Regulators took aim at two water contaminants recently. But do regs go far enough or target the right players?

April 30, 2024
Jesse Vad, SJV Water
by Jesse Vad, SJV Water
The small community of Tooleville has struggled for years with water contamination, including hexavalent chromium. CREDIT: The Fresno Bee
Jesse Vad, SJV Water
Jesse Vad, SJV Water

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Water systems will need to comply with new rules on contaminants at the state and federal levels after two regulations were approved this month. That could bring challenging costs to water providers. And still, advocates say protections aren’t good enough. 

On April 17, the state Water Resources Control Board passed a maximum contaminant level (MCL) for hexavalent chromium, a heavy metal that can occur naturally and through improper industrial site disposal. Hexavalent chromium was made famous in the 2000 Oscar-winning movie “Erin Brockovich,” starring Julia Roberts. The MCL is 10 parts per billion and took seven years to establish. 

On April 18, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) designated perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS) as hazardous substances. Collectively, the contaminants are known as per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS.) The contaminants come from non-stick and stain-resistant products. Long-term exposure can cause serious health impacts. 

Hexavalent chromium 

Some towns in the valley, such as Tooleville and Porterville in Tulare County, have long struggled with hexavalent chromium contamination. Tooleville has been receiving bottled water from the state since 2014. 

And while it’s a good thing the state finally established the MCL, it’s not good enough, said Mayra Hernandez, community advocacy manager at nonprofit Community Water Center. 

“From our view, they didn’t do enough looking at all the different types of solutions that were available to treat it down to a more health protective MCL,” said Hernandez. “It’s more costly down the road based on human health.” 

The California EPA’s public health goal for hexavalent chromium is 0.02 parts per billion which it states is “based on avoidance of potential carcinogenic effects.”

“The current MCL is 500 times greater than that public health goal,” said Hernandez. 

The state settled on the current MCL to strike a balance between being protective of human health and finding a level that would be affordable to treat for enough water systems, said a spokesperson for the state Water Board.  

She noted that if there were greater efforts by the state to consolidate smaller systems with larger ones, ultimately mixing and diluting water sources, expensive treatment wouldn’t have to be the only solution, she added. 

Monitoring and treatment is estimated to cost about $180 million per year.

The MCL is still a positive step forward and will be helpful because there are many communities that have water far above 10 parts per billion, said Hernandez. But the MCL only applies to public water systems regulated by the state, she said. 

“The most vulnerable communities are still being left out, which are our rural communities that are typically low income communities of color, because they get their water from private or shared wells, and no one’s monitoring those wells,” said Hernandez.

In those situations, it’s up to property owners to monitor water quality and they often can’t afford to implement treatment, she said. 

Some systems are already set up for the MCL. California had previously enforced the same MCL for hexavalent chromium but was forced to abandon it after it was sued for improper economic analysis. 

But California Water Service (Cal Water,) which serves half a million customers throughout the state, never stopped treatment for hexavalent chromium even when the MCL was abandoned, said Yvonne Kingman, spokesperson for Cal Water. So nothing much will change with the reinstitution of the MCL, she said. 


The federal EPA’s designation of PFOA/PFOS as hazardous materials will allow the agency to pursue anyone responsible for contaminating water with the chemicals. The designation immediately drew criticism from water suppliers. 

Water companies want more responsibility placed on polluters, said Jennifer Kocher, a spokesperson for the National Association of Water Companies (NAWC.)

The association isn’t against the designation, said Kocher. But members want more of a focus on polluters specifically, she added. 

“We would like to be certain that the people who are doing the polluting are being held accountable for the costs that are going to be associated with complying with the EPA regulations,” said Kocher. “We don’t want water customers to be held responsible for this cleanup.”

Without some sort of liability shield for water systems, the burden will be on those systems and their customers, said Kocher. 

Cal Water has been preparing for PFAS regulation for years through testing, said Cal Water’s Kingman. And the company will be moving forward on treatment, she said. Cost impacts are not yet known though, said Kingman. 

“They’re expected to be sizeable,” said Kingman. “But we’re moving forward anyway because protecting our customers’ health and safety is our highest priority.”

Cal Water has filed multiple lawsuits against PFAS polluters to hold those polluters financially responsible, said Kingman. The company expects some financial recovery from lawsuits but how much is unknown, she added. 

In the San Joaquin Valley, Cal Water is planning to treat 22 wells in Bakersfield and two in Visalia. 

Treatment of the pollutants is not cheap and also requires proper disposal of filters and contaminated sludge, she said. 

California doesn’t currently have an established MCL for PFAS. But it is monitoring and collecting data on PFAS contamination which could be used to create an MCL later. 

This month, the state Water Board expanded its PFAS monitoring program to include 3,000 community system wells in disadvantaged communities. 

“This new order really casts a broad net throughout the state to better understand PFAS-impacted locations that, for instance, are very rural or ag-centric or septic dominated communities that don’t have a wastewater plant,” said Daniel Newton, assistant deputy director of the state Water Board’s Division of Drinking Water. 

If a MCL is approved, most systems that need treatment will have to install new treatment facilities since PFAS treatment can’t be combined with other contaminant treatments, said Newton. That will likely raise rates for water users in many areas, he said.

There is funding available through the federal Bipartisan Infrastructure Law but that is a limited source of money, he added. 

“It will be a challenge, especially for disadvantaged communities, to install and operate this treatment,” said Newton. 

The monitoring program will continue for two years, said Newton. He said it will probably take 4-5 years to get to an established MCL. 

Jesse Vad, SJV Water

SJV Water is an independent, nonprofit news site dedicated to covering water in the San Joaquin Valley. Get inside access to SJV Water by becoming a member.


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