By Kelly A. Reynolds, MSPH, PhD
California’s ongoing drought is the subject of frequent headlines and media reports. Often a leader in environmental policy and innovation, the world looks to the Golden State for generalizable solutions. Initiating a short-term resolution, Governor Jerry Brown recently declared a state of emergency for the region as they continue to cope with diminishing water supplies and limited natural recharge. Restrictions require California city dwellers to reduce water usage by 25 percent. While water sustainability is the primary focus, other trickle-down problems, including diminished water quality with increasing drought conditions is another major concern. POU treatment technologies offer consistent and controllable solutions to changing water sources and have been an affordable, life-saving option for some of the most impoverished, rural regions of the state.
Researchers report that California’s three-year drought (2012-2014) is the worst on record over the last century. What’s more, tree-ring data indicates that the current drought situation, with reduced rainfall and record high heat, is especially severe and may even be the worst in over a thousand years (1). Future predictions for addressing population demands amid water shortages typically involve wastewater recycling. Technologies such as microfiltration, RO and UV treatment are key players in ensuring a safe reuse water supply. Other countries, such as those in the Middle East, employ and have prioritized desalination to meet 40 percent or more of the drinking water needs (2). Additional solutions are needed that not only maintain water volumes, but also reduce potentially harmful waterborne contaminants, whether introduced through pollution or from naturally occurring sources. Diminishing volumes of water can have the effect of a higher concentration of contaminants, such as arsenic, potentially causing bladder, lung, skin, kidney and liver cancer. Skin disorders, birth defects and reproductive problems can also result from chronic arsenic exposures. Rural areas may be hit the hardest by the health effects of greatly reduced and changing water supplies. Private wells are not monitored for harmful contaminants as frequently as municipal supplies and changes over time can easily go unnoticed.
The most vulnerable
In California alone, millions are thought to be at risk, though public health experts estimate that similar situations occur throughout rural regions of the state and the US; affected populations are primarily small, rural communities of poor Latinos. Lack of safe water supplies has promoted the consumption of more expensive bottled water products and less healthy options, such as sugary drinks. The state’s drought conditions are worsening the problem for these communities—many of whom have been spending a significant portion of their money on purchasing those expensive, alternative bottled water sources for decades.
One community near Coachella Valley, which is located south of Palm Springs in Riverside County, has been conserving water since long before the mayor’s executive action. The area is recognized for its rich agriculture production, including lettuce, celery, artichokes, carrots, peppers, watermelon and dates. In fact, 98 percent of the US date crop comes from this area (3). Well water supplies are naturally contaminated with arsenic and chromium-6, both of which are known carcinogens. Tap water sources are known to routinely violate state and federal regulatory standards and are therefore unsafe for consumption. Acceptable levels of arsenic in US drinking water supplies are less than 10 ppb but regions in eastern Coachella Valley have been more than double the regulatory limit.
Affordable POU solutions
Innovative solutions were needed and numerous nonprofit organizations took notice. The Pueblo Unido Community Development Corporation (PUCDC), an agency primarily focused on creating affordable housing and economic/infrastructure development for underrepresented regions, rallied to provide the basic need of safe water in eastern Coachella Valley. The charity worked to install RO filters in homes throughout the neighborhood. Initially, RO systems were installed in 14 trailers in Thermal, providing families with safe drinking water at the tap for the first time in years (4). Over the last two years, PUCDC has provided POU treatment devices to more than 1,000 residents in 150 homes at a cost of $350 per unit. Residents pay to replace their filters annually but at a fraction of the price of bottled water and transportation costs, which previously consumed 10 percent or more of the household income.5 Following suit with PUCDC, other nonprofits joined the mission of providing safe drinking water in the US. Specifically, the California Endowment partnered with Rural Community Assistance Corporation and Pueblo Unido CDC, the Riverside County Department of Environmental Health and the Desert Alliance for Community Empowerment, US Rotary clubs and others to continue providing POU treatment options at the household and community levels.
POU devices are being touted as cost-effective, temporary solutions to the eastern Coachella Valley problem. Tests show that the RO systems effectively reduce arsenic concentrations to acceptable levels (3). The reality is that POU treatment is a long-term solution for consistent water security at the tap despite varying environmental source conditions. Household POU treatment is far less expensive than purchasing bottled water to sustain a family’s drinking water needs and can provide much needed health protection.
Water shortages are not the only problem with droughts; changing water quality directly correlates with reduced volume (3). Millions of rural residents in California lack access to safe drinking water that meets federal and state standards, (5) but the POU industry offers the option of reliable, consistent and cost-effective solutions to reduce risks of drinking water hazards and improve human health that can be generalized across a variety of needs and locations. Community level infrastructure improvements, such as the installation of municipal water suppliers, are expensive and slow to develop. The example of community resilience and empowerment in eastern Coachella Valley shows how people can come together to find creative solutions to water quality needs using developed POU technologies.
1. Griffin, D. and Anchukaitis, K.J. “How unusual is the 2012-2014 California drought?,” Geophysical Research Letters, vol. 41, no. 24, pp. 9017-9023, 2014.
2. Wolfson, E. “Drying Up: The Race to Save California From Drought,” Newsweek, 23 April 2015. [Online]. Available: www.newsweek. com/2015/05/01/can-science-save-california-drought-324087.html. [Accessed 15 6 2015].
3. Pueblo Unido CDC, Building Sustainable Communities in the Eastern Coachella Valley, Pueblo Unido CDC, [Online]. Available: www.pucdc. org/drinking-water/. [Accessed 15 6 2015].
4. Sanchez, T. “Safe Drinking Water Evades the Poor,” The Desert Sun, 23 4 2015. [Online]. Available: www.desertsun.com/longform/news/ environment/2015/04/23/dire-drought-desert-water/26209267/. [Accessed 15 6 2015].
5. Goldberg, E. “Right Here In The U.S., Over 1 Million Rural Residents Don’t Have Clean Water. Here’s Who’s Helping,” US Water News, 6 4 2015. [Online]. Available: http://savethewater.org/2015/04/12/right-u-s- 1-million-rural-residents-dont-clean-water-heres-whos-helping/. [Accessed 15 6 2015].