In the weeks before the coronavirus began tearing through California, the city of Commerce made an expensive decision: It shut down part of its water supply.
Like nearly 150 other public water systems in California, the small city on the outskirts of Los Angeles had detected “forever chemicals” in its well water.
Used for decades to make non-stick and waterproof coatings, firefighting foams and food packaging, these industrial chemicals — per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances or PFAS — have been linked to kidney cancer and other serious health conditions.
The chemicals turned up in both of the city’s wells serving about 3,000 residents. One well already had treatment capable of reducing the chemicals, but the other did not, according to the California Water Service, which operates the wells.
The discovery forced Commerce to choose between two bad options: keep serving the contaminated water, or shut the well down and import water at more than double the cost.
Flush with funds from taxing the city’s casino and outlet mall, officials decided to err on the side of caution and shut the well down.
“We don’t take risks when it comes to drinking water,” said Gina Nila, the city’s deputy director of public works operations.
Then the pandemic struck. The casino closed for months, and the local economy took a hit. City staff were furloughed and laid off. And the tab for replacing its inexpensive underground water with costly imported water continues to climb, reaching about $460,000 in just nine months.
Now the city faces the prospect of needing to spend $1.8 million on a new treatment system, on top of its growing bill for replacement water.
“We’ll find a way to pay it,” said Commerce’s acting director of finance Josh Brooks. “It’s going to be painful.”
Across California, water providers are discovering the same thing: These chemicals are everywhere. They last forever because they don’t break down. They’re dangerous. They’re expensive to get rid of. And many Californians don’t even know they’re drinking them.
California is now cracking down by implementing new thresholds for the chemicals that will force cities and utilities to shut down their wells, treat the water, or notify their customers about the contamination.
A CalMatters analysis of state data reveals that nearly 200 drinking water wells, or 15% of those tested, have exceeded the new thresholds in at least one round of testing over the past year. Although they are concentrated largely in Los Angeles, Orange and Riverside counties, contaminated wells are found statewide, in rural as well as urban areas.
At least 26 wells in hotspots, including Fresno, the East Bay and parts of Riverside and San Luis Obispo counties, contain extreme amounts of the chemicals — two to 10 times higher than the state’s recommended levels in at least one test, according to the CalMatters analysis.
“I actually think it’s scary as all get out, so we need…