Orange County Water District is Setting the Pace for New Water Monitoring Standards

In the Santa Ana River Watershed, water distributed to customers by water purveyors undergoes regular, rigorous testing to ensure it is meeting all state and federal standards.

Up next in ensuring that water continues to meet these high standards set forth in the United States Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Safe Drinking Water Act is the monitoring of per- and polyfluoroalkyl (PFAS) substances, which include perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and many other chemicals.

The Santa Ana Watershed Project Authority (SAWPA) – led Emerging Constituents Program Task Force, which includes the Orange County Water District and the Santa Ana Regional Water Quality Control Board, along with roughly 20 other agencies in the Santa Ana River Watershed will be compiling independent data on PFAS.

The samples will be collected from all upstream wastewater treatment plant discharges into the Santa Ana River and its tributaries, as well as imported water released to the upper watershed to ensure that data is made available not solely from Orange County, but from the upper Santa Ana River Watershed. The data compiled will be shared with the Santa Ana Regional Water Quality Board as a sampling report of the PFAS concentrations, as well as an update on a past list of emerging constituents sampled in the watershed seven years ago.

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But, what are PFAS substances and what do they have to do with our water supply?

PFAS are fluorinated organic chemicals used to make items such as carpets, clothing, fabrics for furniture and paper packaging for food. Additionally, they were used for firefighting at airfields and in a number of industrial processes.  These chemicals are resistant to heat, water, and oil and have been used for decades in hundreds of industrial applications and consumer products. PFAS have been found both in the environment and in blood samples of the general U.S. population.

Although certain PFAS chemicals are no longer manufactured in the United States as a result of phase outs, they are still produced internationally and can be imported into the country in consumer goods. And, due to the prolonged use of PFOA and PFOS in many common consumer products, the chemicals have been known to enter the water cycle through conventionally treated wastewater discharges from sewage treatment facilities, landfills and locations where the substances were used outdoors.

Most people have been exposed to these chemicals through consumer products, but drinking water can be an additional source of exposure in communities where these chemicals have entered water supplies.  Research has shown that these chemicals don’t break down in the environment, can linger in the human body, and can lead to adverse health effects.

The EPA is working together to support states, tribes and local communities to address the environmental challenges of PFAS and identify solutions.

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Orange County Water District’s Proactive Testing of PFAS.

Orange County Water District’s (OCWD) forward-thinking team of early adopters began testing for PFAS in 2012. This testing of water from OCWD’s Groundwater Replenishment System (GRWS) showed then and continues to show now that the final water produced at the GWRS is non-detect for PFOA and PFOS.

From 2013-2015, OCWD also performed testing for Orange County groundwater retail agencies for Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule (UCMR) 3. PFOA and PFOS were among the six PFAS compounds on the UCMR 3 Contaminant List. The UCMR data serve as a primary source of occurrence and exposure information that EPA uses to develop regulatory decisions. After the completion of UCMR3, in May 2016 the EPA issued a new Health Advisory for lifetime exposure to PFOA and PFOS in drinking water set at a combined 70 nanograms per liter (ng/L).  A nanogram is also known as a “part-per-trillion” and one nanogram per liter is the equivalent of four grains of sugar dissolved in 26 Olympic-sized swimming pools. Based on preliminary information from EPA, 63 water suppliers in the United States detected PFOA and PFOS in their drinking water supplies. Twenty-six of these water systems are located in California. Water systems in Orange County heeded the advisory and only serve water that meets that threshold.

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The California Division of Drinking Water (DDW) sent monitoring orders in March 2019 to over 200 public water systems across the state to test for PFAS, including PFOA and PFOS; 12 systems in the Orange County Water District service area received such orders.  Earlier this year, OCWD’s Philip L. Anthony Water Quality Laboratory became the first public agency laboratory in California to achieve state certification to analyze for these compounds in drinking water. The first round of testing is expected to be completed in June and required notifications will be made to local government officials by July.  Additional testing will be conducted on a quarterly basis.  Wells were selected based on proximity to either landfills, municipal airports, or past detections of PFAS in wells during the UCMR 3 round of testing.  The data provided by this testing will help DDW determine state standards for PFOA and PFOS in drinking water.

In July 2018, DDW established interim Notification Levels and Response Levels for PFOA and PFOS. Results above these levels requires agencies to notify the governing body for the areas where the water has been served within 30 days of receiving the verifying test results.  State Notification Levels are set at 14 ng/L for PFOA and 13 ng/L for PFOS.  If the level of both PFOA and PFOS combined is 70 ng/L or above, DDW recommends the agency stop using the well. This is known as the Response Level.

“We continue to proactively monitor and protect our groundwater supply and look for ways to assist our regional water producers with opportunities to provide some of the cleanest drinking water in the world,” said OCWD’s Executive Director of Water Quality & Technical Resources, Jason Dadakis.  “The information available about PFAS and the technology for testing continues to improve.  OCWD is committed to staying current with changing technology for both detection and treatment.”
Next Steps for OCWD

Groundwater monitoring and public health are top priorities for OCWD, and the district continues to monitor and protect the groundwater supply through:

  • Assisting producers to comply with requirements from the Department of Drinking Water and EPA
  • Supporting water producers with notifications, testing and coordination as needed
  • Continuing to work with the Regional Water Quality Board and independent labs to further test to identify potential sources
  • Coordinating to monitor to define the extent of compounds in the groundwater basin and recharge water supplies
  • Pilot testing of remediation options
  • Communicating transparently and regularly with stakeholders

For more information about PFOA/PFOS or water quality testing, visit www.ocwd.com or contact your local water provider for information specific to your community.  Information is also available at www.epa.gov/pfas and www.waterboards.ca.gov/drinking_water/certlic/drinkingwater/PFOA_PFOS.