FRESNO, Calif. (AP) -- California water officials are urging state lawmakers to create a funding source by implementing new taxes or fees so communities with high levels of nitrates in their drinking water can build and operate safe water systems.
In a report released Wednesday, the State Water Resources Control Board recommended a point-of-sale fee on agricultural commodities, a fertilizer tax or a water-use fee from residents to offset the costs of new water systems.
Nitrate contamination of drinking water is a pervasive problem in California's agricultural heartland and is bound to intensify in coming years, according to a University of California, Davis study released last March.
The study - covering the Salinas Valley and Fresno, Tulare, Kings and Kern counties - found that half of the 2.6 million people in those areas live in communities where raw drinking water sources have registered nitrate levels exceeding the standard.
Many of those communities blend or treat their water, drill a new well or provide another alternative source, passing on the extra costs to ratepayers. But one in 10 people in the study area rely on untreated groundwater that may exceed the nitrate standards. Most are residents of small, poor agricultural communities that cannot afford to treat the water or offer alternatives.
Scientists have linked high levels of nitrates to "blue baby syndrome," reproductive disorders and cancer. Infants who drink water that exceeds the nitrate standard could become seriously ill and die, according the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Chemical fertilizers and livestock manure are the main source of nitrate contamination. And nitrate leaching from agricultural land is responsible for 96 percent of current groundwater contamination, according to the study.
Researchers say a fertilizer tax of approximately $100 to $180 per ton of nitrogen would generate between $20 million and $36 million per year - enough to address current nitrate contamination.
A point-of-sale fee on agricultural commodities or a water-use fee from affected residents would be less desirable, the report said, as they would place an undue burden on low-income communities.
Beyond finding a long-term source of funding, water officials also said agricultural parties and others responsible for the contamination should provide replacement water to affected communities. Currently, many residents pay for their own bottled water for drinking and cooking, in addition to paying for the contaminated water.
Another recommendation is for state agencies to increase access to funding sources for safe drinking water for small communities with contaminated water by streamlining funding applications and providing planning grants and technical assistance.
Officials suggested improving monitoring and notification for residents in nitrate-affected areas. They also recommended requiring residents with private domestic wells or in smaller water systems that are not regulated by the state to sample their wells for contamination.
Without identifying a secure source of funding, officials said, nitrate contamination will grow, as will the financial burden on many agricultural communities. By 2050, nearly 80 percent of the population - about 2 million residents - in agricultural areas could face nitrate contamination exceeding the state standard.