Due to California’s ongoing drought, cities in North and Central Orange County have a greater risk of being exposed to drinking water pollution as they rely mostly from groundwater sources.

OC Water District officials say that all water provided to homes and businesses meets all state and federal drinking water standards.

Editor’s Note: This story series was produced by Chapman University journalism students working with the VOC Collegiate News Service.

The idea for the series was sparked by the fall oil spill off Orange County’s coast. But it also goes further — examining the seen and unseen pollution across the local environment — in drinking water sources, ocean waters, on land and in the air. We hope with this series to give residents balanced and informative stories that people can use to be empowered in the community. If you have questions, comments and story ideas please contact Sonya Quick, digital editor at Voice of OC and Chapman adjunct professor.

According to attorney and water policy expert Felicia Marcus, who is also the William C. Landreth Visiting Fellow at Stanford University, regional officials hope to purify this groundwater and are also actively pursuing collaborations with local water districts in order to obtain clean drinking water for its residents. 

South Orange County, though, is not affected by this dilemma as at least 90% of its water is imported.

As a result of water scarcity, according to Marcus, city water districts in California have begun digging even deeper below the surface, creating major pollutant concerns. Digging deeper for water sources makes it easier for contaminants to taint the water at levels higher than what is legally acceptable.

OC Water District officials say that well drilling and groundwater quality issues that are happening elsewhere in California do not pertain to Orange County, as they are not digging deeper into the basin here.

Other methods to obtain fresh water have grown more popular as well, the most prominent being the process of desalination in which ocean water is purified through the removal of salt, minerals and other components. 

However, Marcus says this process can cause harm to the environment.

Water Scarcity and Desalination

When surface water supplies become scarce, boring under ground-level is the next step to obtain viable drinking water. Felicia Marcus, a fellow at Stanford University, says when this happens, contaminants in the water that wouldn’t ordinarily be an issue begin to move. The amount of contaminants that could come together would depend on the location of the well as some states have different sedimentary layers from others. 

OC Water District officials say that these issues caused by digging deeper for water is not applicable in Orange County and is occurring in other parts of the state, such as the central valley. OC Water District officials say groundwater is the primary source of drinking water in north and central Orange County.

Another method to obtain clean water is through the process of desalination, in which salt from ocean water is removed. 

According to the U.S. Geological Survey, this technique creates a highly concentrated brine which is later drained into the ocean. Because this brine contains extremely high levels of salt, it becomes harmful for the marine environment. OC Water District officials say that the same mass loading of salt is returned and disperses after being diffused.

Marcus says desalination has other disadvantages as well, such as a heightened dependence on fossil fuels, rise in greenhouse gas emissions, and even the possibility of wildlife being sucked into the pipes used to bring in the ocean water. 

“You might think the ocean is salt water so it doesn’t matter [but] it does because the concentration of salt is so high that it’ll smother marine life on the bottom that are going by,” Marcus said.

Water Quality in Anaheim and Fountain Valley

Among the water quality reports for cities throughout Orange County, Anaheim and Fountain Valley have created concern. Within the past few years, Anaheim has experienced more problems with its water quality than Fountain Valley.

According to Megan Yoo Schneider, the Division 7 Director of the Municipal Water District of Orange County, one area of concern is the level of trihalomethanes tested in the cities’ water.

Trihalomethanes are a chemical byproduct of the chlorine put into the water in order to disinfect it, but research has linked trihalomethanes to diagnoses of bladder cancer. 

As part of her job responsibilities, Schneider represents eight cities: Aliso Viejo, Dana Point, Laguna Beach, Laguna Hills, Laguna Niguel, Mission Viejo, San Clemente, and San Juan Capistrano. Schneider is also a registered Professional Engineer.

“Summertime is generally when you’ll see higher levels (of trihalomethanes), so (cities) may have samples in the summertime that lead to more of that,” Schneider said. “It could also be the source of the water, which also corresponds to the amount of organic content in the water. There’s a number of different factors that influence trihalomethane formation.”

There are four trihalomethanes that are lumped into the category for total trihalomethanes: chloroform, bromodichloromethane, dibromochloromethane and bromoform. 

The current maximum contaminant level goal, or the maximum amount of a chemical that is considered to be safe for ingestion, is 80 milligrams per liter.

Anaheim’s level of trihalomethanes in 2020 ranged between 22 and 98, according to the year’s water quality report. Between 2016 and 2020, the highest contaminant level did not surpass 90.

Fountain Valley reported that the level of trihalomethanes never surpassed 51 within the same time period.

However, the Environmental Working Group (EWC), a nonprofit activist organization that focuses on water pollutants and other environmental contaminants, found that the amount of total trihalomethanes in the water tested from the city was significantly higher than the health guideline put out by the group.

The Environmental Working Group released guidelines as they found that the nationwide legal limit for a chemical substance in the water does not necessarily mean that the limit is safe for more vulnerable groups like pregnant women and children. But OC Water District officials say that the need to balance public pathogen risk via chlorine disinfection was balanced with trihalomethane risk when setting the Maximum Containment Levels for trihalomethanes.

Since April 2021, the Orange County Water District has been working on cleaning up the district’s groundwater, which became polluted due to chemicals that were not properly disposed of. Anaheim is one of the 10 Orange County cities that has been affected by this as there was significant agricultural and industrial activity in the area for several decades.

