. The Los Angeles and San Francisco Bay Area chapters together represent more than 3,000 health professionals in California.

Full NRDC Report

What's On Tap? Grading Drinking Water in U.S. Cities (Early Release California Edition)