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California and the West

Group Criticizes Water Pollution Monitoring System

Ecology: Group says a lack of controls compromises the state's ability to track the contamination of underground supplies.

April 27, 2001|DEBORAH SCHOCH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A seriously flawed monitoring system compromises California's ability to track contamination in ground water, an environmental group contends.

The study, released Thursday by the Natural Resources Defense Council, calls on the state to pay more attention to ground water problems, pinpoint pollution sources, provide money for monitoring and ensure that monitoring programs are enforced.

"Ground water contamination in California is widespread, and serious," said David Beckman, senior attorney at the council. "We're fouling our own nest."

One illustration of the problem offered by the national environmental group: The state Water Resources Control Board produced a misleading collection of ground water data, prompting the board to retract part of a two-year report required under the federal Clean Water Act, the group says. State officials confirmed the error Thursday, blaming it on a computer glitch and oversight problems.

Although pesticides, nitrates, metals and and other pollutants taint much of the state's ground water, monitoring is done through a balkanized, uncoordinated system involving six state and federal agencies, the study concluded. One result is that some pollution is counted twice and some not at all.

The lack of a coordinated system means that much pollution goes undetected, spreading underground slowly and invisibly, year after year.

Half of the state's residents depend on ground water for part or all of their drinking water. About 1.3 million Californians use domestic water wells, according to 1990 census data.

Some water experts agree that the state monitoring system should be improved.

"Those of us in the technical end of it have recognized that there are shortcomings in ground water monitoring for years," said Carl Hauge, chief hydrologist at the state Department of Water Resources.

But although people might be alarmed when a derailed tanker car dumps toxins into a river, Hauge said, they generally are much less aware of the potentially more serious threat of toxins seeping into an underground drinking water supply.

One reason people "don't respond to this is that it's an invisible issue that doesn't show up for years. They don't see it immediately," Hauge said.

"We do want a better assessment of the condition of the state's water quality," said Janet Hashimoto, chief of monitoring and assessment in the water division at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regional office in San Francisco.

One snafu highlighted by the council study is that the state water board provided the EPA with erroneous ground water data for a federally mandated report to Congress that must be prepared every two years.

A computer problem at the board meant that the number of polluted ground water basins was seriously inflated. The database used in the report, moreover, had not been updated since 1992, meaning that it did not include such problems as the discovery of the gasoline additive MTBE in ground water in Santa Monica and other areas in the state.

"There was an error, and it's embarrassing. But when we found out the information was in error, we retracted that information," said James Giannopoulos, assistant division chief for clean water programs at the state water board.

Beckman's group is sponsoring legislation that supporters say would help coordinate ground water monitoring statewide. Introduced by Assemblywoman Carol Liu (D-La Canada Flintridge), the bill would create a task force so that water officials from a variety of agencies could mesh their activities and produce a statewide program.

"Right now, it's a patchwork of jurisdictions and coverage. The data are collected inconsistently. and it's not publicly accessible," said Suzanne Reed, Liu's chief of staff. The bill was approved by the Assembly Environment and Toxics Materials Committee on Wednesday, and it is due next for review by the Appropriations Committee.

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