The water at this San Mateo County school is unsafe to drink — and has been for years
In hundreds of communities across the state, the water coming out of the tap is still not drinkable. Many of these places are small, rural, and economically disadvantaged — the bulk of them are located in the Central Valley. But the Bay Area isn’t immune, and the solutions aren’t easy.
Pescadero is a farmworker town, and the local high school is bordered by rows of vegetables that, on most days, end up on the plates of hungry teenagers.
This close proximity to brussels sprouts and kale means that students here have to go to a cooler to wash their lunch down, instead of sipping from the water fountains.
That’s because the water here has unsafe levels of nitrates, and the source is the fertilizer used on the nearby farms.
“I moved here from a bigger school in Belmont at the beginning of my sophomore year, so it was a pretty big surprise to me that I didn't have any clean drinking water,” says senior Sophia Bateo, Pescadero High’s student body president.
She says most kids are used to it by now.
“I think that just comes with the territory of living in a small town like this, you don’t have as many resources as the suburbs or a city,” she says. “But it's still it’s not so far off to have clean water. It’s not like this is a developing area … like a Third World country.”
Pescadero High gets water from its own well, which is maintained by the school district. It’s one of hundreds of small water systems on a list of water quality violators put together by the State Water Resources Control Board.
A long list
“There's a surprising number of communities in California that don't have water that's safe to drink,” says Laura Feinstein, a researcher at the Pacific Institute.
Many are in the Central Valley, but there are also mobile home parks and neighborhoods of just a few blocks served by a single well.
There are also schools like Pescadero.
“Small water systems tend to struggle [to fund] the treatment needs to make their water safe to drink. They need to be careful about cooking with the water as well. It makes things expensive and difficult for them,” Feinstein says.
Some community water systems are flagged because they test high for toxins for just a couple of months. Others have more persistent problems that they just can’t afford to fix.
Feinstein says nobody’s really dealing with it.
“At this stage, there isn't a safety net. There's nobody making sure that the small communities have the resources they need to treat their water,” she says. “Does that mean that the state has some kind of obligation to ... get safe water to those homes?”
Drinking-water sources across the state have tested positive for many different kinds of harmful chemicals.
The two most common are arsenic, which is naturally occurring, and nitrates.
In agricultural communities like Pescadero, nitrates often seep into groundwater from fertilizer and cow manure.
With prolonged exposure, these chemicals can cause serious health problems, especially for babies and older people.
Living and working with the problem
At Pescadero High, students can drink from one of three water coolers. In the kitchen, when cook Regina Silveira wants to wash lettuce, she hauls giant water jugs across the floor and attaches a little electric pump to get a constant stream.
“We started off with the five-gallon jugs and after a while, they started getting tiring, so they switched me down to three gallons now,” Silveria says.
Like the students, she’s gotten used to it, too. Fixing the problem would mean drilling a new, deeper well, or convincing the nearby water utility to run pipes from miles away.
Yet that neighboring utility is hesitant to add the school to its system — it’s worried their wells will run dry.
These should be simple fixes, but for the small Pescadero school district, it’s a big undertaking, and expensive.
“We all wear a lot of hats here, and so the oversight of a well just creates a whole other layer of oversight that our district can't afford in our budget. That’s really what it was down to,” says Andy Lagow, the facility manager at Pescadero High.
He says people are always surprised when he tells them what he’s dealing with.
“We are one of the richest counties in the country and we have schools where the water quality is below standards,” he says.
The school is applying for state grants to build the new well, but Lagow says they have a long list of projects competing for their time and money.
“It just makes it tough to put it on the top of the list. If you think about a normal school, they just turn the water on and the reality is, that's taken care of by somebody else,” he says
A statewide solution, with opposition
This coming year, the legislature will be debating Senate Bill 623, which would help low-income communities like Pescadero High put in new wells, or join with larger water systems.
The money would come from two sources. One would be a tax on water bills, paid by consumers across the state.
“So everyone would pay a small amount every month and it would go into a fund that would address unsafe drinking water for communities that can't afford their own treatment systems,” says Feinstein.
However, that funding source is facing opposition from the Association of California Water Agencies.
“We want to make sure that any adjustments to a proposed water tax would go through a public process and not just be kind of a, you know, a closed-door decision,” says Jennifer Allen of the Contra Costa Water District.
Water agencies say water is a human right and therefore shouldn’t be taxed.
“Whatever we're doing with water or people's water bills, we don't want to affect the affordability of water. Water is necessary. Our job is to make water as affordable as possible, and when we're getting outside fees that we have to impose upon bills, then that impacts our ability to make our service affordable to our customers,” Allen adds.
The bill’s other source of money to fix polluted water systems would be raising the tax on fertilizer.
This would affect nearly every farmer in the state, but the agricultural industry is supportive.
Surprisingly, some environmentalists oppose it, for a different reason. They’re concerned it is a “pay-to-pollute scheme,” and that it doesn’t really solve the nitrate problem in the first place.
Feinstein also says this debate raises a larger point: California is drying up, and water quantity and quality issues aren’t going away.
“We think collectively about our air quality. We think collectively about how we're going to move forward reducing greenhouse gases,” she says. “I think that we also need to think collectively as a state about making sure everybody gets safe drinking water.”
If the bill passes, Andy Lagow says the Pescadero school district will definitely apply for the fund.
But clean water is at least another year — and hundreds of thousands of dollars — away.
When they can finally drink from their taps, he says, they’ll be celebrating.