Lead, arsenic, nitrates, OH MY!

by Nathaniel Browning, Policy & Programs Officer, CSBA

Research has shown that adequate consumption of healthy water ensures proper motor functioning, mental acuity and stress reduction. Access to safe drinking water helps promote greater student achievement, physical fitness and a positive school climate. Unfortunately, many students in rural communities throughout parts of California are worried about the ills that face them as they tip their glass for a drink of water. They are concerned about the chemicals lurking in their school’s drinking fountain.

Years of concern, and the onset of worsening drought, is pushing many students to turn to less healthy liquids to hydrate. Unsafe drinking water can especially affect rural communities and schools for two primary reasons. First, agricultural and industrial processes—such as fertilizer runoff from local fields—can cause water source contamination. Second, rural water supplies are more likely to be drawn from private wells rather than regulated water from a local municipality. Well water contaminates become more concentrated as the well resources are depleted.

Drinking water contamination and quality is not strictly a rural issue. Lead and other chemicals or particulates can easily effect water quality anywhere across the state. Rural and urban districts alike should conduct regular water tests to insure potable water is safe and healthy for consumption.

The adverse health effects of lead, arsenic and nitrates in drinking water have largely been associated with labored breathing, skin irritation, nausea and deficits in learning and attention. Effects from high levels of exposure may include cancer, nervous system complications and cardiovascular issues.

State and federal laws require districts to provide free and safe drinking water to all students during mealtimes. California Education Code provides an exemption to those districts that cannot afford or provide safe water for student consumption. However federal law does not allow such an exemption for schools participating in the federal school meals program.

Linda Pavletich, longtime board member from Rio Bravo-Greeley Union ESD in Kern County, has shown concern for the importance of providing healthy water to her students. She and her fellow board members ensure that the district well is tested on a monthly bases, and they recently paid for an extensive well inspection earlier this year. Her district was relieved to find out the well is exceptionally deep and of great quality. Other districts are not as lucky. The Tulare County Board of Education, just an hour north of Bravo-Greeley Union ESD, has been grappling with water contamination and shortages in years past. This year is no different.

Tulare County Superintendent Jim Vidak has long been aware of the water issues facing his districts. He has kept a pulse on the issue by regularly gathering water resource data from all of the county’s 44 school districts—33 of which are rural. Superintendent Vidak knew of the troubles that would besiege many of the districts within his county and started reaching out. “We have been working with representatives in Sacramento for over a year” stated Superintendent Vidak, “and those conversations have resulted in clean, fresh water for many of our students in the county.”

Tulare County officials recently secured a grant for $1 million from the state to help supply disadvantaged schools with emergency drinking water. “Districts have seen the issue of water contamination exacerbated by the current drought” said Tulare County Superintendent Vidak. “This has forced districts to turn to bottled water, or face the significant cost of drilling new wells—an expense that is often prohibitive for the smaller districts.”

The emergency drinking water grant is only a short-term solution. Tulare County officials—and others across the state—will continue to pursue lasting solutions such as water treatment systems, deeper wells, or connecting to municipal water districts. In the meantime, many of the most vulnerable students in Tulare County can now drink water without fear of lead, arsenic, or nitrates, OH MY!


Nathaniel Browning is a Policy & Programs Officer with the California School Boards Association.

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