State Officials Tour Moss Landing Contaminated Water Site

MOSS LANDING – Off an unmarked dead end road surrounded by farm workers harvesting strawberries just north of Moss Landing on Thursday, Ignacio Garcia stood on his cement driveway near a dozen plastic water bottles five gallons. 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 drinking 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 the region’s wells in 2018, groundwater contamination was severe enough to warrant periodic testing of 44,000 wells in the region. In 2014, out of 1,627 domestic wells tested in certain regions, more than 40% exceeded public health standards for drinking water for a particular contaminant: nitrate. As more and more wells are being tested today, this percentage continues to confuse water officials.

Five-gallon water bottles line the driveway to Ignacio Garcia’s home because the water from his well is too contaminated to drink. (Dennis Taylor — Monterey Herald correspondent)

Nitrate is a by-product of agricultural fertilizers, treated sewage and livestock waste. There are several health risks associated with nitrate, but the main one is infantile methemoglobinemia, more commonly known as “blue baby syndrome”. In infants with the disease, the way nitrate binds to red blood cells prevents oxygen uptake. Lack of oxygen causes babies’ skin to turn blue, hence its name.

These wells in northern Monterey County are not part of a larger water system capable of filtering out most contaminants. Most wells are private or shared wells. Problem wells are most often found in disadvantaged areas, including agricultural worker communities.

In Garcia’s well, the nitrate level was recorded at six times the drinking water standard set by the state. Some wells in Monterey County exceed 10 times the standard. That’s what brought Laurel Firestone and Sean Maguire to Moss Landing on Thursday. Firestone and Maguire are members of the state Water Quality Board.

On Thursday, Firestone and Maguire stood on Garcia’s driveway, flanked by half a dozen representatives from regional water agencies and nonprofits who are all working together to find long-term solutions to water contamination in the wells of these low-income communities of color. Proponents say this contamination of wells is not just about chemicals in the water, but also about social justice and equity.

“I am so impressed with the community leaders I met today who are working hard to ensure everyone has access to clean water in their area and who are embracing the vision of regional consolidation with their neighbours,” Firestone said after the tour. “These types of drinking water projects can be complex and expensive, but they are often the best way to ensure long-term resilience and safe drinking water.

Mayra Hernandez, a community solutions advocate for the nonprofit Community Water Center who was part of Thursday’s visit to Moss Landing by state water officials, said long-term solutions will need to be found through collaboration between multiple interests, especially for funding the consolidation of these rural communities with larger water systems with the capabilities to remove contaminants.

She noted 2019 legislation known as the “Safer Fund” which will provide $1.4 billion over 10 years. The fund, called Safe and Affordable Funding for Equity and Resilience, or SAFER, targets disadvantaged communities struggling with contamination issues. The Moss Landing community, with about 80 connections, is one of 210 statewide that is on the radar for consolidation funding with larger water systems.

Brandon Bollinger of the Community Water Center explains a pilot filtration system to state Water Quality Board officials Thursday.  (Dennis Taylor - Monterey Herald correspondent)
Brandon Bollinger of the Community Water Center explains a pilot filtration system to state Water Quality Board officials Thursday. (Dennis Taylor — Monterey Herald correspondent)

“Now it’s about making sure that those funds go first to the communities that need them,” she said. “Ten years of human right to water legislation, but we’re still not there. We need safe, clean, affordable and accessible water for everyone. We are 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 house, on a steep, unnamed road climbing into the hills east of the town of Las Lomas – a community of about 4,000 people 7 miles northwest of Prunedale – are houses with worn wooden fences covered in chicken wire and an occasional sleeping dog on a dirt driveway.

On Thursday, Roberto Ramirez and neighbor Enrique Sorano stood on Ramirez’s driveway describing the challenges they face with contaminants. Although excess nitrate is found in many rural areas of northern Monterey County, there are a number of others that pose a threat to human health. Natural heavy metals like chromium 6, known to cause cancer, and arsenic, also known carcinogen, are present in the water of Ramirez’s well in Sorano. Many families in this area receive 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 in Monterey County, in agricultural pesticides.

Ramirez led the group around the side of his property past more than a dozen crowing roosters toward a series of tanks and drains. Brandon Bollinger, community advocacy manager for the Community Water Center, told Firestone and Maguire that the filtration system is part of a pilot program to help residents. They may have heard that well water is not safe to drink, but in the past they knew little about what was in it or what effects it might have on health.

“That’s one of the things we stepped in to do,” he said.

Testing has been essential in identifying unsafe well water. Matt Keeling, chief executive of the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board, was one of the first to develop a well testing program for rural areas.

Its regional council is responsible for enforcement of water contamination issues. But it can be complicated. “Dumpers,” as he calls polluters, can be difficult to identify because it is extremely difficult to find a specific agricultural producer when runoff enters larger bodies of water or seeps into aquifers. Part of the cost of short-term and long-term solutions comes from the agricultural industry.