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California County Shuts Down Fifth of Water Wells Over PFAS (2)

Feb. 6, 2020, 8:28 PMUpdated: Feb. 7, 2020, 12:19 AM

California wants to slash the allowable levels in drinking water for two “forever chemical” compounds, immediately prompting agencies supplying water to 2.5 million residents in Orange County to remove a fifth of their wells from service.

The State Water Resources Control board Thursday said it planned to dramatically lower its response levels for perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS), though actual drinking water standards are still years away.

The response levels require water suppliers to install treatment, and remove wells from service if they exceed the thresholds. Notifying customers is required if districts plan to keep wells in service without treatment for an extended period.

Orange County Water District said agencies it served were taking 40 of its 200 wells offline Thursday and in the coming days as a result of the state’s announcement, and plans to increase rates to absorb the cost of cleaning up the water.

The two chemicals are part of a broader family of more than 5,000 per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), which have been found in drinking water, consumer products, and food across the U.S. They’re known as “forever chemicals” because some don’t break down in the environment or in human bodies.

The current response level that triggers action in California is a combined 70 parts per trillion for PFOA and PFOS, in line with the federal health advisory level. The limit would fall to 10 parts per trillion for PFOA and 40 parts per trillion for PFOS, the agency said in a news release.

More Costs for Ratepayers

Orange County’s wells will be offline for up to two years, said Jason Dadakis, executive director of water quality and technical resources for the Orange County Water District.

“We are doing everything in our power to address this issue and be as proactive as possible,” Gina Ayala, a spokeswoman for the water district, said.

Installing treatment and maintaining operations over 30 years—the district’s typical planning timeline—plus buying additional water to supplant supplies, could cost an estimated $850 million. An 8% rate increase will go before the Orange County Water District board in April, and future costs could come down the line, Ayala said.

“It is a lot of money for ratepayers to absorb,” Dadakis said.

Orange County oversees the area’s groundwater basin and provides water to 19 agencies, which rely on underground supplies for 77% of deliveries. The remainder comes from the Colorado River and Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which supplies water to 19 million people in the region.

“Many of them will have to depend more on Metropolitan and less on groundwater,” Dadakis said.

Fifth of State Water Systems

California has an estimated 3,000 water suppliers, and 600 systems have detected PFAS in drinking water, according to data from the state’s Water Board.

The lower response levels mean more water suppliers could have to install treatment or make other arrangements, said Adam Borchard, a regulatory advocate for the Association of California Water Agencies, which represents 90% of the state’s water supply delivery systems.

“I think Orange County is a great example of the impacts at these levels,” Borchard said. “I think that’s a real possibility that water could become more expensive with these new levels.”

Exposure to PFOA and PFOS can cause immune system problems, liver issues, developmental delays, and certain cancers, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

PFAS aren’t regulated by the EPA. Like many other states, California is seeking to set its own drinking water standards, though they likely wouldn’t take effect until 2023.

The State Water Resources Control Board didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.

In August, the Water Board lowered the level of PFOS and PFOA in drinking water that would trigger notification rules—which require water suppliers to notify their board or governing agency of any exceedances. The notification level for PFOA is now 5.1 parts per trillion, down from 14 parts per trillion. For PFOS it is 6.5 parts per trillion, down from 13 parts per trillion.

(Updates rate increase details in ninth paragraph.)

To contact the reporter on this story: Emily C. Dooley at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Gregory Henderson at; Renee Schoof at; Anna Yukhananov at