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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

California Drinking

Air Date: Week of

Water agencies in western states are hard-pressed to pay for removing arsenic from tap water to meet new federal standards. But California towns may soon have to meet an even stricter standard. Tamara Keith reports.


CURWOOD: Communities across the nation are scrambling to remove arsenic from drinking water before a federal deadline in 2006. Arsenic is a naturally-occurring heavy metal known to cause cancer. Now, California is considering an arsenic standard even tougher than the federal rule, leaving many communities there wondering if they can afford this level of protection. Tamara Keith reports.

KEITH: The central California town of Tranquility has never had to treat its drinking water with anything more than an occasional shot of chlorine. The machinery of Tranquility's entire water system fits on a piece of land smaller than most master bedrooms. Sarge Green is the manager of the Tranquility Irrigation District, which supplies water to the town's 800 residents and two local schools.

GREEN: It's got a deep well, electric motor, a back-up generator, and then it goes up into the water tower and is distributed in the pipes to the community.

KEITH: Tranquility's water, like the water in hundreds of small towns across the west, is contaminated with arsenic. The town's two wells don't meet the new federal standards. The water district is preparing to build a small water treatment plant to filter out the arsenic. But it won't be cheap, and Green says if California goes ahead with stricter standards, the town's water bills will be even higher.

GREEN: It could ostensibly go up as high as $60 dollars a month. For a small farm community like this where a lot of the workers are farmworkers, that's a significant investment.

KEITH: Tranquility's residents aren't pleased with the prospect of a rate increase. Many, like Velia Clifton, are spending $20 dollars or more each month buying bottled water. She says it's not worth the expense to remove the arsenic.

CLIFTON: I think they shouldn't even worry about taking it out because nobody drinks the water anyway. Everybody just uses it for irrigating their lawns and washing their dishes and taking a bath, and it would be stupid and senseless.

KEITH: But her neighbor, Mark Satrom, says he's willing to pay for tap water he feels safe drinking.

SATROM: I'd love to be able to just open up the tap and be able to drink it, you know? Should be able to.

KEITH: That's the message being pushed by the National Resources Defense Council, a nonprofit environmental group that lobbied for the new federal arsenic standards and is now advocating for more stringent standards in California. Staff attorney Adrianna Quintero.

QUINTERO: It's definitely worth it, because the costs to public health are extremely high.

KEITH: Arsenic has been linked to bladder cancer, lung cancer, diabetes, hypertension, and other health problems. The new federal standard for arsenic in drinking water is ten parts per billion. California is considering settings its standard as low as two parts per billion, which is the lowest level at which arsenic can be detected. If it does set it that low, 3,000 water sources across the state would need to be treated. In Los Angeles alone, the bill could be $250 million dollars.

For Living on Earth, I'm Tamara Keith.



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