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What's in the water?

December 12, 2009 |  7:50 am

RockyLots of stuff, according to the Environmental Working Group.

The public interest organization has created an online database of water quality test results from 45 states.

The group's analysis of utility information found that water agencies across the country have detected a total of more than 300 pollutants in supplies, more than half of which are not regulated by the government.

"The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has set enforceable drinking water safety standards for only 114 of the 316 substances detected," the group says in a report released today.

The chemical pollutants that find their way into rivers and aquifers come from various sources, including farm runoff, pesticides, sewage and industrial chemicals. Some are naturally occurring.

The report ranks large utilities according to the quantity and average levels of contaminants, placing three California utilities in the bottom 10: The city of Riverside, the Eastern Municipal Water District in Riverside County, and San Diego.

Kevin Milligan, utilities assistant general manager for Riverside, said: “The bulk of the data they're reporting -- and all that is above [permitted] levels -- is in raw water" that had not been treated. "We have never in our history had a water quality violation.”

He added that the city has spent millions to treat groundwater supplies tainted by military and aerospace operations, as well as agriculture.

A spokesman for the Eastern Municipal Water District also said much of the water quality data from his agency was for untreated supplies. "We don’t feel there's anything in our water supply that we deliver to people that could cause any harm,” Peter Odencrans said.

With increasingly sophisticated testing technology, utilities are turning up chemicals for which there are no government standards.

 “The big question that nobody has answered is what the health risk is, and how would we get it out of the water," Milligan said. "Until we understand those two, there's not a lot we can do."

The report's authors have some suggestions for the federal government: "It should establish new safety standards, set priorities for pollution prevention projects, and tell consumers about the full range of pollutants in their water."

The interactive database, covering 48,000 communities, can be accessed at the group's website, www.ewg.org.

--Bettina Boxall

Photo: Mister Huck squeezes out Rocky Boy for a drink at Runyon Canyon Park in Los Angeles. Credit: Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times.





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