The talk about water in California generally centers on quantity and acquisition, and much of that involving surface supplies.
Those who have it desperately want to keep it or make money selling water. Farmers in the Southern San Joaquin Valley and Southern California residents desperately crave water, which was never more apparent than during the five-year drought. The political wrangling for control – including Gov. Jerry Brown’s twin-tunnels fixation – won’t stop just because we’ve had a soggy winter.
But what about water quality? Most of the drinking water in the Northern San Joaquin Valley is pumped from the ground and in some cases mixed with river water. Public water systems are required to test for lead, arsenic, copper, zinc and other metals that affect water quality. Lead contamination in particular became a national story last year when it tainted the water supply of Flint, Mich.
In January, water at California State University, Sacramento, tested for high lead levels, including 400 parts per billion from one faucet. The Environmental Protection Agency’s limit is 15 parts per billion. A few days later, California Superintendent of Schools Tom Torlakson announced free testing for lead will be available to all of the state’s schools.
Premium content for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
Months before the state acted, though, Modesto resident Vance Kennedy, a retired U.S. Geological Survey hydrologist, wondered about the area’s water quality and offered to work with The Modesto Bee to investigate. Kennedy spent his career studying water and how it moves beneath the surface. He also is an expert on how metals and other contaminants get into the water supply. Just by looking at the test results, he can tell whether sampled water passed through galvanized or copper piping. He’s been working with trace metals since 1948.
So I began collecting water samples from several area public school campuses, doing so during the holiday break when no students were on the campus to drink the water. That meant metals weren’t being flushed out by daily use and presumably would be at their strongest concentrations. We took the samples to a reputable local laboratory for testing. The lab said the results should be accurate to within 3 parts per billion either way, though chemical analysis is guaranteed to be 100 percent accurate.
The schools included Modesto’s Enslen Elementary and Modesto and Gregori high schools, Hughson High, Ceres High, Westport Elementary, Riverbank High, Magnolia Elementary in Oakdale, and Osborn and Cunningham elementaries in Turlock.
We looked for a mix of ages among the campuses, with Enslen and Modesto High being two of Modesto’s oldest and Gregori its newest. I sampled from Gregori after hearing rumors of a drinking water issue there. John Liukkonen, Modesto City Schools’ director of maintenance and operations, confirmed there had been a problem in December: A chlorinator malfunctioned, dumping too much of the chemical into the system. Four hours of flushing later, he said, the water returned to normal levels.
I chose Westport, in the Ceres Unified district, because the school’s well once tested so highly for uranium that the district installed an extraction system. But what about the other metals?
The test results brought good news. With one exception, the numbers all came back at or below EPA standards. Those from Gregori, in fact, matched or were close to those posted on the school’s website under its Consumer Confidence Report for water quality.
“The only school to have questionable lead was Enslen Elementary and that may or may not be a problem,” Kennedy said.
How does lead get into the water in schools that have galvanized pipe?
“From the soldering,” Kennedy said,. “That’s the only possible source I can think of.”
The sample taken at Enslen, built in 1929, tested at 16 parts per billion, just 1 part per billion above the EPA limit, but still two to three times higher than lead levels at the other school sites.
Higher, but barely – and certainly not anything as egregious as what they found at Sacramento State.
Liukkonen was happy to have the information.
“Really?” he said. “That’s good to know. We’ll get it tested again ourselves.”
He was even happier with the results of the followup tests Kennedy ordered. We retested at Enslen after winter break ended, using the same fountain as before. I collected four more samples: three several minutes apart on a Monday morning, the fourth in midweek after school had ended for the day and the lines had been flushed.
And the survey said? No problem. The sample taken at 7:30 a.m. last Monday, before students arrived on campus following a weekend where the water sat and the metals dissolved, tested at 3 parts per billion – well below the limit. And the other three tests showed no detectable levels at all.
Previous tests by the district would have shown similar low levels if taken when students were there to use the fountains and thus flush the system.
Liukkonen knows now that the longer the water sits in the pipes, the higher the levels of lead in the water. He can plan to have staff get the lead out before students return from prolonged vacations, thus minimizing the exposure to lead from the school’s drinking water.
“At the end of spring break, we’ll do a couple of tests to see what it is,” he said. “We can flush it out of there.”
“Now we can demonstrate that standing controls the concentration,” Kennedy said. “The state obviously needs to pay attention to this.”
Because while farmers, water brokers and politicians are obsessed with quantities, Kennedy and Liukkonen are among those who think water quality is more important.