Needed now: safe drinking water for all Californians

Water streams from a hose in Scotts Valley during the 2021 drought. (Photo: Michael Barajas, via Shutterstock)

While nobody disputes that everyone should have safe, clean drinking water, not every Californian does.

According to the Public Policy Institute of California, more than 250 water systems serving 900,000 Californians were out of compliance with drinking water standards in 2020. Even more alarming, this is a chronic issue for some systems; more than 170 have been out of compliance for three or more years, and small rural, low-income communities of color are more likely to be among those with chronic water quality issues.

This is why the action California’s state environmental health officials took recently on so-called “forever chemicals” is so important. The state’s proposed Public Health Goals for two of the most prominent within the family of contaminants – perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate acid (PFOS), broadly known as PFAS – is a major step forward.

We’ve also shared our test results with regulators to help them gain a better understanding of how PFAS compounds have impacted water supplies.

state analysis from 2019 found “widespread” contamination, with traces of the chemicals present in 300 drinking water wells, and in 86 water systems that serve nearly 9 million residents. While this represented only a portion of the state’s drinking water wells, it’s clear the state must take additional steps to ensure no Californian is exposed to dangerous levels of these (or any) contaminants.

The state’s recent action is the start of a multi-year process that should result in enforceable regulations. Similarly, the federal government has announced plans for future regulation of PFAS, but that is likely years away.

But, we don’t have to wait.

California Water Service (Cal Water) is monitoring and testing for PFAS in our service areas. Where necessary, we’ve taken steps to safeguard our customers, including removing water supply sources from service and constructing new water treatment facilities. We’ve also shared our test results with regulators to help them gain a better understanding of how PFAS compounds have impacted water supplies.

We have also called on the state and federal governments to take additional action, including encouraging the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to establish a federal drinking water regulation of these forever chemicals, and advocating for legislation at the state level to prohibit the use of certain products that contain the compounds.

PFAS are not the only contaminants that have plagued California’s drinking water.

Chromium-6, the contaminant made famous by Erin Brockovich, has been found in thousands of California’s drinking water wells, and in all but seven counties in the state. While the state had limits on the amount that can be present in drinking water, that regulation has since been rescinded. State regulators are considering a new standard, and we urge them to move forward as quickly as possible.

Cal Water has been treating for chromium-6 for years. We were one of the first water utilities in America to use advanced treatment technology for this specific contaminant, which has since become a model for other cities and utilities in their treatment of chromium-6.

PFOAS, PFOA, and chromium-6 are just a few of the more than 300 contaminants for which we rigorously test and treat as part of our service to more than 2 million customers in communities across the state.

We urge our state policymakers to act expeditiously to set necessary limits for public health.

In addition, we in the collective water community must invest in our systems and ensure the water provided to all Californians protects their health and safety.

Editor’s Note: Sophie James is the director of water quality at the California Water Service, which serves about 2 million people in 100 diverse communities across California. Contact: sjames@calwater.com

Want to see more stories like this? Sign up for The Roundup, the free daily newsletter about California politics from the editors of Capitol Weekly. Stay up to date on the news you need to know.

Sign up below, then look for a confirmation email in your inbox.


Support for Capitol Weekly is Provided by: