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Joel Ducoste, a professor of civil, construction and environmental engineering at NC State University, underscores one key challenge: Many of the emerging contaminants of concern for drinking water, such as PFAS, were previously unknown. “We didn’t know it was there, so we didn’t engineer systems to be specifically effective in their removal,” he says. “We’re learning a lot now, working on chemical methods as well as biological methods to see how we might try to remove some of these compounds.”

It tends to be the small systems that lack the means to install or even maintain operation of the latest treatment technologies. Lanare, a small unincorporated community outside of Fresno, California, received more than US$1 million from the state to install a treatment plant to remove the arsenic that had chronically contaminated its drinking water. The facility was built but only stayed online for about six months before the community had to abandon it. “It wasn’t affordable over the long term to keep it up,” says Ryan Jensen, the community water solutions coordinator for the Central Valley–based Community Water Center.

Contaminated drinking water disproportionately affects small water systems, which serve predominately rural, low-income communities with relatively high percentages of people of color. Sometimes those systems can’t even afford the salary of a full-time operator. Florencia Ramos’ hometown of El Rancho has only 65 people. The city of Lindsay has just over 13,000. “A lot of these folks are farmworkers, who are [unwittingly] helping to poison themselves,” says Anne Schechinger, a senior analyst with the nonprofit Environmental Working Group (EWG, a partner in this reporting project).

There is now a push to build economies of scale so small systems don’t have to go it alone. Kentucky has been a leader in water system consolidation. The state has gone from more than 3,000 systems in the 1970s to fewer than 800 systems in 2018. But such consolidations don’t always go so smoothly.

Just a few miles down the road from El Rancho is Tooleville. For a long time, the small town dealt with high levels of nitrate. Other contaminants include hexavalent chromium, the compound that garnered notoriety from the movie “Erin Brockovich.” Tooleville has been trying for years to connect its water system with that of the neighboring city of Exeter. But they’ve run into political pushback. Exeter voted last year to reject Tooleville’s plea and has tabled the talks.

“Unfortunately, that’s not unique,” says Michael Claiborne, an attorney at the Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability in Sacramento. “Few consolidations have gone smoothly. I’ve seen a lot of situations where politics are a barrier, and there’s an unwillingness to serve nearby communities.” He notes that more than 90% of Tooleville residents are Latino, while the city council of Exeter is 100% white.

Benjamin Cuevas, a resident of Tooleville, says that he and his wife, Yolanda Cuevas, have been careful to make sure their three daughters and two grandchildren do not consume any of the water out of their taps. Yolanda Cuevas rinses the kids down with bottled water after they shower. And she insists that they also use bottled water to brush their teeth.

The Cuevases and Ramos have different problems, but they share a lot of same concerns — and aspirations.

“I wish a lot more could be done so that we could have clean water,” Ramos says. She adds another important strategy to improve drinking water quality: “I urge people to be involved, to go to meetings, to give your input.”

“I hope we can get this solved soon,” Benjamin Cuevas says. “These problems have been going on a long time.”

Source of original article: Water – Ensia (
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