California Drinking Water Pollution Traced to Fertilizers and Animal Waste

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California Drinking Water Pollution Traced to Fertilizers and Animal Waste

EWG calls on state and agriculture to act on nitrate contamination

Oakland, Calif. - Animal waste and fertilizer from farming operations in California’s Salinas Valley and Tulare Lake Basin are the source of 96 percent of the nitrate contamination in the area’s groundwater, a new study commissioned by the State Water Resources Control Board found.

Researchers at the University of California at Davis concluded that 254,000 people in the area, which includes Fresno, Tulare, Kings and Kern counties, “are currently at risk for nitrate contamination of their drinking water,” including 34,000 people who rely on private wells or local small water systems.
The UC/Davis study is being delivered today (March 13) to California legislators considering ways to “improve understanding of the causes of [nitrate] groundwater contamination, identify potential remediation solutions and funding sources to recover costs expended by the state…” The legislature voted in 2008 to have the water resources board commission the study.

“This report must spur the Central Coast water board to issue its long delayed order requiring farmers to address severe pollution of ground and surface water without delay,” said Kari Hamerschlag, senior analyst at Environmental Working Group who focuses on California agriculture. The Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board is scheduled to release its proposed order at a hearing on Wednesday (March 14). For nearly 20 years, EWG has been calling attention to the health dangers of nitrate contamination in drinking water, which is especially dangerous to infants and has been linked to cancer and reproductive problems in adults.

“The study’s findings point to the urgent need for more resources to cleanup and protect drinking water and reduce the amount fertilizer percolating into groundwater from irrigated fields. Otherwise, millions of Californians will continue to drink contaminated water,” said Hamerschlag. “We hope the state will move quickly to impose a fee on fertilizer sales, which is one of the report’s major recommendations.”

“This report should also be a wake-up call to the state’s Congressional delegation to fight hard in the farm bill deliberations to maintain current spending on federal conservation programs, which are in serious jeopardy,” Hamerschlag added. “These funds must be targeted to the regions in California that are suffering from the most significant water contamination threats.”

U.S. Department of Agriculture conservation programs are a vital source of funding and technical assistance that helps farmers implement practices that use nitrogen fertilizers efficiently and reduce nitrogen runoff into groundwater. In 2010, California spent $134.7 million to support farmers in protecting vital water, soil, air and wildlife resources.



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The mission of the Environmental Working Group (EWG) is to use the power of public information to protect public health and the environment. EWG is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, founded in 1993 by Ken Cook and Richard Wiles.

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