MOSS LANDING – Off an unmarked dead-end road surrounded by farmworkers harvesting strawberries just north of Moss Landing on Thursday, Ignacio Garcia stood on his cement driveway near a dozen or so five-gallon plastic bottles of water. The water is needed, he explained, because his own well is contaminated.
“Everyone should have clean water,” Garcia said through a Spanish interpreter. “Water is a right. We all need clean water.”
Garcia, who has become an advocate for his community, is far from alone. When the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board began testing wells in the area in 2018, groundwater contamination was bad enough to warrant periodic testing of 44,000 wells in the region. Back in 2014, of 1,627 domestic wells tested in some areas, more than 40% exceeded public health drinking water standards for one particular contaminant – nitrate. As more wells are tested today, that percentage continues to trouble water officials.
Five-gallon bottles of water line the driveway to Ignacio Garcia’s home because his well water is too contaminated to drink. (Dennis Taylor — Monterey Herald correspondent)
Nitrate is a by-product of agricultural fertilizers, treated sewage and waste from livestock. There are several health risks associated with nitrate, but the principal one is infant methemoglobinemia, more commonly known as “blue baby syndrome.” In infants afflicted with the condition, the way nitrate bonds with red blood cells prevents the absorption of oxygen. The lack of oxygen causes the skin of babies to turn blue, thus the name.
These wells in northern Monterey County are not part of a larger water system that can filter out most of the contaminants. Most of the wells are private or shared wells. The problem wells are most often in disadvantaged areas, including farmworker communities.
In Garcia’s well, the nitrate level has been recorded at six times the drinking water standard set by the state. Some wells in Monterey County exceed 10 times the standard. That is what brought Laurel Firestone and Sean Maguire to Moss Landing Thursday. Firestone and Maguire are members of the state Water Quality Control Board.
On Thursday Firestone and Maguire stood on Garcia’s driveway flanked by a half-dozen representatives of regional water agencies and nonprofit organizations who are all collaborating to find long-term solutions to water contamination in the wells of these low-income communities of color. Advocates say this well contamination is not just about chemicals in water, but also about social justice and equity.
“I am so impressed with community leaders I met today who are working hard to ensure everyone has access to safe drinking water in their area, and taking on the vision of a regional consolidation with their neighbors,” Firestone said after the tour. “These kinds of drinking water projects can be complex and expensive, but they are often the best way to ensure resiliency and safe drinking water for the long term.”
Mayra Hernandez, a community solutions advocate for the nonprofit Community Water Center who was part of Thursday’s Moss Landing visit by the state water officials, said long-term solutions will need to be achieved through a collaboration among several interests, particularly for funding for consolidating these rural communities with larger water systems with the capabilities to remove the contaminants.
She noted 2019 legislation known as the “Safer Fund” that will provide $1.4 billion over 10 years. The fund, called the Safe and Affordable Funding for Equity and Resilience, or SAFER, targets disadvantaged communities struggling with contamination problems. The Moss Landing community, with roughly 80 connections, is one of 210 statewide that is on the radar for funding for consolidation with larger water systems.
Brandon Bollinger with Community Water Center explains a pilot filtration system to officials from the state Water Quality Control Board Thursday. (Dennis Taylor — Monterey Herald correspondent)
“Now it’s a matter of making sure those funds go to the communities that need it first,” she said. “Ten years of the Human Right to Water Act, but we’re still not there. We need safe, clean, affordable and accessible water for all. We’re working alongside community leaders to make these projects a reality, and we look forward to working with stakeholders to streamline processes to implement solutions as soon as possible.”
Fifteen minutes north of Garcia’s home, on a steep unnamed road climbing into the hills east of the town of Las Lomas – a community of roughly 4,000 residents 7 miles northwest of Prunedale – are homes with worn wooden fences covered with chicken wire and an occasional dog asleep on a dirt driveway.
On Thursday, Roberto Ramirez and neighbor Enrique Sorano stood on Ramirez’s driveway describing the challenges they are experiencing with contaminants. While excessive nitrate is found in many of the rural areas of northern Monterey County, there are a number of others that are a threat to human health.Naturally occurring heavy metals like chromium 6 that is known to cause cancer, and arsenic, also a known carcinogen, are present in Ramirez’s Sorano’s well water. Many of the families in that area are receiving emergency bottled water. And if those contaminants weren’t enough, some of the wells are testing for excessive levels of a compound called 1,2,3,-Trichloropropane, or TCP for short. It is found in industrial waste sites and more relevant to Monterey County, in agricultural pesticides.
Ramirez led the group to the side of his property past more than a dozen crowing roosters to a series of tanks and piping. Brandon Bollinger, the community advocacy manager for the Community Water Center, explained to Firestone and Maguire that the filtration system is part of a pilot program to help residents.Bollinger said many of the rural residents his nonprofit serves are unaware of what’s in their water. They may have heard the well water isn’t healthy to drink but in the past they knew little about what was in it or the health effects it can have.
“That’s one of the things we’ve stepped in to help with,” he said.
Testing has been key to identifying dangerous well water. Matt Keeling, the executive officer of the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board, was one of the first to develop a well testing program for the rural areas.
His regional board is one charged with enforcement of water contamination issues. But it can be complicated. “Dischargers,” as he calls polluters, can be difficult to pin down as it’s extremely hard to find a specific agricultural grower when runoff goes into larger bodies of water or percolates down into aquifers. Part of the cost of the short- and long-term fixes are coming from the agriculture industry.