Water, Water Everywhere, sort of . . .
At the CSD Water Workshop, held on Sept 14, that nice Mr. Spencer Harris of Cleath & Associates gave a report on Task 3 part of the 9 part water use plans for Los Osos. Task 3 was to take a look at the upper aquifer and characterize the water quality and look for other stuff, i.e. the Title 22 “emerging contaminants,” other than nitrates.
Harris’ report and some of the Q&As at the meeting indicate an interesting mixed bag of information. From my notes:
--The good news is that the upper aquifer meets drinking water standards, except for nitrates. There are a few contaminants, but nothing “reportable,”. i.e. at such a level as to violate State standards for that item. Some of the upper aquifer water is already being used from at least one of the wells, and more water, properly monitored and “blended” with lower aquifer water, could be used to help reduce pumping from the lower aquifer which would help reduce salt water intrusion.
--The bad news is that, like almost all water sources, “emerging contaminants” are present. These are a whole list of chemicals/drugs/hormones/pesticide/herbicide/personal products/etc that have only been recently been looked for in increasingly smaller and smaller amounts, amounts so small that their presence can often be the result of sample contamination in handling or in lab error or, weirdly, elements can show up in the “Blank” or “control” samples but not in the tested water, for no explainable reason. (There was one dry cleaning chemical that showed up in a well sample even though there are no dry cleaning establishments in Los Osos and there is no explanation as to why or how or what would account for that trace element showing up much of anywhere. Thus re the vagaries of testing for minute amounts of anything: Hard to say what the “normal” level is, especially since the field is so new that few norms have even been established in the U.S. anyway.)
There are presently no State or Federal standards for many emerging contaminants. Europe has set levels, but the whole field is too new and the U.S. is only recently trying to play catch up. The reason why they’re of concern is because at this point we don’t know if they pose a long-term threat to health or not. So prudence would support more study and monitoring.
--The upper aquifer water can be used for irrigation with no problem. (Part of the Ripley Plan involves the “ag exchange” using not only treated wastewater but also the possibility of drawing down the upper aquifer water for ag use which would mean the farmers wouldn’t need to pump their deep aquifer water, which could then be used for drinking & etc.)
--Harris also noted that his study is, perhaps, the very first done in the County. When the Tribune first briefly touched on this report some months ago, it gave no context for the result – i.e. a comparison between L.O. water and Morro Bay or SloTown. I thought, at the time, this was odd since the idea of some minute contaminants in your drinking water is scary until you take a look at what other people are drinking. At that point, it then slides into perspective. Now I know why there was no context . . . . there were no other studies done by other communities for comparison.
--Standard sewer treatment plants don’t treat or remove many of these trace elements. Some of the newer treatment plants may be starting to add on a final “polish” treatment that could help. Ag exchange/irrigation use is o.k. though once again, the placement of the irrigation water is crucial since time & distance for eventual recharge are crical – one site, heavy direct “recharge” can simply end up polluting a clean source whereas slow, ag-use dispersal allows for more soil/time for the ultimate polish and removal via biological processes of many of these contaminants. The bad news still remains that much of the stuff we use and consume nowadays contains chemicals that NEVER go away. In most cases, they break down into harmless by-products. But some simply remain no matter what, which is what makes the whole field of “emerging contaminants” something the whole world needs to pay attention to, since we live in an entirely closed Spaceship Earth system – nothing leaves, it just moves around in one form or another.
--Irony. (What would Los Osos & Nitrates & Water be without Irony?) Santa Maria’s drinking water exceeds state levels for nitrates and exceeds the levels of nitrate found in many of the Los Osos upper aquifer wells that were tested. Santa Maria is sewered, though their sewer plant uses direct ground dispersal, which may make the problem worse, depending on what amount of nitrates they’re allowed to discharge.
So, where are all the “polluting” nitrates are coming from? Why, all the ag land. So, have the farmers received ACL fines and are they now under threat by the Regional Water Quality Control Board and issued CDOs, as are the home owners here in Los Osos? Nope. The RWQCB only requires them to attend “workshops” to learn ways to reduce nitrate runoff & etc. Go figure.
--Irony or Plain Weirdness: According to Mr. Harris, viruses and bacteria do not travel far in the soil or water tables. State rules require a 200 foot setback between leach fields and any water source and almost all the literature Mr. Harris has reviewed, notes that bacterial contamination simply doesn’t travel far from septic tanks/leach fields. So, when somebody noted that the MBNEP’s monitoring of the “seeps” entering Morro Bay near Baywood Park come up with bacterial/coliform/etc counts, the claim is that they’re coming from our septic tanks, even though, apparently, the testing site is more than 200 feet from any known septic leach fields.. Mr. Harris said that would be a very interesting claim to try to substantiate since the literature says otherwise. Of course, since we never have had a Septic Maintenance District established, nobody has inspected any tanks near the Bay to know if they’re all in working order or whether some are broken and leaching directly into the soil or whatever might account for the seeps findings. As Mr. Harris noted, That would be an interesting claim to track down.
--Water softeners of the type that discharge into septic systems are Not Good. Too much salt loading into the groundwater. The type that use take-away tanks that are apparently cleaned and reused with the salt being dumped into the sea, are preferred and when a wastewater system is being considered, every effort should be made to have everyone in the community who has water softeners switch from onsite softeners to takeaways. Or just remove the softener and stick with good old natural hard water, which uses more detergent, so you’re back to another wastewater tradeoff: Salt or more suds?
The full report should be available in the CSD office. I would encourage everyone to go take a peek. Very interesting. Also, I had to leave about 9 p.m. so, alas, missed the other presentations, so will have to pick them up on TV via AGP Video.