Water Quality Challenges in California Schools

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California is the most populous state in the USA and the sixth largest economy in the world–and yet, the state’s 10,000 schools and 6 million students are struggling to stay afloat and healthy. Budget woes and school performance take the media spotlight, but there’s a silent threat that demands more attention: public school tap water is negatively impacting the health and well-being of the state’s youth.  

In California’s schools, clean water is often inaccessible for the entire school day, forcing some schools to bring in bottled water.

A 2016 report by Community Water Center found that between 2003-2014, up to 24% of the schools reviewed were exposed to unsafe drinking water, with contaminants ranging from nitrates to lead. CWC also found that between 500,000 to over 1 million students attended schools whose water systems did not always meet primary safe drinking water standards. While progress is being made to improve water quality through regulations at the federal and state level, there is still a way to go.

Water Quality Problems in CA Schools

Lead and nitrates in drinking water result from deteriorated source water and outdated pipes and infrastructure leading to the schools’ tap. With regards to source water, California schools rely on a mix of “community” water systems, such as public utilities and mutual water companies, and “non-community” water systems that the schools operate themselves (which are largely wells that are located nearby or on-site).

Community water systems provide treated water to over 25 people or at least 15 service connections year round, whereas non-transient non-community water systems provide water to similar populations, but not for the entire year. Around 20% of California school districts–which are mostly in the Central Valley–operate non-community systems.

A 2009 report by the Associated Press covering water quality at schools operating their own water supply found that California led the nation in Safe Drinking Water Act violations between 1998-2008. According to the AP, there were 612 violations in that time and in the extreme “(o)ne elementary school in Tulare County, in the farm country of the Central Valley, broke safe-water laws 20 times.”

The AP also reported that pollution was not limited to schools operating their own wells. Those who used community water sources also experienced water quality problems–especially in schools with older plumbing. This reflects a persistent and unaddressed water quality in California’s public school system.

Source Water Contamination

Contaminants from the water source impacting these schools include arsenic, lead, and nitrates.

At high levels, arsenic can cause various types of cancer and is associated with diabetes, cardiovascular disease, neurotoxicity, developmental effects and reproductive problems.

Nitrates contaminate groundwater largely because of fertilizer overuse in the agricultural industry and are prevalent in rural, agricultural communities. Tap water contaminated with nitrates is known to cause blue baby syndrome, leading to coma or death. Nitrates are especially present in the water of schools that rely on their own groundwater in rural, agricultural parts of California.

These schools have been facing additional burdens during the state’s ongoing drought: as groundwater levels fall, pollutants become more concentrated and more expensive to treat.

Infrastructure Related Contamination

Many schools have lead or copper pipes that pose risks to drinking water. Lead exposure after the Flint, Michigan lead crisis has been covered widely nationwide (and by SimpleWater, here). Learning disabilities, attention and behavioral problems, impaired growth, and hearing loss are all health problems associated with lead exposure. Lead is especially dangerous for children because they are early in their development and physically smaller and thus more vulnerable to elevated concentrations.

Copper, which is present in older plumbing materials, can lead to liver or kidney damage through long-term exposure, while causing gastrointestinal problems in the short term. Other secondary contaminants, such as manganese and iron, can tarnish the taste, odor, or color of drinking water. These can also cause discoloration of skin and damage kidneys and other organs.

What’s been done so far?

Unsafe water in California’s schools is a crisis issue, not least because the state is unclear about the extent of the problem. In an award-winning essay at Stanford Law school in 2016, Elizabeth Jones investigated regulatory issues around drinking water in California schools and reports that:

It is uncertain exactly how many schools have shut off fountains or are unknowingly allowing students to drink contaminated water because many schools do not test their water.

Historically, some students even had to go the entire school day without access to drinking water at all – and S.B 1413, a law that was passed in 2010, only requires access to “free, fresh drinking water” at lunch. The law is a victory for nutrition advocates combating the use of sugary drinks, but with regards to water quality, it is still limited: the Department of Education website covering SB 1413 for schools simply states that:

Providing water to children is very important; however, there may be concerns about the safety of water in your community or schools. We recommend that you work with your community and local water district to address any concerns about water quality before providing tap water routinely.

The law also doesn’t include many enforcement mechanisms, which threatens the long-term success of the program. Many school districts are trying to address the issue of unsafe water in their schools, but it will take time and money. This might not always be available.

A large number of schools are facing budget constraints that prevent them from taking the necessary actions to upgrade their water infrastructure. Instead, these schools are providing bottled water at lunch per the S.B. 1413 ruling. This is a stopgap that doesn’t address the long-term challenge, but at least it reflects a step to safeguard students’ health.

Help on the way?

California is taking its first steps toward improving school water quality and advocates hope that there will be more opportunities on the way. As a part of its 2016-2017 budget, the state has established a “Clean Water for Schools Grant Program” which will provide $9.5 million in funding for clean drinking water projects. The grants, which will go online in 2017, target schools in small disadvantaged communities and will include several types of projects.

The program’s website states that it will provide funding for water bottle filling stations, new or repaired drinking water fountains with treatment options at the source, or point-of-use treatment for drinking water fountains with maintenance and training for up to three years.

These grants are critical for improving water quality at many schools in California.

The program also leaves open the potential for more projects beyond the 3 types above, so its coverage may expand in the future.

The long road ahead….

It’s clear that California’s schools have a major water quality crisis, but its full extent remains unknown, largely because of a lack of oversight and good data.  In many ways, California is simply behind the curve on water testing: for example, about 56% of states require inspection of school drinking water outlets for lead contamination, but California does not.

The California Superintendent of Public Schools recently called for more water testing, and the Community Water Center is also calling for a statewide database and regular testing, among other improvements. Officials at the district and state level have a responsibility to monitor and address these issues to  guarantee access to safe water for vulnerable populations like California's youth.

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