Published Monday, December 28, 1998, in the San Jose Mercury News

Pressure on water is rising

Growth along delta may affect quality, cost

BY CAROLYN MCMILLAN
Contra Costa Times

Explosive growth along the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta could drive up the cost of drinking water and degrade its quality for everyone from Concord to San Diego as more treated sewage is dumped into the waterways, some officials say.

That warning comes as state and local officials wrangle over how to save the delta, a fight that has mostly focused on ensuring that precious water supplies are divided fairly among farmers, cities and aquatic wildlife.

But now, with new developments springing up in the Central Valley and eastern Contra Costa County, pressure is mounting to address concerns about water quality and the rising amount of wastewater being dumped into the delta. It is the largest source of drinking water in the state, providing supplies for 22 million people.

A coalition of 12 big municipal water suppliers, including the Contra Costa Water District, has begun pressing the California Regional Water Quality Control Board to impose more stringent treatment standards on new wastewater dischargers.

Much of the development is concentrated near the pumping stations that supply drinking water for most state residents.

Water districts cite concerns over water-borne viruses and salt, which is nearly impossible to remove and can make water unusable for drinking or agriculture.

``Every permit that goes through our board now is being challenged by the water purveyors,”' said Greg Vaughn, a senior engineer for the delta watershed with the Central Valley Region of the state water quality board. “They're looking at the water going into the delta and saying, `You know, it's already marginal.'”

Spurring water districts in their fight for cleaner water discharges are new federal drinking water standards signed by President Clinton earlier this month.

The new rules require water suppliers to reduce suspected cancer-causing byproducts that form when two common water disinfectants, chlorine and ozone, mix with chemicals found naturally in delta water. The standards also require heightened screening for cryptosporidium, a water-borne pathogen.

If the government clamps down further, as some water suppliers expect, they could be looking at huge costs for treating water that has been dirtied upstream by sewage treatment plants, agricultural users, urban runoff and naturally occurring contaminants.

“The more stringent standards ultimately will have consumer costs,” said Al Donner, spokesman of the Contra Costa Water District. The district has already spent $40 million to switch from chlorine disinfectant to ozone.

“We want stronger controls to ensure the source water people draw from is as clean as can be,” Donner said. “We don't go beyond that to the larger question of land use.”'

The DeltaKeeper environmental group, alarmed at the rapid growth it says threatens to overwhelm the fragile delta ecosystem, is demanding that the federal Environmental Protection Agency assess the sources of pollution and develop a plan to set waste discharge limits at levels that will improve water quality.

“The time is past when you can consider the estuary as a dump for sewage or a receptacle for waste,”' said DeltaKeeper member Bill Jennings. “It's our position that the state needs to put a moratorium on new development until we can apportion these (contaminant) loads and begin ratcheting them down.”

Negotiations are under way, Jennings said. Vaughn, of the state Regional Water Quality Control Board, said his agency is required by the Clean Water Act to make such an assessment, but it does not have the resources to do it.