What’s Causing California’s Drinking Water Crisis?

Isn’t it ironic? California is the largest food producer in the U.S., yet many residents cannot drink or cook with the water that flows from their faucets. The state’s water supply is becoming more contaminated as multiple crises intensify – from wildfires and worsening droughts to arsenic and nitrate contamination in groundwater.

All of these factors, and more, threaten The Golden State’s ability to provide clean drinking water to its residents. But perhaps even worse is that families, some already facing poverty, must often pay for bottled water on top of their monthly water bills and, in some cases, struggle to find ample supply in their local grocery store.

It’s heartbreaking because every family deserves access to clean drinking water. We feel for everyone affected, especially young children, pregnant women, and the elderly, who are most vulnerable. With more than two decades of experience in the water filtration industry, we want to be a part of the solution. As a start, we’ve written this article to highlight the state’s growing water contamination crisis and provide valuable insights into how residents can protect themselves from potentially dangerous contaminants in water.

What’s Causing California’s Water Quality Problems?

There are many different contributors to the current water woes plaguing California. These factors are a combination of human actions and naturally occurring processes. They include (but are not limited to) several years of historically low rainfall, wildfires, heavy water use, chemical contamination, urban runoff, and the unsustainable groundwater pumping that’s happened for decades throughout the state, especially in the Central and San Joaquin Valleys. The crisis also has much to do with the lack of drinking water infrastructure development in some communities.

Let’s briefly discuss each factor to determine how it contributes to the overall crisis.

Historically low rainfall

Droughts are a recurring feature of California’s climate. The past two decades have been scorchy and dry and included the hottest drought (2012 – 2016) in the state’s recorded history. During these droughts, reduced flow from rivers and reservoirs increased the concentration of pollutants in water and caused stagnation. Higher water temperatures in lakes and reservoirs lead to reduced oxygen levels, threatening already-vulnerable fish and other aquatic life and increasing salinity in water.

During an earlier drought in California, some water systems experienced elevated nitrate, arsenic, and uranium levels. However, scientists were unsure whether the drought impacted groundwater quality. To find out, the United States Geological Survey (USGS) studied 30 years of groundwater and nitrates data from wells in California’s Central Valley, one of the world’s richest agricultural areas. The findings suggested that groundwater pumping during drought can pull shallow, polluted groundwater down to aquifer depths used for drinking water systems.


California is known for its wildfire seasons, usually between late summer and early autumn. Due to certain conditions, including low precipitation, dry weather, strong winds, and droughts, they’ve been getting more intense, destructive, and prolonged in the past two decades. At least a third of some of the worst wildfires in U.S. history occurred in California. But what do wildfires have to do with California’s declining water quality?

Just as wildfires can affect air quality, they can also affect the quantity and quality of water. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), “During active burning, ash, and contaminants associated with ash settle on streams, lakes and water reservoirs. Vegetation that holds soil in place and retains water is burned away. In the aftermath of a large wildfire, rainstorms flush vast quantities of ash, sediment, nutrients, and contaminants into streams, rivers, and downstream reservoirs. The absence of vegetation in the watershed can create conditions conducive to erosion and even flooding. Naturally occurring and anthropogenic substances can impact drinking water quality, discolor recreational waters, and potentially contribute to harmful algal blooms.”

Wildfires can pollute water in city taps, even when burning in remote parts of the state.

  • Water samples collected from drinking water in Santa Rosa after the 2017 Tubbs and 2018 Camp Fires tested positive for benzene, a cancer-causing chemical. State water officials said the contamination most likely came from overheated pipe materials and smoke and combustion byproducts.
  • Wildfires can lead to ash and sediment running off into water sources when it rains. The Mokelumne watershed, in particular, is at risk of this.
  • Firefighters typically use Aqueous Film-Forming Foams (AFFFs) to combat flammable liquid fires. Unfortunately, these foams usually contain various perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), which have been linked to cancer and other adverse health problems. Luckily, starting January 1, 2022, California banned firefighting foam containing PFAS chemicals.

Chemical Contamination

Every year, various industrial chemicals contaminate drinking water supplies across California. PFAS, more commonly known as “forever chemicals,” have polluted well water throughout the state, most often near airports, military bases, and landfills. These perfluorinated chemicals are linked to kidney cancer and other severe health conditions in people drinking contaminated water.

Other industrial contaminants found in California’s water supplies are perchlorate from defense contractors and flame retardants from building materials. In addition, copper, arsenic, and other natural elements in the soil can leach into groundwater and plumbing systems. From 2015 through 2018, 4,460 active drinking water sources were reported to contain arsenic. Lead, which can alter children’s brain function and trigger learning disabilities, mostly seeps into the water from home pipes and faucets.

According to an analysis by UC Berkeley and UCLA researchers, drinking water for more than 370,000 Californians is contaminated with arsenic, nitrate, and other chemicals. And if you’ve been reading our blogs, you know how dangerous these contaminants can be when ingested.

In most cases, many Californians in rural communities aren’t connected to community water systems and have no choice but to rely on private domestic wells for their drinking water. But researchers say private wells are largely unregulated, significantly increasing the risk of contamination. While less than 4 percent of Californians get their water from domestic wells, more than 40 percent of the 370,000 residents affected by contaminated drinking water rely on such wells.

The study examined three common contaminants — arsenic, nitrate, and hexavalent chromium — though researchers noted many more they could have included. Two of the three contaminants are connected to California’s agricultural sector.

Sewage Spills

Spills from sewage treatment plants and sewer lines contaminate surface waters with viruses, bacteria, and other contaminants from wastewater flushed down drains and toilets. For instance, flooding at the Hyperion Water Reclamation Plant in El Segundo in the summer of 2021 spilled 17 million gallons of sewage into Santa Monica Bay, contaminating beaches. But the spill also triggered water supply problems because local officials had to divert clean drinking water to areas, such as parks and golf courses, usually served by the recycled water treated at the Hyperion plant.

Urban Runoff

After rainstorms – particularly the “first flush” of California’s wet season – pollutants wash into streams and other surface waters. Stormwater and other urban runoff can deposit trash, oil, sewage, pesticides, fertilizers, and sediment into drinking water streams.

California’s largest source of runoff is its more than 50,000 miles of highways. The state Water Resources Control Board requires The California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) to control stormwater runoff to the “maximum extent practicable.” As a result, Caltrans monitors runoff and takes steps to prevent contaminants from flowing off roads during rainstorms, such as preventing erosion and removing debris.

The state water board also regulates construction sites and industries through permits that require companies to develop plans to prevent runoff. Nevertheless, anything dumped into a street or spread onto a lawn or garden can wind up in lakes, rivers, and streams.

Salty water creeping into key waterways

Salt is also a massive contributor to California’s water problem. It occurs naturally in soil and is also found in fertilizers, urban wastewater, animal waste, etc. However, in some coastal areas, the intensive use of groundwater has caused salt water to intrude from the ocean into underground basins. The excessive salt content in many streams and bays increase urban water treatment cost, hinder farmland productivity, and contaminate local water supplies.

Heavy Water Use

Although the historic dryness has increased the stress on water systems across California, the state’s water supply problems are more related to water use and distribution than a lack of water. Many of California’s water challenges result from human activity, which, luckily, can be addressed by the decisions and changes residents make. It’s estimated that, on average, 80 percent of human water use in the state is allocated to agriculture.

If you’re wondering how excessive water use affects water quality, consider that the higher the water usage, the more stress it puts on water systems to keep up with the demand for treated water. On top of the droughts, wildfires, and so forth, the elevated use can sometimes compromise the quality of drinking water distributed to households, businesses, farms, etc.

Unsustainable Groundwater Pumping

Underground aquifers provide roughly 40 percent of the water used by farms and cities in California and way more in dry seasons. About 85 percent of the state’s population depends on groundwater for some portion of its water supply. Some communities rely entirely on groundwater for drinking water, a critical resource for many Central Valley and Central Coast farmers.

The issue here is that farmers extract groundwater at higher rates to continue growing food as usual during droughts, which is said to be unsustainable. In some basins, groundwater withdrawal exceeds the amount replenished over the long term, resulting in an “overdraft.” Overdrafts can have various repercussions, including:

  • reduced water quality (especially in coastal aquifers, which draw in seawater when depleted)
  • sinking lands (which can damage vital infrastructures, such as canals, levees, and roads)
  • higher energy use to pump water from deeper wells
  • reduced streamflow

Aging, Underfunded Water Infrastructure

A report from a newly released audit shows that “nearly a million Californians face possible long-term, negative health outcomes because they receive unsafe drinking water from a failing water system.”

Among other key findings:

  • More than 920,000 people face an increased risk of cancer and liver and kidney problems because they get drinking water from one of the more than 370 systems that didn’t meet water quality standards as of December 2021. More than 150 systems have failed to meet those standards for at least five years, and an additional 432 systems serving more than one million people are currently at risk of failing. (California has roughly 7,400 drinking water systems, according to the report.)
  • More than two-thirds of the failing water systems are located in low-income, disadvantaged communities, primarily in eight Central Valley counties, San Bernardino County, and Imperial County – forcing residents who can least afford it to “purchase more expensive bottled water for drinking and cooking purposes.”
  • Although the state water board has funding available to help these systems improve their water quality, it took an average of 33 months in 2021 for systems to apply for and the board to award that money — nearly double the 17-month average in 2017.

To make matters worse, California is amidst a historic drought, which will only increase the strain on many struggling water systems. As their water quality worsens, or their water dries up altogether, struggling water systems will urgently need funding and solutions from the State Water Board. Any delays will expose even more Californians to unsafe drinking water.

Learn more: America’s Aging Water Pipes: Is Your Tap Water at Risk?

Health Effects of Water Contamination in California

Health Effects of Arsenic in Drinking Water

While arsenic occurs naturally in groundwater, it can become concentrated when the water table is depleted. As California’s drought continues, Central Valley farmers have been over-pumping groundwater, which can increase arsenic levels in local water supplies. Nitrate contamination is also connected to agribusiness, resulting from fertilizer runoff and industrial animal farming.

Ingesting high amounts of arsenic in the short term could lead to a condition known as arsenic poisoning or Arsenicosis. Per Health Line, immediate symptoms of arsenic poisoning may include abnormal heart rhythm, nausea and vomiting, abdominal pain, and diarrhea. These are usually followed by numbness and tingling of the fingers and toes, muscle cramps, and death (in extreme cases).

Long-term arsenic exposure in adults is linked to a broad range of more severe health problems. Initially, one may experience skin-related issues, such as skin lesions, pigmentation changes, and hard patches on the palms and soles of the feet (hyperkeratosis). These symptoms typically occur after a minimum exposure of approximately five years and may be a precursor to skin cancer.

In addition to skin cancer, long-term arsenic exposure may also cause cancers of the bladder, prostate, nasal passages, and lungs. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has classified arsenic and arsenic compounds as carcinogenic to humans and has also stated that arsenic in drinking water is carcinogenic to humans.

Other adverse health effects possibly associated with long-term ingestion of inorganic arsenic include diabetes, cardiovascular disease, pulmonary disease, and negative developmental outcomes.

Health Effects of Nitrate in Drinking Water

Like arsenic, high nitrate levels in drinking water can be dangerous to health, especially for infants and pregnant women. The chemical occurs naturally in soil and air but is also found in many fertilizers used on yards, golf courses, and in agricultural production. Because of its widescale use in farming, the chemical is wreaking havoc on the drinking water quality in many parts of America, mainly in agricultural areas.

