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UC Davis Issues New Study on Nitrate in Drinking Water

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Legislation enacted in 2008 (SBX2 1) required the State Water Board to prepare a report to improve the understanding of nitrate contamination in groundwater and to identify potential options to address what is perceived to be a growing public health problem. The State Water Board contracted with the Center for Watershed Studies at U.C. Davis to collect the data and conduct the analysis, focusing the project on the Tulare Lake Basin and Monterey County. The researchers issued the final report on March 15 and presented their findings to the Board.

Analysis of extensive groundwater and public water supply records data indicates that 57 percent of the population located in the study areas uses a community public water system with nitrate concentrations that exceed the California Department of Public Health’s Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL) standard. Numerous private water systems in the study area are also contaminated. The researchers indicate that this problem will worsen over the next decades, and they suggest a number of potential short-term and long-term options for addressing the issue.

The researchers contend that agricultural fertilizers and animal wastes applied to crop land are by far the largest sources of nitrate in the groundwater. They also cite food processors and wastewater treatment plants as secondary sources of nitrate along with sewer and septic systems. CLFP is concerned that the impact of food processing wastewater land application has been significantly overstated and is reviewing some of the data and assumptions used as the basis for the analysis.

The report includes a wide range of recommendations to address the issue, including expanding groundwater testing and data collection, providing funds to upgrade public water systems in small communities, and forming a task force to develop an effective long-term strategy. The most controversial recommendations focus on imposing new fertilizer fees or excise taxes. The researchers suggest that the funds collected could be used to pay for grower education programs, groundwater monitoring programs, research, and other initiatives. A general water use fee imposed on all water users is also proposed.

This report has already generated considerable attention in the press and among the environmental activists and it will be the focus of an upcoming legislative hearing. CLFP will be working with a number of agricultural groups to analyze the report and respond to some of the allegations and recommendations made by the researchers. Nitrate pollution is a complicated and long-standing problem which will not be solved by simply taxing farmers and water users. For more information regarding this issue contact Trudi Hughes in the CLFP office.

Article contributed by Rob Neenan, Senior Vice President


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