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California Water Systems Fined Over E. coli

Nov 7, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP

Ten water systems in California are facing fines for failing to monitor E. coli bacteria in their drinking water. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) could assess tens of thousands of dollars in fines on a daily basis for every violation.

The EPA has ordered ten California public drinking water systems to monitor for Escherichia coli in their drinking water systems’ source water or face penalties of up to $32,500 per day per violation.  The 10 water systems are:

  • Markleeville Water Company, Alpine County
  • Lake Alpine Recreation Area, Alpine County
  • Cedar Crest Resort, Fresno County
  • Panoche Water District, Fresno County
  • PG&E Balch Camp, Fresno County
  • San Andreas Farms, Fresno County
  • Elk Creek Community Service District, Glenn County
  • Town of Scotia Company, Humboldt County
  • Coffee Creek Ranch, Trinity County
  • Riverview Acres Water Systems, Trinity County

We frequently report on E. coli and have discussed that this is bacteria—a fecal coliform—is found in the intestines of mammals:  Warm-blooded animals, including humans.  What’s of note in the California problem is that having E. coli present in a water system points to recent sewage or animal waste contamination.  “It is vital that drinking water systems develop their plans and sample promptly,” said Alexis Strauss, the Water Division director for the EPA’s Pacific Southwest region. “This requirement protects the public from potentially harmful microorganisms in drinking water.”

The EPA’s orders require the public drinking water systems follow the requirements of the federal Safe Drinking Water Act and develop monitoring plans and conduct pathogen monitoring.  The monitoring plans, which are a requirement, state that all public water systems obtain their water from a surface source, such as a river, lake, or a well that is under the influence of surface water.  Also, the water must be part of a year-long source water monitoring effort for E. coli, developed to prevent contaminated drinking water.  These requirements are part of the Long Term 2 Enhanced Surface Water Treatment Rule, which increases treatment requirements for water systems with high levels of Cryptosporidium in their source water.  Cryptosporidium is a waterborne pathogen, a protazoa, that can cause gastro-intestinal illness, including with diahrrea and is also an indicator of the presence of E. coli.  Systems serving under 10,000 people have the option of initially monitoring for E. coli in their source water; however, when E. coli levels are too high, the system must monitor for Cryptosporidium.

Consuming water with Cryptosporidium can cause gastrointestinal illness, which can be severe in people with weakened immune systems, such as infants or the elderly. It can be fatal to those with severely compromised immune systems, such as what occurs in patients with cancer, AIDS, and certain strains of hepatitis, to name some. This type of monitoring protects the public by reducing illness due to Cryptosporidium and other harmful microorganisms in drinking water.  Water systems with high levels of Cryptosporidium or which do not filter their water are required to provide additional protection, such as ultraviolet disinfection, and watershed control programs.

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