BL Special Report

BL Special Report: Grant gives neighborhoods hope for drinkable water

Wells are contaminated with arsenic, manganese and E. coli.  

Three Hollister neighborhoods frustrated beyond reason will receive $2.2 million to improve their water quality. Heatherwood Estates, Fox Hills and Fischer Subdivisions have spent years and a lot of accumulated costs just trying to have safer water. Experts say the project to improve the water quality will take less than two years.

At times, according to Barbara Taddeo, water comes out of faucets black. Photo courtesy of Barbara Taddeo.

A Nov. 29 news release issued by the Department of Water Resources, stated: “In San Benito County, the Best Roads Mutual Water Company [BRMWC] is relying on bottled water for customers after its two wells serving communities failed due to water quality and water supply issues. The company will receive $2.2 million to construct a new water tank and consolidate the water system with the Sunnyslope Water District.”

Barbara Taddeo has lived in Heatherwood Estates for 17 years. Built in 1995, there are 48 homes in Heatherwood Estates and the nearby Fox Hill and Fischer subdivisions, which are rural horse properties and depend on two 300-foot-deep wells for water. They are located on the west side of John Smith Road, less than a mile downhill from the John Smith Landfill.

Taddeo and her neighbors have not been able to drink the water without boiling it since receiving a September 2022 notice to “boil your water before using.” Well 01 has been shut down and Well 02 was contaminated with E. coli, not to mention higher than normal levels of arsenic, according to BRMWC, a nonprofit mutual benefit corporation that serves the three communities. 

Aside from high levels of arsenic, there’s also manganese and chlorine that was added to kill the E. coli. The water is not only undrinkable, Taddeo said, but it smells “sometimes like sulfur.” And at times it’s black, she said, adding that contaminants have killed most of her flowers, vegetables, fruit trees, and possibly sickened her two horses.

Barbara Taddeo’s home was surrounded by roses, vegetables and fruit trees. All are dying, she believes from the water. Photo by John Chadwell.

John and Maryellen Basanese lived in Heatherwood Estates from 2002 to 2014. John Basanese said he has always suspected but could not prove that contamination came from the landfill. On more than one occasion, he said his family had to boil the water and even installed a charcoal filter for the entire house. He said water flowed continuously in a ditch beside John Smith Road from the landfill. That ditch runs directly alongside the wells.

“The water went through our property into a percolation pond where the Heatherwood wells are located,” Basanese said. “During heavy rains, the pond filled up. We were concerned about this water because it came from the landfill.”

The July 2022 draft environmental impact report hydrology study for the landfill expansion project confirms that discharge water had been released for a number of years to the drainage ditch offsite and ran along John Smith Road. In 2020 a stormwater basin was installed near the southeastern portion of the existing landfill, immediately north of John Smith Road.

BenitoLink has been studying the BRMWC reports, which are extensive. Drew Lander, general manager of Sunnyslope Water District, said all wells serving communities, but not private wells, are tested annually for a wide spectrum of contaminants and there would be an indication if any landfill contaminants were there. 

Basanese worked as a professional gardener for over 30 years, yet he found it almost impossible to grow anything on his property.

“Our fruit trees did very poorly with that water,” he said.

Despite continued effort on her part, Taddeo told BenitoLink that Supervisor Bob Tiffany and Assemblyman Robert Rivas have shown little concern. However, Tiffany’s and Rivas’s representatives said they did attend one meeting with BRMWC. Lander said funding became available through the efforts of Rivas’ office, the Wallace Group representing BRMWC, and the state water board.

“All anyone talks about is Flint, Michigan,” Taddeo said, referring to the 2014 water crisis where officials repeatedly dismissed claims that Flint’s water was making people sick. She resents the fact that Bay Area and Monterey County media have paid no attention to what is happening just one county away.

If natural heavy metals, like arsenic and manganese weren’t enough, BRMWC informed customers in a Sept. 22 notice that they had to boil their water because E. coli bacteria were found in Well 02 beginning July 11, 2022, and continued to be found on and off until August 22. Heavy metals are commonly found in the aquifer that underlies not only the Best Road wells but Sunnyslope Water District wells, as well as the John Smith Landfill. But E. coli and coliform have only been detected in the Best Road wells. Both forms of bacteria are found in the feces of warm-blooded animals. Iron bacteria has also been detected. 

The notice was vague and only speculated on how the well was contaminated with E. coli. Russ Hatch, owner of CSI Water Systems Management in Carmel Valley, which tests the water every month, said E. coli is found everywhere in the soil. He said someone who was conducting maintenance on the wellhead most likely cross-contaminated it rather than it being contaminated by seepage through the soil into the well. He said the E. coli was detected once and chlorinated. He said the E. coli was not tested to determine the species it came from.

However, as far back as the BRMWC annual Consumer Report filed May 14, 2015, both wells were considered most vulnerable to low-density septic systems. This activity was associated with the contaminant nitrate, which has been detected in the water supply.

