In a trailer park tucked among irrigated orchards that help make California’s San Joaquin Valley the richest farm region in the world, 16-year-old Giselle Alvarez, one of the few English-speakers in the community of farmworkers, puzzles over the notices posted on front doors: There’s a danger in their drinking water.
Uranium, the notices warn, tests at a level considered unsafe by federal and state standards. The law requires the park’s owners to post the warnings. But they are awkwardly worded and in English, a language few of the park’s dozens of Spanish-speaking families can read.
“It says you can drink the water – but if you drink the water over a period of time, you can get cancer,” said Alvarez, whose working-class family has no choice but keep drinking and cooking with the tainted tap water daily, as they have since Alvarez was just learning to walk. “They really don’t explain.”
Uranium, the stuff of nuclear fuel for power plants and atom bombs, increasingly is showing up in drinking water systems in major farming regions of the U.S. West – a naturally occurring but unexpected byproduct of irrigation, of drought, and of the overpumping of natural underground water reserves.
An Associated Press investigation in California’s central farm valleys – along with the U.S. Central Plains, among the areas most affected – found authorities are doing little to inform the public at large of the growing risk.
That includes the one out of four families on private wells in this farm valley who, unknowingly, are drinking dangerous amounts of uranium, researchers determined this year and last. Government authorities say long-term exposure to uranium can damage kidneys and raise cancer risks, and scientists say it can have other harmful effects.
In this swath of farmland, roughly 250 miles long and encompassing major cities, up to one in 10 public water systems have raw drinking water with uranium levels that exceed federal and state safety standards, the U.S. Geological Survey has found.
More broadly, nearly 2 million people in California’s Central Valley and in the U.S. Midwest live within a half-mile of groundwater containing uranium over the safety standards, University of Nebraska researchers said in a study published in September.
Everything from state agencies to tiny rural schools are scrambling to deal with hundreds of tainted public wells – more regulated than private wells under safe-drinking-water laws.
That includes water wells at the Westport Elementary School, where 450 children from rural families study outside the Central California farm hub of Modesto.
At Westport’s playground, schoolchildren take a break from tether ball to sip from fountains marked with Spanish and English placards: “SAFE TO DRINK.”
The school, which draws on its own wells for its drinking fountains, sinks and cafeteria, is one of about 10 water systems in the farm region that have installed uranium removal facilities in recent years. Prices range from $65,000 for the smallest system to the millions of dollars.
The uranium gleaned from the school’s well water and other Central California water systems is handled like the nuclear material it is – taken away by workers in masks, gloves and other protective garments, said Ron Dollar, a vice president at Water Remediation Technology, a Colorado-based firm.
It is then processed into nuclear fuel for power plants, Dollar said.
Before treatment, Westport’s water tests up to four times state and federal limits. After treatment, it’s safe for everyone to drink.
Other Central California farm schools opt to buy bottled water in place of drinking fountains, which are off limits because of uranium and other contaminants.
“We don’t have a choice,” said Terri Lancaster, principal of the 260 students at Waukena elementary school in rural Tulare County. “You do what you have to do.”
Until winning a state grant to pay for trucked-in drinking water, her school was spending $10,000 a year from its general fund on bottled water.
Drinking water tainted by uranium is the chief concern – but uranium also sticks to potatoes, radishes and other root vegetables if they’re not properly washed.
Though people think mainly about uranium’s radioactivity, the danger in water mainly comes from the toxic chemical effects of the metal.