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C. Eugene Emery Jr.
By C. Eugene Emery Jr. June 14, 2016

Lack of a reliable tally from EPA, California hinder Bernie Sanders tap water claim

The wisdom of using hydraulic fracking, the controversial process of squeezing oil and gas out of rock using pressured fluid, has been one of the issues that separates Democrats Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, with Sanders advocating an outright ban on the technique.

Sanders repeated his opposition during a news conference in Spreckels, Calif., in Monterey County, and said it was part of a larger concern about the availability of clean water, which he characterized as "one of the looming crises" in the United States and around the world.

"It is not just Flint, Mich., that is struggling with clean water. It is hundred of communities all over this country," he said. "There are tens of thousands of homes right here in California where you turn on the faucet, but you can't drink the water."

"They have to bring in bottled water, and, by the way, at great expense," Sanders said. "And if we do not act aggressively on fracking and other issues, this problem will only spread."

(There was a moment of confusion during Sanders' comments when someone to Sanders' left injected a comment and, based on that, Sanders said it was tens of thousands just in that county. When we contacted that other person, environmental lawyer Gary Alan Patton, he told PolitiFact that he and Sanders misunderstood each other and the "tens of thousands" was not a county number.)

For this fact-check, we will look at whether Sanders correctly reported the scope of the problem in California as a whole.

The short answer: We couldn't find any clear data.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency — with a budget of over $9 billion — said it doesn't have a running tally of households or individuals in the United States or by state who can't drink their tap water.

EPA referred us to California's EPA and its State Water Resources Control Board. They don't have a tally either.

What the control board does have is an annual report covering 2014 with numbers that are only suggestive of the scope of the drinking water problem in California's 7,789 public water systems.

It focuses on the 167 water systems in the state that have had drinking water violations. The only time it counts people is in the sections that list water systems with arsenic, nitrate and nitrite contamination.

By our tally, in 2014, 168 water systems serving 158,354 residents were cited at least once for high arsenic concentration. An additional 124 systems serving 36,652 residents were cited for high concentrations of nitrate or nitrite, substances common in fertilizers.

In total, those water systems serve just over 195,000 people.

With an average household size of 2.58 people, that would be about 75,600 households, putting Sanders in the "tens of thousands" ballpark.

The problem is saying a water system has been cited for violations in 2014 doesn’t mean those households don’t have drinkable tap water.

Some of those violations may have since been corrected.

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Some of those water systems may have adjusted for the contamination.

Consider contamination with arsenic, the legendary poison that, in small doses over a long period of time can cause diabetes, heart disease and cancer. The element usually comes from the erosion of natural deposits.

We contacted people in two of the largest systems cited for arsenic contamination.

In Arvin, Calif., the levels are so high, the 18,000 or so residents supplied by local water district are drinking bottled or filtered water provided by the city. The schools, parks and the library, for example, have their water filtered. The city is working on three new wells to try to correct the longstanding problem.

Yet a few miles northwest, in Lamont, which serves a population of 18,290, people are drinking the water in spite of one well with high arsenic levels. That well is shut down, so the tap water is drinkable. Water district officials are hoping a new well will have low levels so they can blend it with the now-offline well to dilute the arsenic. "We never had a case where people had to purchase water because it was unsafe to drink," said Rolando Marquez, water system supervisor.

Point being, they shouldn't be included in any count to assess whether Sanders is correct.

But there's another factor that makes the state report even less reliable as a gauge of how many California residents have tap water that's not safe to drink.

Between 660,000 and 2 million people in the state rely on unregulated water from home wells that may also be polluted and don't have to be tested. People may be drinking it because the cost to homeowners to treat that water may be prohibitively high.

The only official estimate we could find for the state was a 2013 news release from the state water board reporting that, "More than 95 percent of California’s 38 million residents get their drinking water from a public water supply and, of that number, 98 percent are served safe drinking water, according to CDPH," the acronym for the California Department of Public Health.

If that means 2 percent are served unsafe drinking water, that works out to about 722,000 residents or roughly 280,000 households.

That's hundreds of thousands, not tens of thousands. If that estimate is correct, Sanders is low-balling the tap water pollution problem in The Golden State.

When we contacted the Sanders campaign, they didn't have any hard numbers either, just media reports, including an Associated Press story about 2 million people living near groundwater containing uranium (but that's untreated water and the number goes beyond California), another AP story reporting that 57 water systems in California had too much lead in their drinking water (but no indication on how many households they served) and a story from the Visalia Times Delta saying that nearly one fifth of groundwater used for public drinking supplies is polluted (again, that's before treatment).

Our ruling

Sanders said, "There are tens of thousands of homes right here in California where you turn on the faucet, but you can't drink the water."

But surprisingly, neither the federal nor state governments has a reliable tally for public water supplies, never mind private wells that are not regulated.

Clearly California has a lot of polluted water, but in many cases that water can be treated or mixed with unpolluted water to bring the contaminants down to safe levels. Thus, the number of households with undrinkable tap water remains uncertain.

Sanders is right about the problem but his assessment of its scope — tens of thousands of households — lacks good data.

For that reason, we rate it Half True.

Our Sources, "FULL: Bernie Sanders Holds Press Conference on Fracking in Spreckels, California (6-1-16)," at the 19-minute mark, Bernie Sanders speeches & events channel, June 1, 2016

Email, Monica Lee, spokeswoman, Environmental Protection Agency, June 6, 2016

White House, Historical tables Budget of the U.S. Government, Fiscal year 2016

U.S. Census Bureau, "Households and Families: 2010," April 2012

State Water Resources Control Board, Division of Drinking Water, "Annual Compliance Report 2014," state of California, revised February 2016 and "State Study Finds Numerous Communities Rely on Contaminated Groundwater Sources for their Drinking Water Supply," Feb. 4, 2013

Interview, Gary Alan Patton, environmental lawyer, June 6, 2016

Emails, Julia Valentine and Monica Lee, spokeswomen, Environmental Protection Agency, June 3-7, 2016

Email, Andrew DiLuccia, public information officer, California's State Water Resources Control Board, June 2-7, 2016

Email, Raul Barraza, Jr., general manager, Arvin Community Services District, June 9, 2016

Interview, Rafael Moreno, branch supervisor, Arvin Public Library, June 7, 2016

Interview, Michael Wafford, news editor, The Lamont Reporter, June 8, 2016

Lamont Public Utility District, "2014 Consumer Confidence Report," May 5, 2015, accessed June 9, 2016

Interview, Rolando Marquez, water system supervisor, Lamont Public Utility District, June 7, 2016

Email, Warren Gunnels, spokesman, Bernie Sanders campaign, June 2, 2016

Associated Press, "'You can get cancer': Uranium contaminates water in the West," Dec. 8, 2015 and "California schools, communities not immune to lead in water," April 9, 2016

Visalia Times-Delta, "Study finds contaminants in public water supplies," July 16, 2015

NBC News, "Unsafe Drinking Water Adds to California's Drought Misery," Oct. 24, 2014

California Water Boards, "Communities That Rely on a Contaminated Groundwater Source for Drinking Water," January, 2013

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Lack of a reliable tally from EPA, California hinder Bernie Sanders tap water claim

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