On Oct. 12, BRMWC warned customers that the system had violated a drinking water standard pertaining to arsenic levels. The warning stated there was no emergency and there was no need to find alternative water sources, such as bottled water. The company said it was informing customers only because they were required to do so. But they were also required to advise customers what they should do.

Nonetheless, both Julian Rogers, president of the water company, and Greg Bluhm, vice president, told BenitoLink they are using bottled water themselves. As recently as October 2022, they told customers that BRMWC was actively working with the State Water Resources Control Board Division of Drinking Water, Monterey District and anticipated resolving the problem “within the next couple of years.”

The warning also cautioned, “If you have other health issues concerning the consumption of this water, you may wish to consult your doctor.” 

According to a U.S. Geologic Service report titled “Arsenic and Drinking Water,” long-term exposure to arsenic can cause cancer. 

“Arsenic occurs naturally as a trace component in many rocks and sediments,” the report stated. “Whether the arsenic is released from these geologic sources into groundwater depends on the chemical form of the arsenic, the geochemical conditions in the aquifer, and the biogeochemical processes that occur. Arsenic also can be released into groundwater as a result of human activities, such as mining, and from its various uses in industry, in animal feed, as a wood preservative, and as a pesticide. In drinking-water supplies, arsenic poses a problem because it is toxic at low levels and is a known carcinogen.”

Barbara Taddeo lives alone, is in poor health and has not been able to drink the water from the wells for months. Photo by John Chadwell.

Taddeo is 75 years old, and her immune system is compromised. She fears for her health and has refused to drink the water. She has been drinking and cooking with bottled water ever since the boil water warning was issued. She has had little choice, though, but to bathe in water that often smells of sulfur and chlorine, and she says at times it comes out of the faucets black. She added her fingernails and even the shower tiles are stained brown.

County Supervisor Tiffany told BenitoLink that even though the neighborhood is in his district, and he has been trying to help out, the county has no jurisdiction there because it is served by a private water company and is a county services area or CSA.

“As a supervisor of the district involved, what I can do is play an active role in convening meetings with all the key players to see if it will help both short- and long-term solutions,” he said in mid-November. “That’s what I’ve been doing for Best Water, and Dominic Dursa from [Robert] Rivas’ office is assisting from the state standpoint.”

Dursa, when asked for a comment from Rivas, gave no information and referred BenitoLink back to the water company. At the time, Tiffany said one day it may be possible for the neighborhoods to connect to the Sunnyslope Water District.

“The question is, what if the water is dangerous?” he said. “Is it dangerous? Do we know that? I don’t know.”

Lander, with Sunnyslope Water District, told BenitoLink he did not have any first-hand knowledge about the condition of the aquifer directly beneath the community, but it is the same aquifer that Sunnyslope’s wells are tapped into. 

The three neighborhoods are down hill from the John Smith Landfill. Google Earth photo.

Prior to the announcement of the grant, Lander added that there would be constraints to connecting to the community, which is outside of the water zones managed by San Benito County Water District. He said even though the two water districts use the same aquifer, Sunnyslope Water District is much more regulated, and therefore treated for these minerals. If the community were to connect to Sunnyslope they would be getting the same water but of a much higher quality.

Lander said BRMWC worked through the Wallace Group with Assemblyman Robert Rivas’ office and the San Benito County Water District, as well as the state water board on a feasibility study on how to connect with Sunnyslope Water District. He said the water board wanted the connection to take place “sooner rather than later.” Because of ongoing issues with the Fairview Corner location between Gavilan College and Hollister, it was decided to go with a pipe directly up John Smith Road to the wells.

He said now that the funding has been identified, the connection can take place within the next two years. He also said because the pipe would run down John Smith Road there will most likely be no need for an environmental impact study.

“They’ll turn off their wells and use our well,” Lander said. “We will be using what we call Well 5, and then we will be adding Well 8 to it,” Lander said. “Both of these wells are clean water and require no treatment. We add some chlorine residual so that the water remains safe through long distribution lines. But other than that, we will be providing direct well water. 

For Taddeo and her neighbors, two years is a long time to wait while drinking bottled water. The water coming out of the faucets and her shower is discolored and smells bad. She is still concerned about her horses’ health, not to mention disturbed that all of her roses and fruit trees have died. 

“I used to donate 300 pounds of squash every year to the food bank,” she said. “I can’t even grow any now.  Do you mean I have to put up with polluted water for two more years?  How many health issues do I have to put up with?”

 

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John Chadwell

John Chadwell is a freelance photojournalist. He has many years' experiences as a photojournalist, copywriter, ghostwriter, scriptwriter, and novelist. He is a former U.S. Navy Combat Photojournalist and is an award-winning writer, having worked for magazine, newspapers, radio and television. He has a BA in Journalism and Mass Communications from Chapman University and graduate studies at USC Cinema School. John worked as a scriptwriting consultant, and his own script, "God's Club," was produced and released in 2016. He has also written eight novels, ranging from science fiction to true crime, which are sold on Amazon. To contact John Chadwell, send an email to: [email protected]