Tuesday, October 19, 2010



The National Tap Water Quality Database in Washington DC reports that California ranks at the top nationwide as the state with the most polluted tap water.

It further states that the Santa Barbara Water District--whose tap water it tested for five successive years, 1998 and 2003--supplied drinking water to consumers containing no fewer than twenty-four pollutants, including arsenic, pesticide and fertilizer.

Arsenic, just by itself, the report continues, can cause cancer and blood, kidney and liver toxicity, and also gastrointestinal toxicity and neuro-toxicity.

This study will come as a surprise to Mayor Marty Blum, who spearheaded a resolution at the U.S. Conference of Mayors two weeks ago to phase out bottled water from city offices and city events so that city workers and event attendees have no choice but to drink tap water.

"Thousands of studies have shown that tap water is contaminated with many pollutants," Tap Water Quality Database spokeswoman Jovana Ruzicic told The Investigator. "Bottled water is not necessarily a better option, because the bottled water industry is unregulated- and sometimes bottled water is tap water. The safest water to drink is filtered tap water."

The National Tap Water Quality Database operates under the auspices of the nonprofit Environmental Working Group, a public health research organization created in 1993 that is funded 80 percent by foundation grants and 20 percent by donations from individuals.

Another environmental action group, the New York City-based Natural Resources Defense Council, reports: "Each year up to 7 million Americans become sick from contaminated tap water, which can also be lethal. Pollution, old pipes and outdated treatment threaten tap water quality."

And a recent study emanating from the University of Manchester in the U.K. concluded that chlorinated tap water consumed by pregnant women might lead to birth defects.

So The Investigator ventured to the William B. Cater Filtration Plant on San Roque Road, which treats water for Santa Barbara, Montecito and Carpinteria.

Santa Barbara's water guardian is plant Superintendent Susan Thomson. She has served for thirty years and clearly knows every square inch of the plant. Thomson told The Investigator she is proud of the water produced at Cater, and she regularly drinks it herself without hesitation.

"That wasn't always the case" Thomson added. "I wasn't so sure until they covered the reservoirs a few years ago." Before then, she said, "ducks floating on it and raccoon poop put me off."

Water from the nearby Lauro Reservoir (emanating from Cachuma and Gibraltar lakes) first undergoes coagulation, followed by flocculation, after which the flocculated (large) particles are removed through sedimentation. The water is then filtrated and disinfected before delivery to pump stations.

Thomson supervises a clean, efficient operation, overseen by a staff of sixteen. The system is completely computerized and has a 1,000- kilowatt electrical generator as backup in case of power outages. After 9/11, Cater installed a formidable iron fence around the plant's compound and implemented a security program inspected by The Investigator, details of which shall remain undisclosed.

The Investigator asked if the plant's filtration process has been improved since 2003, when the National Tap Water Quality Database concluded its five-year testing program.

"We've had improvements at the plant," said Thomson, "but the process itself hasn't changed."

Water pumped from Cater meets requirements laid down by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency- and that, according to the Environmental Working Group, is the problem.

"The EPA's guidelines," Ruzicic told The Investigator, "are not tough enough about the percentage of pollutants that get through. And there are 141 pollutants that the EPA has not even regulated, including pharmaceutical waste. We need a strong federal law to regulate what gets into our drinking water."

What about the Safe Water Drinking Act?

"Under this act," Ruzicic explained, "the EPA sets standards based not just on health consideration, but also cost. The agency is required to prove that the cost of removing a contaminant does not exceed the benefits of removal. Because of that provision, EPA has set legal limits for 40 percent of regulated contaminants at levels higher than their own recommended health-based limits."

In other words, it's not cost effective to insist on pollutant-free tap water.

"Furthermore," continued Ruzicic, "the EPA is allowed to set maximum legal limits for contaminants as if people are exposed to just one contaminant at a time. That's not the reality of human exposure. Studies show that people carry hundreds of chemicals in their bodies at any given time."

Whatever your misgivings now about tap water, do be grateful for the Cater filtration plant. "Before it was built in 1964," Thomson told The Investigator, "water from Lake Cachuma was not treated in a filtration plant. It was disinfected with chlorine and fed directly to the consumer." And now WTP is working triple time to filter out charred debris--"organics"--from last year's Zaca Fire.

However much drinking water costs, whether paid for in taxes or over the counter for the bottled variety, it is a bargain we all take for granted. Less than 3 percent of our planet's water is potable, and supplies are dwindling; humankind has polluted the very rivers that once gave birth to cities.

Even the Potomac River, which flows into our nation's capital, has become a sewer of fowl waste dumped from numerous poultry farms upriver in Maryland.

Many experts on global water conditions agree that twenty years from now fresh water will be as precious as oil--and countries will fight wars over territorial rights to it.