Some 700,000 Californians are currently being exposed to contaminated water at home or at school, according to the latest data from California’s Water Resources Control Board.
NBC 7 discovered more than 3,000 of those residents are living in the San Diego region, often in poorer, rural communities located within areas of Potrero, Pauma Valley and Borrego Springs.
Because the state data doesn’t account for the nearly 2 million Californians still relying on private wells or factor in contamination from Chromium-6, experts said the number of people with toxic water is likely even higher.
Escondido resident Juana Gonzalez said her kids’ “bath time” has become strictly business since her family moved into their Oakvale Park mobile home community about two years ago.
“When I shower my kids, I use to give them hot baths, but not anymore,” Gonzalez said. “Now we just wash, rinse and get out.”
The water that comes out of the taps in her mobile home is contaminated, according to state data. Levels of uranium in the water have tested at more than five times the limit the Environmental Protection Agency says is safe to drink.
Bathing with water that contains uranium is not a health concern, but Gonzalez said it still makes her uneasy. The water has also shown high levels of other radioactive material, according to the state.
The contaminated water runs into about 100 homes in the area.
“There are really serious health impacts from some of these contaminants,” said Laurel Firestone, Executive Director of the Community Water Center, a non-profit working to ensure communities have access to safe and affordable water. “It can cause cancer (and) in the case of nitrate in very high levels, it can even cause death after a few days of high exposure.”
Her organization said short-term health effects of drinking uranium-contaminated water include nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea, as well as liver and kidney damage. Long-term exposure can cause cancer, particularly of the bone and liver.
In 2012, Governor Jerry Brown signed legislation making California the first state in the nation to legally recognize the human right to clean drinking water. But, for more than a dozen communities located within areas like Potrero, Ramona and Alpine, tainted water runs from the taps and that legislation is a broken promise.
NBC 7 has been covering lead water testing at schools after dangerous levels of lead were discovered at a San Ysidro elementary school. Following our coverage, at least twelve area school districts are testing drinking water quality, and lead has been discovered in at least three schools. Water is shut-off to some 18,000 students at four different school districts as further testing is done.
“I think one of the most frustrating things is if this isn’t an emergency, then I don’t know what is,” said Firestone, whose Community Water Center organization works mostly in the Central Valley. “Having toxic water coming out of your tap, not being able to access water in schools, this is really basic.”
Tainted water in wells and public water systems in the San Diego area contain unsafe levels of uranium, fluoride, nitrate and arsenic, according to the state data.
Click here to see San Diego area data.
In addition to those with contaminated water, another 3,511 California households reported having wells that are dry, according to the state data released January 2017.
NBC Bay Area asked state Assemblyman Devon Mathis whether the numbers are acceptable.
“We’re in California, the sixth largest economy in the world, but we still have third world conditions right here at home,” Mathis said. “I think a lot of people forget that.”
The two-term Republican, who served 10 years in the Army National Guard, including two tours in Iraq, grew up in the Porterville area where dry wells have forced many residents to travel to a church parking lot on the edge of town to bathe in portable, public showers.
“That’s really the question for people at home – is this acceptable?” Mathis said. “Here we are in the 21st century in the great state of California, one of the largest economies in the world, and people do not have water running in their homes.”
While the state has made progress in getting clean, safe drinking water to rural residents, Felicia Marcus, chair of California’s Water Resources Control Board, says there’s more to do.
“We won’t have done enough until we get the job done,” Marcus said.
Although more than a million residents are estimated to be affected by contaminated water, it’s not something on the minds of those living in California’s urban centers.
“There’s a bit of out of sight, out of mind when the vast majority of people live along the coast in large urban centers,” Marcus said.
Recently, California’s Legislature gave the State Water Board authority to force the consolidation of small water districts that can’t guarantee safe water on their own.
So far, only one forced consolidation has taken place, although the Board is currently looking at 70 districts as possible candidates for consolidation. Officials say there could be even more after that.
In addition to the problem of small water districts unable to adequately provide safe water, there’s an issue of funding.
The Water Board has also been disbursing millions of dollars in grant money to build treatment centers and other infrastructure across the state.
But the trouble is, after treatment centers and infrastructure projects are built, many small communities don’t have the resources to operate or maintain them. As a result, Marcus said state lawmakers will have to decide if they want to fund those operation and maintenance costs.
“The state’s going to have to make a decision about subsidizing operation and maintenance for some of these small communities because the math just doesn’t add up,” Marcus said. “We’ve got to be thinking about it if our goal is to get clean, safe and affordable drinking water to all Californians.”
None of these efforts can come fast enough for residents living every day contaminated water or no running water at all.
In Oakvale Park, Juana Gonzalez helps some of her less fortunate neighbors by giving them a ride to the nearest place to buy water.
It’s five miles away.
“It would be good if we had clean water all the time, but we don’t so we have to go get it from somewhere,” Gonzalez said.
With the health risks, Gonzalez said she won’t let her neighbors drink the tap water. In fact, she won’t even give it to her dogs.
“That water is contaminated and we could get diseases. I wouldn’t want that for my children or my family or anybody,” she said.