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COUNTY REPORT: The Water We Drink

Contamination Opens Spigot on Water Concerns

Resources: As officials puzzle over the source of nitrates--toxic substances found in human and animal waste--in Oxnard's wells, many see a decline in purity across the county.

September 29, 1996|MARY F. POLS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Deep in the ground under Oxnard, something went terribly wrong last winter.

Lab technicians were conducting routine tests of water pumped from some city wells when they noticed alarming levels of contamination in the water.

The most disturbing finding was the presence of high levels of nitrates--a dangerous chemical that can be life-threatening to babies. The levels were so high that Oxnard would violate state and federal standards if it served the well water to its customers.

Faced with a potential public health crisis--nitrates have also been linked to increased miscarriage rates and are hazardous to ulcer sufferers--Oxnard shut down the wells and began serving its residents only water piped from Northern California.

The question of how the richest aquifer system in the county--and the lifeblood of the Oxnard Plain's rich agricultural heritage--became contaminated is still being debated.

Nitrates, created from human and animal waste, typically come from sewage treatment plants, septic tanks or agricultural fertilizers. Just which of those is the culprit--or whether all three are contributors--remains a mystery.

The crisis in Oxnard is an illustration of what can go wrong with one of Southern California's most precious and necessary resources: the water supply.

It's a worst-case scenario and possibly an isolated incident. Still, it is enough to make some people think twice about turning on the tap to fill a glass with Ventura County water.

It's also enough to cause concern at Ventura County's ground water management agency.

Technicians at the Resource Management Agency will soon embark on a series of tests they hope will trace the contamination to its source.

They will also try to explain what county hydrologist David Panaro calls an overall trend of declining water quality.

The amount of minerals and salts in local water seems to be increasing, Panaro said.

At the same time, there are indications that byproducts of agricultural use may be seeping into the ground water.

He said he has noticed an increase in nitrate levels in the Santa Rosa Valley in recent years.

Countywide, the amount of minerals, salts and sulfur in ground water also seems to be on the rise. If he were to produce a chart showing water quality over the last 30 years in Ventura County, Panaro said, it would show steady degradation.

"I think it would be pretty easy to prove that," he said.

Bottles Everywhere

Americans are fond of making jokes about drinking the water in other countries. In the United States, however, good drinking water is supposed to be a given. But a quick trip through local supermarkets shows that bottled waters, with labels showing snow-capped mountain and pristine streams, take up as much shelf space as fruit juices or milk. That suggests that Ventura County residents are turning away from the tap.

For most, the complaint is the taste. Water purveyors are upfront about the problem, largely a result of high mineral and salt content in the region. But water experts tend to dismiss the taste issue, pointing out that most contaminants slip by consumers without being detected.

"You can't taste a virus," said Don Kendall, general manager of the Calleguas Municipal Water District, which recently installed a sophisticated treatment system designed to remove bacteria from the water. "You can't taste giardia."

Understanding water quality is a grueling task. Just wading through the terminology is exhausting. Parts per million, chemicals, total dissolved solids, hardness, softness, surface water, ground water, aquifers. . . . The head reels.

But environmentalists say it can't be ignored, calling drinking water quality a critical health crisis. And Congress recently recognized those concerns when it reauthorized the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974, agreeing to create a $7.6-billion fund to improve water quality nationwide.

The Environmental Protection Agency is considering strengthening some of its standards for water quality, which in some cases were set as long ago as the 1940s.

*

In Ventura County, two multimillion-dollar filtration plants have been built in the last two years to screen local reservoirs for bacterial contaminants. Another planned project--a $14-million treatment plant jointly sponsored by Port Hueneme, Point Mugu and several beach communities all well known for their foul-tasting drinking water--recently went out to bid.

Years ago, before development, before Ventura County became a virtual vegetable garden and fruit orchard for Southern California, the picture was quite different.

Consider local legend, which has explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo arriving on Ventura County's shores in 1542 with a craving for fresh water. Supposedly, Cabrillo asked the Chumash where to go to fill his ship's water tanks.

The natives told him there was no need to put a party ashore; the water flowing out of the county's rivers was so sweet the Spanish explorers could simply dip buckets off the side of their ship and pull up fresh water.

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