High nitrate levels in drinking water have been linked to colon, kidney, ovarian, and bladder cancers. Researchers from the EWG say the chemical is responsible for almost 12,600 cancer cases a year. Of course, the risk varies from region to region, but many small farming communities have the highest nitrate levels in the water, thus the highest risk.

Nitrate has also been linked to diabetes and Alzheimer’s and can cause a blood condition in infants called blue baby syndrome (methemoglobinemia), as well as congenital disabilities and miscarriages.

Health Effects of Chromium-6 in Drinking Water

Chromium-6 is a cancer-causing chemical best known for its role in the notorious film “Eric Brockovich,” which documented the poisoning of drinking water in Hinkley, California. According to a new report, nearly 200 million Americans have been exposed to higher-than-recommended levels of this carcinogen through tap water.

Even in small amounts, chromium-6 can cause stomach cancer and other health complications like pneumonia and problems during childbirth. Prolonged skin contact with chromium-6 can also result in skin issues, including dermatitis, skin ulcers, and burns. People with sensitive skin may experience severe skin rash.

Health Effects of Bacteria in Drinking Water

When raw sewage reaches a drinking water source, the health risks can be plenty. No one wants to go swimming, boating, or fishing in sewage-tainted water, let alone ingest it. Drinking sewage-polluted water can cause you to develop various diseases and illnesses and even die. In fact, one hundred years ago, epidemics of these sewage-related diseases helped limit the life expectancy of a U.S. citizen to about 50 years. Estimates vary for how many people sewage still sickens or kills each year, but they are all large.

How Can I Learn More About My City’s Water?

If you’re curious about your city’s water quality, there are a few ways to learn what’s in your water:

  • Identify which public water system serves a specific location on this interactive state map.
  • Look up your water supplier’s latest water quality report.
  • Test your tap water quality to detect common problems.

Once you’ve discovered what’s in your water supply, you can take steps to improve your water quality.

Improving Your Water Quality with a Springwell Water Filter System

If your drinking water isn’t as clean and healthy as you’d like or it’s outright contaminated and unsafe to drink, we recommend investing in a water filtration system for your home.

A water filter is designed to remove undesirable particles and pollutants from the water you drink, shower, and cook with, making it safer and healthier and eliminating taste and odors. While there are many types of water filters on the market, you’ll likely enjoy the convenience, seamless installation, and top-tier filtering performance of an under-counter reverse osmosis water filter.

As the name implies, under counter reverse osmosis water filters are typically installed under the kitchen sink – out of sight and possibly out of mind. Typically, they are carefully engineered and designed to remove harmful waterborne contaminants, including lead, bacteria, nitrate, fluoride, chromium-6, and arsenic, producing fresh, clean, great-tasting water for you and your family.

But you may need something that filters all the water entering your home, not only at your kitchen tap. If so, a whole-house water filter might be a good fit. Whole house water filters are point-of-entry (POE) systems designed to produce clean, filtered water for the entire house (unlike under-sink water filters that only filter water at specific outlets). These POE systems are installed where the main water line enters your home, treating every drop of water that passes through – from your drinking water to the water you use to shower, brush your teeth, do laundry, clean, etc.

Even more interesting, the Springwell UV Water Purification System addon removes 99 percent of bacteria, viruses, and parasites, so you can fill up at any tap without the risk of ingesting sewage-related organisms through your drinking water.

Final Thoughts

California is going through a drinking water crisis. Years of low rainfall, groundwater contamination, wildfires, and other factors have significantly reduced the amount of clean drinking water available for public use and consumption, a situation no one should experience. It’s gotten so bad that many residents cannot drink or cook with the water flowing from their faucets. Beyond that, some families in poorer communities can’t even afford bottled water or find it in local supermarkets. Thankfully, investing in a water filter system can help transform water from contaminated to clean almost instantly, removing the need for bottled water.

To learn more about Springwell’s water filtration systems and how they can protect you against potentially toxic contaminants in tap water, please call us at 800-589-5592 or message us via chat.

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