Bridgeport faces arsenic water treatment quandary

New, stiffer state standards for arsenic in drinking water are putting the squeeze on small water districts

Arsenic in drinking water is undoubtably a bad thing.

How bad, though, depends on the amount of arsenic. Naturally occurring arsenic is common in small amounts in Eastern Sierra waters due to local geology.

In recent years, the state has set higher standards for arsenic in public drinking water systems, meaning less arsenic is allowed than before.

That noble idea, born of a desire to protect public health, may well protect public health but it has also become something of a nightmare for small communities, both locally and beyond Mono County borders.

The issue is cost. For small, rural communities like Mono County’s Bridgeport, the cost of treating water to meet the new standard could cause water rates to increase by a hundred percent—or even more.

That has put Bridgeport and other small water districts in something of a quandary.

“I think it is terrible when a government entity changes the ‘rules of the game’ with no regard as to how it will affect the people,” said Bridgeport’s county supervisor, Tim Fesko.

Larger communities with more water service connections can absorb the cost of a new treatment facility (economies of scale) because they have many customers to spread the cost over, he said.

That is not the case for Mono County’s communities, Fesko said.

“As the government continues to ‘protect’ the people, it continues to burden the folks, especially our elderly and young families, with a financial burden that they cannot afford,” he said.

Berry Beck, a board member of Bridgeport’s water district, said the district is still trying to find a way to afford a new arsenic treatment facility to serve its approximately 280 households—before the state finds them in violation, something that could cost the district $1,000 a day in fines.

It’s not the only problem facing the water district, either.

“During the recent Main Street rehabilitation project, we discovered we needed to replace 971 feet of sewer line, at a cost of $90,000,” Beck said. “The line goes under the river and we cannot be leaking into the Walker River.

“We can afford that. We have been fiscally conservative. We can afford the loan we can get for our share of the ($1.6 million) arsenic facility project. But if we want to have a reserve, as the state requires us to have (around $206,000 a year, with annual water revenues of about $318,000 a year) we are going to have to raise rates between 75 and 110 percent.”

Costs to maintenance and when or if the standards change again will also have to be met at some point, Beck said.

The district is also facing repairs to two well pumps, he said, with a cost of about $17,000 each.

Beck said the water district is going to ask for a second opinion regarding the cost of the arsenic treatment facility.

He also said there has been no rate increase since 2007.

“We are a completely new board since January,” he said, noting the previous five board members all resigned en masse. “If rates had been increased slowly, this wouldn’t be so hard.”

Barry Wade, a former full-time resident of Bridgeport and a current part-time resident, said that although he believes the water district board contains “good citizens trying to do the right thing,” the arsenic issue should take precedence over the other maintenance problems.

“Arsenic kills people, sewage lines can be patched over,” he said.

He said a neighbor of his in Bridgeport was recently tested by a doctor and came back with “higher than normal” levels of arsenic in his blood.

“I think this is a matter of priorities and our health should take priority,” Wade said.

The problems in Bridgeport, even if they were better managed in the past, are not unique to Bridgeport’s small water district.

According to a June 16 article in the Los Angeles Times by Jessica Garrison, the same problems are plaguing many of the state’s small communities—and it’s as much due to the state’s ineptitude as it is anything.

“Lanare (a community near Fresno), like scores of other impoverished California communities where the water is unsafe to drink, could be eligible for a share of hundreds of millions of dollars in federal and state funds to improve drinking water tainted by agricultural use and naturally occurring contaminants,” Garrison wrote in the article.

“But the state has been agonizingly slow to spend the money, snarling small communities in red tape that has delayed fixes year after year, according to drinking-water advocates, community leaders and residents.

“This spring, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued a notice threatening to cut off further funding to California because officials have been sitting on $455 million in unspent federal funds, as well as up to an additional $260 million in loan repayments that could be available to help. It is the largest share of unspent money for improving drinking water in the nation,” she wrote.

 Officials at the Department of Public Health said they were working to streamline procedures, she wrote.