Willows water bill could double or triple over new testing rules
Water users in Willows could see their monthly water bills double or triple in the near future if the state Department of Public Health adopts the nation's first drinking water standard for chromium-6.
Orland customers could see only slight increases as the result of new testing requirements, water officials said.
Although it has been 13 years since actress Julia Robert's portrayal of consumer advocate Erin Brockovich made hexavalent chromium a household word, state health officials say they are now ready to set a new water safety standard 10 times stricter than the maximum contaminate levels adopted by the federal Environmental Protection Agency.
The proposed new chromium standard is five times stricter than it is in California today, said Tarrah Henrie, manager of water quality for California Water Service Co., which provides drinking water to 7,000 people in Willows.
"There is a lot of political pressure when it comes to the regulatory process, especially in California," Henrie said.
The state currently regulates chromium-6 as part of the total chromium drinking water standard, which includes chromium-3, an essential human dietary element which occurs naturally in many vegetables, fruits, meats, grains and yeast.
Chromium-6 occurs naturally in the environment from the erosion of natural chromium deposits, but can also be released into the environment through industrial processes, particularly through leakage, poor storage or inadequate industrial waste disposal practices, state officials reported.
The drinking water in Willows contains an amount of hexavalent chromium higher than the new proposed standard, Henrie said, which will result in the company having to change its method of treatment.
The new treatment requirements could cost ratepayers millions, and may easily increase water rates by $100 a month, said California Water Service Co. Vice Present Paul G. Townsley, who is in charge of regulatory matters.
Orland's water system, operated by the city, has levels of chromium-6 far below the new standard, but new regulations would result in additional costs associated with increased testing requirements, which would then be passed on to customers, Orland City Manager Pete Carr said.
"We are fortunate," he said. "We are blessed with pristine water."
The proposed new regulations — issued by the state on Aug. 23 — set the maximum contaminant level for chromium-6 in drinking water at 10 parts per billion — five times less than the current total chromium standard of 50 parts per billion, Henrie said.
The federal maximum containment level for total chromium is 100 parts per billion.
"California is blazing a new trail here," Townsley said.
Right now, Cal Water is researching the most cost-effective way to treat water to remove hexavalent chromium, Henrie said.
Willows is one of two Cal Water service areas where chromium-6 levels exceed 10 parts per billion, according to samples taken by the state more than a decade ago.
Dixon is another, Henrie said.
The state Department of Public Health said chromium-6 has been found in 51 of California's 58 counties.
State officials said about 128 water systems would be required to treat their supplies under the new standard, at annual cost of $156 million.
Right now, the draft proposal is undergoing a 45-day public comment period, after which the state Department of Public Health will either modify the draft standard and recirculate it for additional comment — or continue with the adoption process.
If adopted, Townsley said water providers must begin monitoring for compliance immediately after the standard is finalized, which is likely to be within one year of the draft standard being issued.
"There won't be a grace period," he said.
Rosanna Marino, Willows Cal Water manager, said the company is committed to providing safe water to its customers, but recognizes the financial hardship the new regulations, perhaps unnecessarily, will put on local customers.
She said public concerns about the cost of additional water treatment should be addressed with the state during the public comment period or by contacting members of the state Legislature.
Cal Water will provide an update on the process at the Sept. 24 meeting of the Willows City Council, Marino said.