New concerns over potential Valley water contamination

FRESNO, Calif.

Hundreds of thousands of people living in California farming communities may very well have been drinking nitrate-contaminated water.

Growers are worried this study will just put even more restrictions on what they believe is already highly-regulated farming but local water rights activists say nitrates are a serious concern linked to birth defects and thyroid conditions.

A new study released today by UC Davis claims flood irrigation of over fertilized crops cause an unsafe level of nitrates in South Valley drinking water.

In fact the report states agriculture is to blame for 96 percent of the contamination in the Tulare Lake basin, with fertilizer making up more than half of the pollution.

"We're really excited to see that after waiting a number of years we're finally able to have this report come about and really highlight," Maria Herrera of the Community Water Center said.

Community Water Center has spent the last ten years fighting for safer drinking water in the Central Valley, conducting numerous tests for the odorless, colorless nitrates and other toxins in rural areas where private wells aren't necessarily regulated by the state.

In the community of Seville, constant complaints of a 100-year old water system forced Tulare County officials to take over ownership of the system. Nearby communities like Yettem and Munson were also tested as part of the study.

"All of the 13 samples came back with levels that exceeded the legal limit and really high actually. Munson has the highest nitric levels in Tulare County being at 130 when the legal limit is 45," Herrera said.

The study calls for tougher restrictions on how much fertilizer farmers can use and how they irrigate. That has growers concerned.

"Our growers are so highly regulated now that it's almost unfathomable that there could be even more regulations piled on top," Tulare County Ag Commissioner Marilyn Kinoshita said.

Kinoshita says if growers face legal limitations on fertilizer use it'll drive food prices up and hurt farmers. Plus testing of private wells is expensive.

"A lot of growers, they live here, they're using well water for their drinking water so they're just as concerned as any urbanite," Kinoshita said.

Kinoshita says farmers are already using new technology to water their crops so she hopes the issue can be resolved without enforcing more regulations on farmers.

Water rights activists, however, believe the regulations really are needed for small communities that can't even safely drink their own water.

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