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Toxic Water Woes

Maintaining fresh drinking water demands constant vigiliance
Maintaining pure, clean, fresh drinking water is a matter of life or death. World water experts say that water-borne diseases cause an average of about 25,000 deaths a day. This means about one water-related death every three seconds. While the majority of these deaths occur in the third world, it is still estimated that in the United States there are 4,000 water related deaths each year or eleven every day. Here in Santa Cruz County, we have many toxic threats to our own local water supplies.

MTBE is a toxic gasoline additive that is a recognized potential human carcinogen in drinking water. The allowable limit of MTBE in drinking water is a very low five parts per billion (ppb). So even one gallon of spilled MTBE could pollute 200 million gallons of drinking water, enough to supply 600 families for a year. Santa Cruz County contains 55 documented MTBE spill sites. The mid-County area has some very significant MTBE threats. Although the City of Capitola is only about two square miles, it contains four identified MTBE leak sites. The immediately adjoining small town of Soquel contains three known MTBE leak sites. One of these Soquel leaks had MTBE concentrations of over 200,000 ppb in groundwater (40,000 times higher than the safe clean-up level). This site also leaked over 250 ppb of MTBE into Nobel Creek stream water, which drains into Soquel Creek and the Soquel Creek Lagoon. Clearly the potential for MTBE impact to our drinking water supplies is very clear and immediate.

Chromium (VI) is a compound that can occur in drinking water and was the subject of the movie Erin Brockovich. The US EPA says that “ingesting large amounts of Chromium (VI) can cause stomach upsets and ulcers, convulsions, kidney and liver damage and even death”. The US Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) has determined that certain chromium(VI) compounds are known to cause cancer in humans.

Locally, Chromium (VI) has been found in drinking water wells from Aptos and La Selva Beach south into the Pajaro Valley and Watsonville. Detections of Chromium (VI) within the Soquel Creek Water District range from 6–38 ppb and Watsonville has reported concentrations up to 21 ppb. Since there is yet no official maximum contaminant level defined for Chromium (VI), neither agency has seen fit to abandon affected wells or even install treatment facilities.

Arsenic is another toxic compound in water and is recognized as an extremely potent killer. The recent 2001 National Academy of Sciences “Arsenic in Drinking Water” report presents some chilling statistics. According to their expert estimates, arsenic in drinking water will cause at least 200,000 deaths from lung, bladder, skin and kidney cancer in Bangladesh alone. Arsenic is also blamed for heart disease, skin problems, reproductive and development effects, neurological issues, respiratory effects, liver function, hematologic effects and diabetes.

Locally, arsenic has been found in Soquel Creek Water District wells in Aptos. There is considerable management confusion over the amounts of arsenic actually in these Aptos wells. Initially the Water District reported levels of eight parts per billion (ppb). But after a local newspaper article was published, the District then decided to lower their report to five ppb. The year before they had reported six ppb.

But even much lower levels of arsenic are still quite dangerous. As a recent US News & World Report said “as little as three ppb of arsenic carries a far higher bladder and lung cancer risk than do other substances EPA regulates.” The EPA tries to set limits so there is no more than one death per million people, but for arsenic the expectation is several cancer cases per thousand people! In fact, even with the lowest Soquel Creek Water District arsenic level of five ppb, we would still expect 29 cancer cases here.

The US Environmental Protection Agency has recently lowered the maximum allowable level of arsenic to ten ppb effective 2006. As a Director of the Water District, I requested at a Board meeting that we inform our customers of this change so they could make their own decisions about possible health threats. Surprisingly, the other Directors voted to keep this information secret. I also requested that budget funds be explicitly allocated to investigate possible treatments to reduce or eliminate arsenic from our drinking water, but this was also not done.

Maintaining fresh drinking water demands constant vigilance. It is not a job for the lazy or complacent. It is not acceptable to relax even when drinking water is below the legal maximum contaminant levels, as there may still be considerable risk. The public needs to kept informed and should demand leaders who understand their concerns and are willing to perform the difficult task of delivering on their promises.

Bruce Daniels is the Director of the Soquel Creek Water District and Vice Chair of the California Regional Water Quality Control Board.


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job opportunities

Dear Bruce,

My name is Sean Martin and I am an environmental scientist from New York. I was planning on moving out to the Santa Cruz area soon and was wondering about job opportunities out that way. I was hoping to find a job in watershed management or surface water hydrology. Does the Soquel Creek Water District
hire scientists or have any plans for watershed management?
Please, e-mail me back at CactusJack_98 (at)

Sean Martin


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