Contrary to popular belief, California’s environmental regulations have actually weakened in the past 15 years. In 1980, only nine wells across the state contained higher than allowed nitrate levels. By 2007, that number jumped to 648 according to a new report by California Watch and the Center for Investigative Reporting.

The problem is a state with a “patchwork” of regulatory efforts, rather than a single unified, enforceable regulation. In the Central Valley, where much of the western region’s dairy products come from, 65 percent of domestic wells are contaminated with nitrates — nitrates that come from cattle manure.

In California, nitrogen fertilizer is not regulated as a pollutant, so farmers can apply as much as they want, whether or not they are adjacent to waterways. Though many dairy farms have been shown to be producing excess amounts of nitrates, not a single farm identified by the state has been fined. And even when a fine is levied, California officials seem to lack the resources to administer and collect the fines.

The result, fertilizer runoff from farms and golf courses and nitrates from wastewater treatment are leaching deep into the groundwater impacting more than 2 million Californians and possibly endangering municipal water supplies in central California. Babies and children are particularly susceptible to nitrate poisoning. "Blue baby syndrome” is linked to nitrate exposure that restricts an infant’s oxygen supply. Many rural schools have also found that water supplies are tainted with high levels of nitrates.

The state is now considering the installation of monitoring wells that would provide periodic reports on water quality and allow state officials to track down the biggest polluters, but such measures are expensive to implement and face tough challenges ahead. In the meantime educational measures are being put forth to help farmers understand that using less water means using less fertilizer — a win-win for a state that is increasingly thirsty for clean water. 

Another new study in the Journal of Pediatrics finds that pesticides are causing an epidemic of Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) in the U.S. When will we learn that a little bit of "big government" is actually helpful in regulating the polluters that are most directly affecting the health of our children?

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