Residents in Rio Linda and Elverta may soon see an increase in water rates to build two new wells and treat four others tainted with a known carcinogen.
The Rio Linda-Elverta Community Water District said the rate increase is needed to pay the improvements’ $9 million price tag after water in several wells there have been found to contain higher levels of hexavalent chromium than allowed by a new state safety standard.
The proposed rate increase, which will be up for a vote at a June 20 water district meeting, has drawn the ire of some ratepayers in the district who contend that it will produce too big of a rate hike – as much as 23 percent by 2019, when surcharges are factored in. Residents also say nearby McClellan Air Force Base needs to chip in because aircraft chromium plating conducted there may have tainted the district’s wells.
The Air Force has denied the base contributed to the higher levels of chromium in the district’s water supply.
In the meantime, the district is delivering to 4,600 residents a blend of water from all of its 11 wells that allows it to meet the state’s standard for hexavalent chromium, said Mary Henrici, general manager of the Rio Linda-Elverta Water District. That state standard for the carcinogen was set at 10 parts per billion in 2015.
If the district doesn’t approve the rate increase next month to address the tainted wells, it will be out of compliance with state standards even as it delivers blended water to customers that meets state standards, Henrici said.
The district could also be penalized by the state’s water control board or saddled with building moratoriums that wouldn’t allow the construction of any new structures drawing water from the district, she said.
“I’m a ratepayer in the district and I’m not looking forward to paying a higher bill, but this is necessary to comply with the state’s new mandate,” said Henrici. “There really is not another option.”
The base was listed with the federal Environmental Protection Agency as a Superfund site in 1987 because of more than 300 waste areas identified in soil and groundwater that include such toxic chemicals as polychlorinated biphenyls, dioxins and arsenic, as well as hexavalent chromium.
A recent study commissioned by the district last year found that six of 11 wells above the state standard were those closest to McClellan.
“We only have 4,000 customers here to pick up the tab for that big expense,” said Mary Harris, a long time Rio Linda resident and also a member of the water district’s board. “Nine million is a lot of money to divide between that number of customers.”
Longtime Rio Linda resident Anne Marie Tomlinson said she doesn’t believe the local water is safe.
“I have not drunk the water since 2010,” she said. “Unfortunately, I have to shower in it.”
Exposure to hexavalent chromium can lead to skin irritation, asthma in the workplace, and kidney and liver damage, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. The chemical entered the limelight in 2000 with the film “Erin Brockovich,” in which the title character, played by Julia Roberts, sued Pacific Gas and Electric Co. over hexavalent chromium found in a Mojave Desert community’s drinking water.
Linda Fowler, who owns a 2.5-acre property in Rio Linda, said residents have already struggled since the base’s closure 15 years ago.
“When (the Air Force) closed the base, it took the heart out of the whole area for employment and made the economy here bad,” Fowler said. “Now we’re left with their cleanup.”
The median household income in Rio Linda is $50,873, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The state median household income is $61,730.
The Air Force denies any blame for the chromium found in the district’s water supply and contends that it has performed all the necessary cleanup work to make sure that surrounding communities are not affected by any chromium-producing activity at McClellan.
“Groundwater cleanup and an extensive well monitoring system started at the base in the 1980s and continue to this day,” said Steven Mayer, an Air Force radiation safety officer at McClellan.
“There is no evidence that hexavalent chromium has migrated beyond the installation boundary,” Mayer said.
He said studies show base groundwater migrates from the northeast to the southwest – away from Rio Linda. He also said Rio Linda wells are deeper and draw from a different aquifer than the aquifer zone on the base with high chromium levels.
The EPA backs up the Air Force’s monitoring data. “The current monitoring well network supports the position that hexavalent chromium is not migrating beyond the boundaries of the former McClellan Air Force Base,” said EPA spokeswoman Kelly Zito.
The Air Force opened the sprawling McClellan Air Force Base in 1936 and operations ceased in 2001. Since then, the base operates as a privately owned business park that uses water from the Sacramento Suburban Water District.
The military’s assurances don’t quiet neighbors’ fears.
“The Air Force needs to take responsibility for cleaning up the rest of their mess and stop specifying it’s been done, because it hasn’t,” said Rio Linda resident Stephanie Suela. “If you have a well and you have a plating shop and it’s been there for years and the chromium is going down into the ground ... it is going to reach people’s wells.”
The water district is not taking a stance on whether the Air Force is to blame for the high hexavalent chromium levels in wells nearest the base, said Henrici.
“We’re investigating the source of the chromium, and if it’s found that it is coming from the base then we’ll look for reimbursement for our costs,” said Henrici. “But that has yet to be determined.”