Ceres cited for tainted drinking water

CERES -- Public safety is No. 1 when it comes to providing healthy, drinkable water to Ceres residents.

But making sure people have sufficient water pressure is a close second, according to Michael Riddell, head of water and sanitary services for Ceres. It's a challenging balancing act.

The city was cited three times in four months this summer for allowing contaminated water to enter the city's drinking water system. The water, pumped from the ground, exceeded state and fed-eral maximum levels for arsenic, uranium, manganese and nitrate.

The city gets its water from 10 wells pumping 14 million gallons a day. When flow becomes contaminated, the wells are shut down for fixes, affecting the level of water pressure available to certain homes in Ceres.

"From the mishandling of the high nitrate episode during the last week of May, it is evident that city staff made decisions, which were not protective of the public health," wrote water engineer Joe Spano in a June citation.

Spano's report refers to a rush of excessive levels of nitrate into the water system at the end of May. Spano is a district engineer with the state department of health services, the agency that supervises public water systems to ensure state and federal drinking water standards are met. He couldn't be reached for comment this week or last.

Water from Boothe Well has too many nitrates. To bring the concentration down to drinkable levels, the well's flow is combined with the Riverbluff Well, which has a low nitrate count. The outcome is water that is below the state-mandated level for nitrate contamination -- 45 milligrams per liter.

But when the Riverbluff Well unexpectedly shut down one early Monday morning in May, the high-nitrate Boothe Well continued pumping.

Too much nitrate, manganese

The state and federal governments set maximum levels of contaminants that public water systems are allowed to carry in drinking water delivered to homes, schools and businesses. Delivering quality water is a task for many valley city governments, not just Ceres, especially because many contaminants naturally occur in the environment and water is in such high demand.

In his citation, Spano noted the concerns surrounding the nitrate contamination -- excessive levels are dangerous to infants and pregnant women because the conversion of nitrate to nitrite by the body can interfere with the blood's ability to carry oxygen.

Ceres also was cited for excessive manganese in water in mid-June and contaminated uranium July 6; a third charge came after high levels of arsenic got into the system June 18 and 20.

Exposure to the chemicals in elevated amounts for an ex- tended period of time can lead to stomach pains, nausea, and in extreme cases, cancer and neurological disorders, accord- ing to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Transgressions of water standards can carry $250 fines on the city for each day the violations continue. Ceres officials said the city never has been fined by the California Department of Health Services; that could not be confirmed by the department of health.

The citations came during summer months -- peak demand time for water, Riddell said. People are using more water, which puts a demand on the system for water pressure.

"You have to keep the flow coming, but also need the safety. You have to give the customers what they're paying for," Riddell said.

The city also was cited for failing to provide adequate paper- work, failing to send required testing results to state officials, or to properly inform customers when water was contaminated. When issues did arise with the water system, city staff failed to notify the Department of Health Services immediately.

Those infractions have been fixed by updating procedures and offering more training for the city's six water employees, Riddell said.

Water contamination is surveyed by an electronic monitoring system with employees on call if the computer sends out an alert, Riddell said. Water at all well sites is sampled and tested every week, officials said. Results are sent to the state.

Repairs could be costly

Repairing wells to decrease the incidence of contamination could be very costly, easily reaching into the millions for each well, Riddell said. The challenge is providing safe water, supplying enough water pressure and keeping costs at a minimum for residents.

"The problem is finding good water. We need two new wells now," Riddell said. "In the past 10 years, we drilled 12 test holes and only one worked."

While water officials focus on bringing Ceres' groundwater infrastructure up to par, they are working on a surface water agreement with the Turlock Irrigation District. That project would cost about $70 million by completion.

In the meantime, officials are eyeing a possible water rate increase, along with a move from fixed monthly bills (about $15) to charges based on metered usage.

"Water usage goes way down when people are paying for what they use," Riddell said.

Bee staff writer Michelle Hatfield can be reached at mhatfield@modbee.com or 578-2339.