According to the Orange County Water District, the Orange County North Basin Superfund Site is on a six-and-a-half-square-mile portion of the groundwater aquifer under Fullerton, Anaheim and Placentia.

A Superfund site is a groundwater source that is polluted with contaminants like chlorinated solvents, which are normally used for degreasing.

OC Water District officials say the agency is working with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to study and then develop an interim remedy to address the chlorinated solvent contamination in the North Basin area.

The Superfund program is currently run by the Environmental Protection Agency and serves to help clean up contaminated areas in the United States and help with environmental emergencies, oil spills and natural disasters. 

Of the 1,303 U.S. Superfund sites in January 2016, California currently has 97 Superfund sites, the second highest.

“(A Superfund site) tends to result in a lot of joint science and then plans to clean up groundwater basins,” said Felicia Marcus, the William C. Landreth Visiting Fellow for Stanford University’s Water in the West program. “Sometimes, it’s pumping, treating and returning to a water source. Other times, it’s pumping, treating and serving it because you can clean it up to be usable.”

Reading Water Quality Reports

All California water retailers produce an annual water quality report, called the Consumer Confidence Report, that shows test results of its drinking water.

To access and read local water quality reports: 

  1. Find the city’s water department webpage and locate the report archives. These will usually be accessed through a sidebar.
  2. Look for the following chemicals:
    1. Primary standards, or primary maximum contaminant levels (MCLs), such as mercury. The state standards can be accessed on the California Water Boards’ State Water Resources Control Board website.
    2. Inorganic chemicals such as lead and arsenic
    3. Chemical byproducts like trihalomethanes that are created when the water undergoes treatment in order to get purified
  3. Questions about your findings? Contact the water department by email or phone.

When looking at a water quality report, some chemicals and substances that are tested do not have a set maximum contaminant level goal limit. These are typically the result of voluntary testing by the agency.

Felicia Marcus, who is also with the Water Policy Group, said the reason for this is because the data that is gathered helps state and federal agencies decide if there should be a limit, and if so, what it should be.

Residents and Water Pollution

There are many ways in which residents can contribute to water pollution. However, there are also various actions residents can take to help reduce man-made contamination.

Schneider noted that direct pollution occurs when trash, liquid or chemical substances go down the street into the gutter and storm drain. Indirect pollution occurs in a resident’s house, workplace or school, and is considered less direct as it leads to a wastewater treatment plant. 

The plant, though, will not be able to remove certain pollutants like caffeine from the water because the more advanced technology needed to remove the pollutants is also more expensive.

Many everyday household chemicals are often disposed through drainage systems, such as soaps and laundry detergent. Car oil is also a contributor to local pollution. 

If a resident is changing oil in a driveway, there is great potential for the oil to run into a storm drain and into the ocean. This outcome can be prevented if the oil is properly collected into a sealed container and taken to a recycling drop-off location, such as those offered by Firestone Complete Auto Care or AutoZone

“We all contribute to pollution every day. In fact, even all the sodas that you drink have led to higher levels of caffeine in our waterways.”

Megan Yoo Schneider, the Division 7 Director of the Municipal Water District of Orange County

Marcus, meanwhile, emphasized that not sending unused and prescription drugs or flushable wipes down the drain would be other ways to combat water pollution. 

She also said that instead of pouring household chemicals down the drain, they can be properly disposed of in household hazardous waste repositories and recycling centers that can be found throughout cities and counties nationwide. These places can be found by entering in your zip code to the Earth911 database.

“There’s a lot we can do to minimize it and leave the waste that we do flush down the drain to be more biological: food and human waste,” Marcus said.

“It’s hard to say you shouldn’t take your prescription drugs or drink coffee, so there’s not a lot we can do about that in our waste. But other than that, not pouring anything down the drain to get rid of it is a really big deal.”

Story written by Renee Elefante. Story edited by Aleia Jacobs.

§

Correction: This story has been updated after publication to include several clarifications. OC Water District officials say that well drilling and groundwater quality issues that are happening elsewhere in California do not pertain to Orange County, as they are not digging deeper into the basin here. Water officials say that contamination issues seen in digging deeper for water are not happening in Orange County and are instead occurring elsewhere in the state, such as the central valley. OC Water District officials say that in desalination the same mass loading of salt is returned and disperses after being diffused. OC Water District officials say that the need to balance public pathogen risk via chlorine disinfection was balanced with trihalomethane risk when setting the Maximum Containment Levels for trihalomethanes. According to the Orange County Water District, the Orange County North Basin Superfund Site is on a six-and-a-half-square-mile portion of the groundwater aquifer under Fullerton, Anaheim and Placentia.

•••

Start each day informed with our free email newsletter. Be alerted when news breaks with our free text messages.

And since you’ve made it this far,

You are obviously connected to your community and value good journalism. As an independent and local nonprofit, our news is accessible to all, regardless of what they can afford. Our newsroom centers on Orange County’s civic and cultural life, not ad-driven clickbait. Our reporters hold powerful interests accountable to protect your quality of life. But it’s not free to produce. It depends on donors like you.

Join the conversation: In lieu of comments, we encourage readers to engage with us across a variety of mediums. Join our Facebook discussion. Message us via our website or staff page. Send us a secure tip. Share your thoughts in a community opinion piece.