Title

Stockton Isn't Flint: Keeping Drinking Water Safe in the Delta

stockton_port_water_2-29-16.jpg
Port of Stockton. Photo: Shelah, some rights reserved.

Stockton is embroiled in controversy over a proposal to change the way it disinfects North Stockton’s drinking water. Some observers, such as celebrity environmental activist Erin Brockovich, charge that the city's proposed switch from chlorine to chloramines poses a serious public health risk similar to that seen in Flint, Michigan. But water quality experts working in and around Stockton and the Delta see the real threat to Stockton's water supply coming from substantial exports of water out of the Delta. 

Those experts point to a looming project that may make Stockton’s water a lot worse, and it isn’t adding chloramines. It’s Governor Jerry Brown's “Water Fix”: two tunnels that would siphon water from the Sacramento River for transport south before it has the chance of entering the Delta system.

San Joaquin County’s largest city and its residents aren’t new to the California “water wars” scene. Public anxiety and mistrust of Stockton officials over water issues – on display at a recent town hall meeting – had its groundwork laid back in 2002. That’s when then-mayor Gary Podesto led the City Council in a vote to privatize the city's water company. The city council moved to privatize two weeks before a citizen driven referendum that would have given the citizens of Stockton the right to vote on the issue passed with over 60 percent voter approval.

The Concerned Citizens Coalition, the group that led the fight against privatization, then took the City to court. By 2008, after two court rulings found that the privatization contract violated state environmental laws, the water utility was back in public hands. But the damage to the utility - and to public trust - was done.

A 2014-2015 grand jury investigation found “serious, ongoing problems within the operations of Stockton Municipal Utilities Department (MUD)… because of three major events over the years, including privatizing MUD operations for several years, the City bankruptcy, and staff turnover that has undermined the utility's institutional knowledge.”

Community activist Motecuzoma Sanchez, a member of the city's Water Advisory Board, contends that there is a “chronic undercurrent in Stockton of distrust of their city officials and elected politicians.” “Distrust is historic," says Sanchez," and most recently highlighted by the bankruptcy, high violent crime rates, and these Band-Aid approaches to fixing our city's issues.”

It becomes easy to understand why, when celebrity environmental activist Erin Brockovich published a post on her Facebook page on January 16 warning Stockton that the city was on its way to becoming the next Flint, Michigan, the public outcry was loud and swift. ““Congratulations to the City of Stockton, California… you’re adding ammonia to your drinking water because you’re too lazy and cheap to remove dirt (organics) from your water supplies,” Brockovich wrote.

One similarity that Flint and Stockton do share is that both cities are using “degraded bodies of water” for at least some of their drinking water supplies. Stockton originally relied on four sources for its drinking water; the Stanislaus, Calaveras, and Mokelumne rivers, and groundwater. In January 2015, when the Delta Water Supply Project (DWSP) treatment plant came online, Stockton started bringing in water from the Delta in order to supplement the city's supply. 

Both Stockton and Flint use ozone and chlorine as water disinfectants. Both cities have, on a number of occasions, been found to exceed federal limits of trihalomethanes, created when chlorine reacts with organic matter, in their drinking water.

Chloramines disinfect water as effectively as chlorine, but produce lower levels of dangerous trihalomethanes. Cities in the East Bay have used chloramines to disinfect their water since 1998, and San Francisco switched from chlorine to chloramines in 2004. Chloramines are generally considered safe at concentrations used in drinking water supplies, though there have been anecdotal reports of rashes and other allergic reactions after contact with chloramine-treated water.

Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, executive director for Restore the Delta (RTD), one of the largest Delta ecosystem advocacy groups, says that like Brockovich, RTD initially drew parallels between Flint and the Delta. But the group corrected course after a fuller picture of Flint's crisis came into view. “In Flint you are talking about criminal malfeasance, about a deliberate attempt to hide from the government what was happening, and a willful dismissal of warning signs and of tests that showed the lives of thousands of people were being ruined. We don't have that problem in Stockton.”

Chloramines aren't mentioned in the City of Flint 2014 Water Quality Report, in EPA memos addressing Flint's lead contamination, or in the recommendations given to Flint's mayor and City Council by Erin Brockovich's colleague Bob Bowcock. There is no indication that they were used as a disinfectant in Flint's water.

In fact, in August of 2015 the City of Flint published an Operational Evaluation Report entitled Trihalomethane Formation Concern in which a switch to chloramines was described as “deemed unnecessary.”

Invoking Flint is a powerful way to spark fear, and the comparison between Flint and Stockton apparently stoked nervousness over chloramine use. On February 6, 1,200 concerned Stocktonians came to a water quality town hall meeting convened by mayor Anthony Silva and headlined by Erin Brockovich. Silva organized the meeting in response to Brockovich's social media comments about chloramines.

Barrigan-Parilla and Bill Jennings, executive director of California Sportfishing Protection Alliance (CSPA), were panelists invited as Delta experts. Both framed Delta water quality issues through the lens of the proposed tunnels.

Barrigan-Parilla warned that starving the Delta of even more fresh water will result in growing salinity, increasing concentrations of contaminants including carcinogenic pesticides, and also increasing the number and intensity of toxic algal blooms. “If the Delta tunnels are built how we treat our water on a day to day basis is going to be the least of our problems,” she told the audience.

Bill Jennings has over 35 years of experience working on water rights and quality issues in the Delta. The Department of Justice has described CSPA as the leading citizen suit enforcer of the Clean Water Act in the entire nation. CSPA is now suing a number of state and federal agencies for violations of the Clean Water Act and as acting Delta Keeper Jennings “created and directed the citizen monitoring program that collected the data that went directly to the state and EPA to list all of the waters in and around Stockton as legally impaired because of pesticides, pathogens, and oxygen depletion.”

All that context explains why one of the most impactful statements of the evening came when Jennings said that “if we believed the City of Stockton’s treatment of drinking water was seriously violating the law, or putting its citizens in harm's way, we would have already sued them.”

calaveras-river-stockton-2-29-16.jpg
The Calaveras River in flood flowing through downtown Stockton. | Photo: Patrick Giblin, some rights reserved.

Vice Mayor Christina Fugazi gave a brief “Water Treatment 101” presentation, and an overview of how the city had decided on chloramines as a secondary disinfectant. A citizen water advisory committee had made the initial recommendation in favor of chloramines. From there it went to the Council's Water Advisory Group, and then the City Council unanimously voted in favor of chloramines.

During the Q and A portion of the town hall a citizen asked whether the city did enough to communicate the change. Fugazi replied that the rules and regulations regarding providing notice to citizens were followed. Mayor Silva quickly disagreed, “Could we have done a better job? Yes. Did we let you know? No, we didn't do a good enough job.”

That’s really the heart of the matter. An entrenched distrust in the City Council's ability to govern combined with a lack of communication creates a vacuum. Into that vacuum rush people with little familiarity with Delta water issues, who divert attention from what local experts see as the real issue; the overall degradation of the Delta, and the direct threat that the proposed tunnels pose to water quality. And that’s an issue not just for Stockton, but for everyone who relies on drinking water from the Delta, up and down the state.

Stockton isn’t Flint. Because of both the privatization fiasco and ongoing Delta water issues, Stockton has a vibrant water watch-dog community that has decades of science-based knowledge and advocacy under its belt. Bill Loyko, chairman of the citizen Water Advisory Group, put it this way: “Where else do you have so many groups looking out for the water quality of their region?”