Clean water crisis: Stanislaus County asks state to allow bottled water in hardship cases

Stanislaus County will ask the state to consider use of bottled water as a permanent alternative for small public water systems that are in violation of safe drinking water standards.

Last week, the state notified the county of a State Water Resources Control Board position that doesn’t recognize bottled water as a way for small water systems to comply with drinking water regulations. Business owners, mobile home park operators, employers and schools are among those facing rising costs of maintaining regulated water systems that are increasingly polluted with nitrates, arsenic and other contaminants.

County leaders point out that more stringent water quality standards are what’s resulted in compliance orders against some small operators, creating a financial hardship. The county is under a state mandate to regulate about 200 water systems that have fewer than 200 service connections.

Right now, current regulations only allow temporary use of bottled water as system owners work on complying with drinking water standards. Their permanent options usually are connecting to a city or larger water system, drilling a new well or installing expensive equipment to treat the water.

The Board of Supervisors gave approval Tuesday to sending a letter to the state water board asking the state to consider long-term bottled water use in cases of financial hardship.

“We need to stand up for our community and our small businesses,” Supervisor Kristin Olsen said.

The item was a late addition to the supervisors’ agenda after the state board provided feedback on Bloomingcamp Ranch’s proposal for long-term use of bottled water in its bakery. The tourist stop near Oakdale has become a poster child for small businesses facing steep costs of compliance with safe-drinking-water orders and was threatened with fines before it submitted a plan to the county last week.

The owners have said costs of a $100,000 to $200,000 treatment system, to reduce nitrates in the water, would destroy the business. Bloomingcamp has also proposed a far less costly treatment process for water supplied to public restrooms.

“We feel the state water board should consider it as an option and should be weighing the financial impact of these regulations,” county Chief Executive Officer Jody Hayes said. The county has little discretion in enforcing state regulations for small water systems.

Mathew Steinberg, co-owner of Bloomingcamp Ranch, said Tuesday afternoon he received a letter stating that bottled water was not one of the permanent measures allowed in the state regulations. The letter did not comment on his proposal for the fairly inexpensive process for treating water for the restrooms, he said.

“I just got notified this afternoon,” Steinberg said. “I really don’t have a response other than we are going to work on it and work on the most affordable solution that we can.”

The county Department of Environmental Resources has issued orders to 23 of the small public water systems in unincorporated areas, telling them to come up with technical plans for complying with drinking water standards. Some affected businesses meet the definition of a public water system because they supply drinking water to more than 25 employees.

Roselawn Continuation High School near Turlock is another entity trying to comply with the state regulations.

An order in August 2017 instructed the school on Roselawn Avenue to come into compliance with drinking water standards for nitrates, lead, copper and uranium. The school filtered its well water for nitrates for 20 years, but issues with the other contaminants have only arisen in the past couple of years, a school official said.

Scott Richardson, director of maintenance and operations, said bottled water has been supplied to students and staff as the Turlock Unified School District works with the state on a new well. Bottled water is not considered a permanent option, Richardson stressed.

“We knew we had to find a better water source,” he said, noting Roselawn was approved for a $500,000 grant through a state program. “The (state) has to approve every step of the process. The whole process takes about three years, but in the end the well and everything associated with it will be fully funded.”

A consultant has advised the school district that a well from 270 to 390 feet in depth should provide a long-term supply of clean water.

Last year, an analysis by McClatchy newspapers estimated that 360,000 California residents are served by systems with unsafe drinking water. About 6 million are supplied with water by providers that failed to meet state standards at some point in the last seven years, the analysis found.

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