Don’t panic, but Cal­i­for­nia has yet an­other wa­ter prob­lem

The Tribune (SLO) - - Opinion -

First, don’t panic.

It’s true that a re­port pub­lished late last month in the jour­nal En­vi­ron­men­tal Health found a link be­tween Cal­i­for­nia tap wa­ter and can­cer. The study noted high lev­els of ar­senic, plus numer­ous other con­tam­i­nants that may be more toxic in com­bi­na­tion than they are sep­a­rately. Ac­cord­ing to the re­port, the tainted wa­ter could cause more than 200 cases of can­cer a year.

The prob­lem is very se­ri­ous — but not nec­es­sar­ily statewide. The study didn’t name the most trou­bled mu­nic­i­pal wa­ter sys­tems, but sup­plies that serve rel­a­tively small num­bers of peo­ple are thought to

pose the big­gest risks. Some news ac­counts made it sound like the state’s en­tire wa­ter sup­ply is car­cino­genic. That’s not what the re­port shows — although, to be clear, it also doesn’t show the op­po­site. State of­fi­cials are ex­am­in­ing the re­sults.

But even if most Cal­i­for­nia tap wa­ter is OK, that’s small com­fort for the peo­ple in the prob­lem ar­eas. If turn­ing on the faucet causes can­cer in hun­dreds more peo­ple each year, and many thou­sands over life­times of drink­ing, wash­ing and show­er­ing, it’s ob­vi­ously a real prob­lem that re­quires a con­certed re­sponse.

Switch­ing to bot­tled wa­ter is no real so­lu­tion. Govern­ment wa­ter-qual­ity reg­u­la­tions do not ap­ply to the stuff in plas­tic con­tain­ers on store shelves, and be­sides, some bot­tled wa­ter com­pa­nies get their sup­plies straight from the tap, or at least from the same sources that sup­ply wa­ter to home pipes.

For years, in­dus­trial and agri­cul­tural in­ter­ests in Cal­i­for­nia ne­go­ti­ated with wa­ter agen­cies and law­mak­ers over the best way to ap­por­tion re­spon­si­bil­ity for clean­ing up con­tam­per inated wa­ter. It wasn’t easy, in part be­cause some of the most se­ri­ous prob­lems (ar­senic, for ex­am­ple) are largely nat­u­ral.

But many of the par­ties reached a ten­ta­tive ac­cord two years ago, which would im­pose fees on dairies, fer­til­izer sell­ers and most res­i­den­tial wa­ter cus­tomers (who would pay about 95 cents more month). It’s a good so­lu­tion. For­mer Gov. Jerry Brown sup­ported it but couldn’t per­suade the Leg­is­la­ture to ap­prove it. Gov. Gavin New­som is a strong sup­porter but is still deal­ing with op­po­si­tion from wa­ter agen­cies. The En­vi­ron­men­tal Health re­port strength­ens his case.

Still, the so-called wa­ter tax would pro­vide enough fund­ing chiefly for those wa­ter sys­tems with more pol­lu­tants than govern­ment stan­dards al­low. The En­vi­ron­men­tal Health study sug­gests that even “safe” con­tam­i­nant lev­els can in­crease the in­ci­dence of can­cer over time. There’s still no rea­son to panic — but plenty of rea­son to get more se­ri­ous about im­prov­ing the qual­ity of the state’s wa­ter sup­ply.

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