Franklin Elementary students will start the school year with an experience most have not had – drinking from a hallway water fountain.
The school, located in a rural enclave south of Elk Grove, has supplied its students with bottled water for five years because its well had high arsenic levels, based on federal standards.
The sips of clean, cold water from campus spigots have come at a hefty price. Elk Grove Unified School District paid $632,000 to have an arsenic treatment system installed in a small shed near the well. On June 27, the state agreed to pay $379,000 of the cost because of the health risk to students.
"Arsenic can cause a variety of serious health conditions and therefore is posing a health and safety threat to students and staff," said the district's application for emergency state funds.
In California arsenic occurs naturally in soil and also comes from contamination from orchards and industrial sources, said Lisa Todd, supervising environmental specialist with Sacramento County's Environmental Management Department. She said the treatment system chlorinates the water, removing the arsenic.
In 2009 the school found itself in the same situation as many other properties with public water systems supplied by wells. The state of California, which had allowed a maximum of 50 parts per billion of arsenic in water supplies, changed that year to federal standards, which allow only 10 parts per billion, Todd said.
The water at Franklin Elementary – home of the Pioneers – was testing at about 20 parts per billion, Todd said.
Sacramento County has many properties, particularly in rural areas of the Delta and south Sacramento, that have public water systems supplied by wells, Todd said. Wells on private property are exempt from these regulations.
"All of a sudden many were in violation," she said. "A lot of folks are scrambling to comply with this."
Violators generally have between three and five years to install a water treatment system and bring their arsenic levels down, Todd said. "They can't come into compliance overnight, and funding is a huge issue," she said.
Although emergency state funding – like that granted to Franklin Elementary – is available, it is beginning to dry up, Todd said.
Elk Grove Unified officials didn't wait for the state to approve funding before installing the system. "We are happy to see the money," said Robert Pierce, associate superintendent for facilities. "But honestly, we would have done it anyway."
The district used money designated for facility improvements to pay for the system, said Pierce, not operating funds that pay for books and teachers. He said the new facility will actually increase operating funds, as the school district will no longer have to pay for bottled water – about $15,000 annually.
It's unusual for schools to have high arsenic levels in their water because most are on municipal water systems, which already chlorinate water, Todd said. Only two other schools in the county are on wells, she said, and they haven't exceeded federal standards for arsenic.
The staff at Franklin Elementary will soon tear down signs in the halls and bathrooms that warned students not to drink the water and will remove water bottles from classrooms.
The school's water has been tested monthly since the water treatment system was installed in February, and most recently had 3.9 parts per billion of arsenic, Todd said.