Toxic Metals Plague: California people threatened

Californians relying on small water utilities to bring drinking water into their homes, or who work or go to school in places providing their own water, are far more likely to be exposed to lead, according to a new analysis of Environmental Protection Agency data by The Desert Sun and USA TODAY.

Small public water systems across the state made up the vast majority of systems found to have high levels of lead in their drinking water or testing violations since 2010, the analysis found. These systems typically exist in rural areas and serve less than a few thousand people. Some serve only a few hundred or even a few dozen people, sometimes at a single school or business. 

The results are evidence that while most water utilities across the state have clean records when it comes to lead, smaller agencies with limited resources more often struggle more often to comply with safety protocols. Neither the state nor the small water systems have the capacity to monitor for safety of drinking water as often as larger water systems do. Regulators are encouraging consolidation and a new law requires any new small system coming on line to first consider joining an existing system.

“The real interesting story is the amount of testing that’s required by a water system,” said Rick Williams, board president of the Bodega Water Company, which serves 38 households in rural Sonoma County.

The Bodega Water Company has seen excessive levels of lead in drinking water five times since 2010. According to Williams, the problem is not the water or wells that supply it but is old lead plumbing fixtures inside the community’s historic homes.

“We have no control over what people do in their own homes,” he said. “We can’t tell people they have to replace their own pipes.”

Tests for lead and copper are typically required every three years nationally, but a high lead reading would initiate follow-up tests every six months. The Bodega Water Company last saw a high lead reading in 2012. Tests in 2013 and 2014 then showed levels within acceptable standards, according to state testing information published online.