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California FocusOpinion

California Focus: Newly noticed damage from fires and drought

It’s always easy to see direct effects of both the unprecedented spate of wildfires that has hit California over the last five years and the advent of this state’s newest multi-year drought.

Those include burned buildings, lung problems from direct smoke inhalation and lingering smoke and ash in the air of distant locations. Plus, ground subsidence, more expensive food as irrigation water becomes scarcer and more expensive, and brown lawns in almost every city and town.

But unseen, less obvious ill effects of both drought and the wildfires intensified by dry conditions are now turning out to be about as pernicious as the more visible direct effects seen on television news shows nightly.

Drought, for one thing, always leads to more groundwater pumping in the Central Valley, where farmers deprived of water supplies from both the state Water Project and the federal Central Valley Project turn straightaway to tapping underground aquifers.

Yes, in a way that’s an obvious drought effect, as the spouts of irrigation pipes that once barely peeked out from the earth’s surface now sit several feet over ground level, plain measures of subsidence easily visible to drivers along major highways like U.S. 99 and California 152.

But a new study from the U.S. Geological Survey this fall shows that intensive underground pumping has also sped deterioration of groundwater quality over widespread areas. “This could lead to more public drinking water wells being shut down if costly treatment or cleaner water sources to mix with ground water are not available,” reported Zeno Levy, a USGS research geologist.

In short, many Central Valley cities draw water from underground when they don’t get surface supplies derived from snowfall runoff originating in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. They get water from the same underground supplies farmers also use.

The problem, as revealed by 30 years of studying nitrate concentrations in Central Valley wells, is that those chemicals increase in drinking water when more groundwater is drawn.

A USGS chart shows how most public drinking water wells start out taking water from levels far below where nitrates are most common. But as neighboring farmers’ wells draw more from those deep levels, the depth at which nitrates are thickest steadily drops and the unhealthy chemicals can eventually make their way into drinking supplies.

This turns out to be a regional problem, even with groundwater pumping more intense in some locales than others. The USGS doesn’t say so, but it’s a problem that could lead to some cities becoming ghost towns unless supplemental potable water is trucked in, and in large quantities.

Then there are the side effects of fires. A new Stanford University study, for one example, finds that pregnant women exposed to smoke from wildfires have an increased chance of giving birth prematurely. The study found that about 7,000 California preterm births between 2007 and 2012 were probably caused by such exposure.

Premature birth leads to incomplete development of babies, which heightens risk of a variety of neurodevelopmental problems, stomach and lung complications and sometimes even early death.

And a reader in Magalia, near the ignition point of the 2018 Camp Fire that destroyed most of the Butte County town of Paradise, reports that benzene has been found in some local drinking water supplies.

Benzene in drinking water has been linked to various cancers including non-Hodgkins Lymphoma and acute myelogenous leukemia. Reported the reader, “Months after the Camp Fire evacuation ended, the grandson of a well-known and adored retail manager was born. Weeks later, he was diagnosed with two forms of childhood leukemia.”

For sure, tens of millions of dollars have already been paid to victims of benzene exposure from motor fuels and other sources. If it now turns out that benzene from burning natural substances has infested drinking water, an entire new source of damage claims against fire-causing utility companies like Pacific Gas & Electric will emerge, and it will be look out below for those firms.

What’s clear is that the cataloging of side effects of both drought and wildfires has barely begun. Which ought to add even more urgency to this state’s often-incomplete and inadequate fire prevention efforts.

Email Thomas Elias at [email protected].