KMPH Special Report: What's Really In Your Water?

Ken and Marguerite Mellon of Springville are no strangers to recycling.

"We probably go through five gallons, just the two of us, probably five gallons a week. And then we buy the small bottles," Marguerite said.

The reason is their water is dirty.

"About every three months we get a notice, either with our bill or separately, telling us that there are unacceptable levels of nitrates and unacceptable levels of uranium," Marguerite said.

"They said children for sure, pregnant women for sure. That's good enough for me that I'm not drinking it either," Ken said.

The Mellons say the water isn't good enough to use for anything in their kitchen.

The only thing it is good for is using it in their bathroom.

"We won't make coffee or tea, or even boil a potato or whatever. I don't cook with it at all," Marguerite said.

The Mellons' situation is certainly not unique around the Valley, where small, often disadvantaged communities have struggled to get clean drinking water for years.

"It's been a long-time known concern," Chief Deputy Director of the State Water Resources Control Board, Jonathon Bishop, said.

Bishop says nitrates are a major culprit.

"It would be fair to say that nitrates, especially in areas of the Central Valley and the Salinas Valley where we have folks that don't have access to safe drinking water, that's a big concern," Bishop said.

Earlier this year, UC Davis released a report on the safety of the amount of nitrates in California's drinking water.

The report zeros in on local growers, saying 96% of nitrate contamination found in groundwater comes from crops.

The study set off a flurry of new concerns and new regulations aimed Valley farmers.

But farmers say the study is flawed and it's based on old data.

On the one hand, nitrates are essential.

"Nitrates are one of those things that the Valley needs to grow crops," Dave Orth, Kings River Conservation District General Manager, said.

"Plants uptake nitrogen. They need that nitrogen to grow. That's why we have fertilizers. Without adding the fertilizers, we wouldn't get the same yield on the crop," Bishop said.

But on the other hand, nitrates have been blamed for getting babies sick.

"The biggest concern of that is the impact on infants and pregnant women. It interferes with the ability of our blood cells to uptake oxygen," Bishop said.

The condition, commonly referred to as "Blue Baby Syndrome", has been linked to nitrates since the 1940's, when an Iowa doctor first connected the two after babies, who were healthy at birth, suddenly got sick.

In his case study the doctor wrote: "The only significant change in the infant's environment from hospital to farm home was in the water that was used to prepare the formula". The water showed high levels of nitrates.

From that, a federal mandate was born regulating the level of nitrates in ground water, ultimately pointing the finger at growers.

"Somewhere in the 80-90% of nitrogen in the groundwater are from agricultural uses. That's a big part of it. Another part of what they (UC Davis report) said, which is important to keep in mind, this has been going on for 100 years. And that impact is going to continue for a long time." Bishop said.

"Today's ag is far more effective and efficient than ever before; management of water supply, management of fertilizers. And I think we're going to find, as we collect information, that this isn't the smoking gun that a lot of people are trying to lay at agriculture's feet," Orth said.

Orth says while ag does play a role in the nitrate problem, it's not the whole problem.

He says other things from natural sources to septic tanks and drinking water treatment systems contribute to the nitrate levels. But farmers carry the entire burden.

"The regulators want to start with the notion that every one of today's irrigators, every one of our growers is guilty and we need to prove them innocent," Orth said.

"We are not going to make it so hard to farm or so expensive that they can't," Bishop said.

But farmers say that's exactly what they're doing with the nitrate regulations, even though "Blue Baby Syndrome" is far from rampant.

"We have not seen a great deal of evidence of that in the medical records in the Valley," Orth said.

In fact, an article in American Scientist magazine says: "Today, the disease has all but disappeared... Only two cases have been reported since the mid-1960's and none since 2000."

"It's not like there's an epidemic of infants dying in the Central Valley. The concern with all of our protection levels is that they're designed so that you never get people sick," Bishop said.

But when it comes to the EPA's list of cancer causing chemicals, nitrates are nowhere on there.

But other things found in Valley waterways, like gasoline, industrial solvents, arsenic and uranium are.

Some argue those aren't regulated nearly to the extent that nitrates are because water quality officials can't blame farmers.

"There are areas around the Valley where there are clearly, bigger issues of concern than nitrates. We have naturally occurring arsenic sources in various drinking water systems that probably have more significant health risks than the nitrates do," Orth said.

"There are lots of chemicals that potentially have potential health impacts. And we're concerned about all of them," Bishop said.

Officials with the state water board in Sacramento say it's nearly impossible to appease both sides.

But they say it's also important to keep in mind what's at stake.

"Nitrates in the groundwater is a big issue that's going to last a while. As such, we need to make sure the people that are impacted get safe drinking water. At the same time, we need to recognize that agriculture is an important resource to the state of California," Bishop said.

"The San Joaquin Valley is very dependent upon the agricultural economy. It's a big contributor to our stability, our economic numbers. We cannot exist without a vibrant ag economy," Orth said.

Until a real solution is found, people like the Mellons in Springville will continue to pay hundreds of dollars for water every month that they're told not to drink.

Local growers say there are solutions that exist, including creating treatment systems and alternative water supplies that can provide quicker access to safe drinking water.

In the meantime, the state water board is considering implementing what's called the "Irrigated Lands Program" next year, which could cost growers about 40-times more to test for nitrates it does now.

When it comes to those naturally-occurring chemicals found in groundwater, like uranium and arsenic, it's up to the state health department to regulate those, not the state water board.

High levels of arsenic and uranium have been found in several Valley communities.