Woodland, Davis begin sending out letters on chromium-6 in water

When 15,273 utility customers in Woodland open their water bills, they will find a letter alerting them that their water exceeds the state standard for a carcinogen called hexavalent chromium, or chromium-6.

The letter is required by state law twice a year because 17 of 19 wells used by Woodland have chromium-6 levels between the 10 and 28 parts per billion range, above the state standard of 10 parts per billion.

The new standard, the most stringent in the country, addresses levels of chromium-6 specifically for the first time. Woodland joins nearby Davis and Winters, which have been told by the state to send out similar letters to their utility customers.

Chromium-6 can be naturally occurring or man-made, and the western areas of the Sacramento Valley are known as a hotspot because chromium naturally exists in the coastal foothills.

The requirement to notify residents of the high levels frustrates Woodland city officials who feel the letter requirement is an intrusion to city government and that it will needlessly alarm residents.

“This seems like an unnecessary act we’re compelled to do,” said Woodland Mayor Tom Stallard. “The impact of this during drought times is especially onerous, especially when sources of water are already hard to come by.”

He contends that the letter casts the city in an unflattering light.

“This mailing is a scarlet letter on us because we have to tell our residents we’re providing them water that is substandard when, in fact, it’s the same quality of water we’ve been delivering for 100 years,” Stallard said.

Sending out the letters puts a strain on the city’s budget, Stallard said. Initially, sending the letters would have cost Woodland nearly $30,000, since the state requires that the letters be an independent mailing. However, the state allowed the city to include the notice on Woodland’s upcoming water utility bills, a compromise that resulted in a lesser $3,000 cost, Stallard said.

Water samples are taken quarterly, and state law requires notifying residents when samples exceed the limit in any quarter, said Bruce Burton, assistant deputy director of drinking water with the State Water Resources Control Board.

Burton said it is likely that other local water agencies beyond Yolo County will be sending notification letters about chromium-6. He said there is no reason for alarm in regard to water quality in Woodland – at least in the short term.

“Chromium is a chronic contaminant and there is not an immediate impact,” said Burton. “Certainly, the less exposure you have to chromium-6, the less risk.”

Chromium-6 is listed as a carcinogen by the California Environment Protection Agency, whose goal is lowering the standard to 2 parts per billion, which stems from years of study.

In 2010, the Environmental Working Group conducted a study of tap water in U.S. cities and found that 31 of 35 cities tested had chromium-6 levels higher than 2 parts per billion.

Exposure to chromium-6 can lead to skin irritation, asthma and kidney and liver damage, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. The carcinogen became famous in 2000 with the film “Erin Brockovich,” wherein the title character sued Pacific Gas & Electric Co. over chromium-6 found in a Mojave Desert community’s drinking water.

Stallard contends that Woodland’s chromium levels present no health danger, and that any effect from well water is temporary because the Woodland will join Davis in getting Sacramento River water when a new two-city treatment plant comes on line next year.

“We should not be required to do this letter, especially in light of a plan we have in place to transfer from subsurface water to surface water,” said Woodland City Manager Paul Navazio. “It’s really hard to manage that mixed message.”

Edward Ortiz: 916-321-1071, @edwardortiz