Thousands of families who rent or own homes with private wells are at risk of losing their drinking water in Madera, Fresno, Tulare and Kings counties — and some already have.
The Fresno Bee is investigating the risks to private wells and proposed solutions, and we need to hear your stories and your questions to guide our reporting.
Water quality tests show well water in parts of the central San Joaquin Valley is polluted with arsenic, nitrates, DBCP and 123-TCP and other contaminants, creating a health risk for people who drink or shower with it. Yet many people are unaware.
Private wells are at risk of failing and going dry in coming years as underground water levels drop. Thousands of wells already failed during California’s most recent drought from 2012 to 2016.
Faced with these risks, families have switched to drinking only bottled water or paying thousands of dollars to dig deeper wells.
Have you experienced these problems? Are you worried about your well water? Do you have questions or want to know what help is available?
Text 559-417-3351 or click here to share your experience. We will talk to experts and get answers to your questions. We will provide updated information about the risks to drinking water sources and proposed solutions. And, we will hold elected officials and policy makers accountable to their promises to fix these problems.
Read on for more information about private wells, and share this story with anyone you know on a private well.
Q: How do I know if I’m on a private well?
A: Most drinking water in the San Joaquin Valley comes from groundwater. In cities and some small towns, the drinking water comes from a community water system, not a private well. If you or your landlord pays a bill to a water utility, your water comes from a community water system. Most private wells are in rural areas.
Wells will go dry in the coming years
Thousands of wells failed when California was hit with a years-long drought beginning in the 2012 rain year. Water users pumped water out of the ground faster than it could be replenished.
In those water basins, the water table dropped and pumps could no longer reach the source. It’s likely that will continue to happen, according to several reports by water advocates.
In areas where that happened, the state of California has required water users to write plans to better manage groundwater under the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act.
However, organizations that analyzed the plans, including the Water Foundation and Public Policy Institute of California, found the plans would not protect drinking water sources for all private wells.
If the plans go into effect, between 4,000 and 12,000 wells in the San Joaquin Valley could still go dry in the next 20 years, according to an analysis of proposed water management plans analyzed for the Water Foundation.
That means between 46,000 and 127,000 people in the San Joaquin Valley could lose some or all of their water supply, according to calculations by the Water Foundation.
What are the health risks from pollution?
Hundreds of thousands of households in the Valley rely on private wells for their water. All private wells use groundwater.
Groundwater in some areas of the valley is polluted with contaminants from pesticides and other sources, creating a health risk for people who are exposed by drinking, cooking or showering with their well water, according to the State Water Resources Control Board.
Many people don’t know their water is polluted because the water quality has not been tested. Drinking water regulations do not apply to private wells and there is no state law that requires water quality testing.
Nitrates are a common problem for well water in the Valley and create an immediate health risk, especially to infants and pregnant women when exposed to high levels. Nitrates in water are a result of certain fertilizers or nearby sewage from a septic tank or animal waste.
DBCP and TCP were used in pesticides on agricultural lands until they were banned. They persist in the environment and are known to increase the risk of cancer for people who have been exposed over many years.
Exposure can come from ingestion or inhalation, according to the World Health Organization.
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