News Feature | March 28, 2014

Nitrate Levels High In California Groundwater

Sara Jerome

By Sara Jerome,

California regulators are concerned about high nitrate levels in groundwater across the state. 

"State officials tested several areas five times, and found that Tulare and Los Angeles counties have high concentrations of nitrate contaminating their groundwater, and many agricultural communities even have them in their wells," ABC 23 recently reported

The state is planning to educate residents about the issue. "Officials are currently working with water coalition groups across the state to come up with finalized maps to send out to the public," the report said. 

Some California communities are at severe risk of running out of water, and nitrates are a factor in the problem. The Raw Story reported: "California’s drought has put 10 communities at acute risk of running out of drinking water in 60 days, and worsened numerous other health and safety problems."

Linda Rudolph, co-director for the Center for Climate Change and Health in Oakland and a former state health official, said in the report: “Many groundwater basins in California are contaminated, for example with nitrates from over application of nitrogen fertilizer or concentrated animal feeding operations, with industrial chemicals, with chemicals from oil extraction or due to natural contaminants with chemicals such as arsenic."

The lack of rain is making matters worse. "Rural communities where residents rely on wells are at particular risk, as contaminants in the groundwater become more concentrated with less water available to dilute them," the report said.

Nitrate problems in California are likely to continue worsening for decades, according to a report from the University of California, Davis. "For more than half a century, nitrate from fertilizer and animal waste has infiltrated into Tulare Lake Basin and Salinas Valley aquifers. Most nitrate in drinking water wells today was applied to the surface decades ago," the report said. 

Nitrate-contaminated water disproportionately affects low-income residents, according to a report by the Pacific Institute. The report homed in on the San Joaquin Valley. 

"The eight-county San Joaquin Valley has some of the most contaminated aquifers in the nation: 92 drinking water systems in the San Joaquin Valley had a well with nitrate levels above the legal limit from 2005-2008, potentially affecting the water quality of approximately 1.3 million residents. In addition to public water systems, the State Water Board sampled 181 domestic wells in Tulare County in 2006 and found that 40 percent of those tested had nitrate levels above the legal limit," the report said. 

The EPA says the major sources of nitrates in water include "runoff from fertilizer use; leaking from septic tanks, sewage; and erosion of natural deposits."

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