avenal school water fountain

Water fountains, like this one at Avenal Elementary School, use point-of-use water filtration systems to provide clean and safe drinking water to the students of Reef-Sunset Unified School District.

AVENAL — Clean drinking water for students is a high priority in any school district, and Reef-Sunset Unified School District Superintendent David East is happy his district’s issues are finally being addressed in a way where he doesn’t have to constantly worry about students’ health.

“We’ve got a handle on the situation, but it’s been a long process,” East said.

East has been with the district for eight years, but said the battle with clean and safe drinking water started at least a few years before he got there, after high levels of arsenic were found in the drinking water in Kettleman City.

Arsenic, a known carcinogen, at concentrations of 10 parts per billion or above violates federal standards. Before 2001, the limit was 50 parts per billion.

Once the standard changed, East said Kettleman City, and many other cities in the state, were immediately out of compliance.

Any risk for developing cancer from arsenic consumption depends on how great the concentration is, how much you drink and for how long. Suffice to say, arsenic levels in drinking water became a concern for many California residents.

The Safe Drinking Water and Water Quality Projects Program was created under Proposition 84 in 2006, which provided the California Department of Health Services access to federal capitalization grants to assist communities in providing safe drinking water under the Safe Drinking Water State Revolving Fund Program.

Since 2013, residents in Kettleman City have been receiving 30 gallons per month per household of bottled water under Proposition 84. The water has been free of charge, thanks to the $10,000-a-month grant from the State Water Resources Control Board.

Around five years ago, parents of the students in East’s district were concerned, and he said it was one of the top issues facing the district of around 2,650 students.

The Reef-Sunset district received grants from the state to install point-of-use water filtering systems in the fountains and in certain faucets in the kitchens, East said.

The electric filtering systems remove contaminates from the drinking water, including arsenic and lead, and even have alarms to notify when filters need to be changed. He said many of the water fountains at the school have been replaced as well.

Students even bring their own water bottles from home to refill with the filtered water, East said.

In January, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson announced public schools can receive free lead testing in drinking water under a new state program.

The State Water Resources Control Board, in cooperation with the California Department of Education, recently required all community water systems to test school drinking water upon request by school officials if the public school is served by a community water system.

“Students should have access to clean drinking water at all times,” Torlakson said in a statement. “Students need fresh water, nutritious meals, and appropriate physical activity to be ready to learn in class.”

If school officials make a written request, the community water systems must collect the samples within three months and report results back within two business days. Sampling locations can include drinking fountains, cafeteria and food preparation areas, and reusable water bottle filling stations.

The community water systems are responsible for the costs associated with collecting drinking water samples, analyzing them and reporting results. The program extends until November 1, 2019.

East said he had the water at the schools tested for lead, and no lead was found. It’s one less thing he has to worry about.

The next step for the two cities is a currently-in-the-works water treatment plant. The new treatment plant will take water out of the California Aqueduct, make sure it's free of contaminants and pipe it into homes for drinking.

The plant is expected to come on-line in late 2018 or early 2019, and East said he is confident the plant will solve many of the cities’ water problems.

The perception for most residents of Avenal and Kettleman City is that bottled water is still better, but East said he’s glad to see students using the water fountains at the school without hesitation and that parents are no longer concerned with the water their children are drinking at school.

As of right now, East also said he has no concerns and believes progress is being made toward permanent, long-term drinking water solutions for the residents of Avenal and Kettleman City.

The reporter can be reached at 583-2423 or jzavala@hanfordsentinel.com

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