Most Viewed Stories
Water standards challenge Sutter County schools
The fact is not new to most Yuba-Sutter residents, especially those who live in areas just outside city limits or in rural areas. Some pursue annexation into incorporated areas for access to contaminant-free municipal water supplies, others opt for bottled water or home filtration systems.
Schools are faced with their own challenges.
Those not connected to a community public water source, such as Yuba City, are considered their own public water source and legally required to fall below California's maximum contaminant level of 10 parts per billion, at whatever cost, though students may be allowed to drink the same water at home across the street.
When California changed its standard in 2008 from 50 ppb to 10 ppb, many schools suddenly were no longer in compliance with state requirements. They have been working ever since to find permanent solutions for their water supply.
"Nothing has changed with the water we've had historically, it's just the rules changed," said Steve Plaxco, director of maintenance and facilities for Yuba City Unified School District. "I drink that water. It's not like it's poison or anything."
Over the limit
No schools in Yuba County exceed the arsenic maximum contaminant level, but in Sutter County, Franklin School, Barry School, Encinal Elementary School and Grace Baptist Church, which runs the Grace Christian Academy and Preschool, all have elevated levels.
Long-term exposure to arsenic in drinking water has been linked to several cancers and cardiovascular, immune system, neurological and endocrine problems.
Many school officials stressed that though the arsenic levels are elevated, exposure has been eliminated and any risk from arsenic that had been in the water would be minimal.
"The term arsenic in your water raises all kinds of red flags. But a person drinking that water at 50 ppb for their entire life, you may have only a slight increase in your risk for cancer," said Douglas Reeder, principal and superintendent of Franklin Elementary School. "But we've been very cautious. I think it's always prudent to be cautious when you are talking about drinking water."
Franklin Elementary's arsenic levels have hovered around 10 to 14 ppb in the last three years. Shortly after its first elevated arsenic level was reported, board members approved an $11,000 project to install more than 30 point-of-use filters on every drinking fountain and below every school sink.
"Our contact at the state said we could choose to do nothing," Reeder said. "We didn't think that was a wise choice."
The filters are monitored monthly and only a few have had to be replaced, effectively preventing ingestion of any arsenic.
But now Franklin Elementary is pursuing another, more convenient route, as it may finally have the option of connecting to Yuba City's water system and pipe in and pay for water it knows meets all requirements.
About $7.5 million state grant money is available to extend a water main west along Franklin Road to the school at North Township Road. The grant funding will also be used to also supply water for neighboring residential areas in the Wildewood and El Margarita area.
The Yuba City City Council has given its support for the projects.
"We like to help them if we can, especially when it deals with the public health of the community," said Public Works Director George Musallam.
The project was attractive to Franklin Elementary not just as a permanent solution but that it would eliminate their need to monitor their own water supply.
"It's safer for the kids, and there are lots of ongoing issues with being a public water system the connection will resolve," Reeder said.
The cost to attach to the city system is minimal, Reeder said, but the district has not yet analyzed its expense to purchase water from the city. Well water will still be used for school irrigation and other nonconsumption uses.
On Yuba City's outskirts, Barry Elementary School's well water has hovered between 10 and 14 ppb during the last three years. The school district has chosen to address the problem by providing bottled water to its students and staff for about $900 per month, at a cost of $1 per gallon.
The district has considered other options, such as connecting to the city's water system, but the nearest connection is about three miles away, making the project financially unfeasible.
A desired improvement would be installing a treatment system near the well itself, for which grant funding could be available, but the state requires a pilot study to determine the best way to reduce the arsenic levels.
"We are going to spend $100,000-plus of taxpayer money to find that same system we proposed may be what we use," Plaxco said. "It's a little frustrating sometimes the way the bureaucracy works."
But the district is determined to find a permanent solution.
"If we can put it down to zero, it'd be great," Plaxco said. "We do everything for the best health and interests of the students."
Parts of Sutter County have long had the reputation of having elevated levels of minerals, salts and other materials, Plaxco said. When Barry Elementary School was digging for a new well, the deeper it drilled, the worse the water quality became.
"There's just no good water under the ground in the area," he said.
Meridian Elementary and Nuestro Elementary solved their problems by installing water treatment systems at the source of the well and are producing water that meets state standards.
Wayne Gadberry, principal of Meridian Elementary, said the school has not had any elevated arsenic levels since a filtration system was installed in summer 2008. That particular system was chosen because of the school's particular situation, Gadberry said, although he did not know the cost or details because it was before his tenure.
Nuestro School also opted for a well water treatment system, and Grace Baptist solved its problem by providing bottled water.
Winship Elementary School's well source produces water that exceeds the arsenic level, but because the population it serves has dropped under 25 people, it no longer falls under the Department of Public Health's jurisdiction.
If parents are concerned about their water source at home, public companies offer a water testing service often for $25, and there are in-home treatment units that can be installed.