Don’t drink the water

For months, the CN&R has been writing about water issues in the Camp Fire burn zone. We’re back at it this week, because we believe the contamination in the water conveyance systems is among the most significant consequences of the disaster and the issue is not getting the attention it deserves.

People who’ve returned to the region are in many cases being told that their water supply meets California standards. That’s the message Del Oro Water Co. is sending its customers in Magalia and elsewhere. To be fair, Del Oro is being advised by the State Water Resources Control Board, which, in concert with its Department of Drinking Water (DDW), oversees drinking water regulations.

We’re going to be blunt: Water users should not blindly trust this information. Based on the CN&R’s reporting, including extensive interviews with a national expert on large-scale drinking water contamination, neither Del Oro nor the state has sufficient evidence to say it’s safe.

The problem is multifaceted, but the main point is that the all-clear signal is based on inadequate testing—both the scope and the methodology. Further troubling is that the water board has been apprised of the insufficiency and hasn’t stepped up to develop a standard for testing or to inform residents that drinking the water may pose health risks.

Meanwhile, the Paradise Irrigation District is taking a cautious approach while it conducts in-depth testing. That agency released guidelines months ago advising its customers to not drink, cook with or brush their teeth with what comes from their taps. The district is supplying bottled water for those activities and calling for residents in that area to limit their exposure during showers.

One of the issues for residents is that the utilities—both of them—are responsible solely for their own infrastructure. But damaged plumbing on private property is contaminated, too. So the only way for residents to gauge the safety of what’s coming out of the tap is by testing it themselves. The hard part is ensuring such analysis is thorough enough. Thing is, no agency has taken the lead on informing the public of what protocol to use, leaving thousands of people to flounder. We’re not convinced that the testing Del Oro offers its customers for a fee is adequate.

What residents really need is a laboratory with the proper oversight to come in and offer people a manageable solution. In the absence of that—or intervention from the state to set standards for testing to ensure the public’s health—our advice is to steer clear of the water.