California Is in Serious Trouble

california's water trouble

California. It’s a place like no other – known for its gorgeous weather, attractive beaches, majestic mountains, beautiful wildlife, famed celebrities, and the place where dreams come true.  

But the stark reality is that California’s climate is changing, and droughts and wildfires are becoming more frequent and severe. Not to mention that more and more people are being exposed to toxic drinking water each year.  

According to public compliance data compiled by the California State Water Resources Control Board, more than 300 public water systems in California serve unsafe drinking water, and nearly one million Californians are exposed to it each year.

California’s Drinking Water Problems

The water crisis is an issue statewide in California, but about half of all failing water systems are in the agricultural San Joaquin Valley.

The San Joaquin Valley is California’s largest agricultural region and an essential contributor to the nation’s food supply. 

However, a chronic decline in groundwater levels has caused drinking water wells to go dry in a number of the region’s communities. 

In 2013, people began to notice the wells on their properties starting to run dry amid California’s infamous six-year drought. Presently in 2019, the valley is ground zero for many of California’s most challenging water management difficulties—including, but not limited to:

  • Groundwater overdraft
  • Drinking water contamination
  • Declines in habitat and native species

The water crisis in California is finally drawing forth much-needed media attention. It is forcing politicians and world leaders to answer some of the biggest environmental questions, signaling just how serious the current situation is.

“California failing to meet federal water quality standards.”

Last month, The Trump administration warned California officials that the state is failing to meet federal water quality standards. The EPA also singled out San Francisco for unsafe drinking water, which is a larger problem in the Central Valley, where the agriculture industry has polluted some rural communities’ tap water.

Public Drinking Water Systems in California

The EPA particularly called out troubling stormwater management and water treatment efforts in San Francisco and named concerns with 202 public water systems in California, affecting the drinking water of about 800,000 people.

Public Drinking Water Systems in California

According to a decade-long U.S. Geological Survey study, nearly one-fifth of the raw groundwater used for public drinking water systems in California contains excessive levels of potentially toxic contaminants. 

Another concern in the study of 11,000 public supply wells statewide is the extent to which high levels of arsenic, uranium and other troubling trace elements are present. The findings also highlight potential concerns involving the more than 250,000 private wells where water quality is the responsibility of individual homeowners.

The survey gives public-policymakers a look at the degree to which agricultural irrigation, industrial pollutants and other uses of groundwater are adding difficulties for underground water reserves, which are now under heavy demand in California’s drought.

Farm irrigation draining into underground water aquifers has contributed to uranium showing up at unsafe levels in 7 percent of public water supplies in the farm-rich San Joaquin Valley. Uranium can raise the risk of kidney ailments and cancer if consumed long-term at high levels. 

Water Quality + Water Quantity

Water Quality Issues in California

For California’s water managers, the challenge right now is the drought. 

“Being able to sustain delivery of a safe water supply is the No. 1 concern, of course. But water quality goes hand in hand with water quantity,” said Johwatn Borkovich, an official with the State Water Resources Control Board, who helps oversee the groundwater monitoring program.

Water problems with clear culprits, such as oilfield injection into water aquifers, are comparatively more straightforward for regulators to handle. However, for broader patterns of contamination with no single offender, it’s up to the Legislature to decide whether or not there needs to be more attention paid to the results.

During droughts, low flows and extended heat have raised water temperatures and lowered oxygen levels in rivers and streams. These conditions significantly threaten already-vulnerable fish species and can cause harmful algal blooms. Low flows also increase salinity.