Environment / Nature

BL Special Report: San Juan Bautista’s water problems reaching critical mass

City facing substantial fine for its continued inability to process large amounts of pollutants discharged into the Pajaro River, which then enter waterways that empty into Monterey Bay.
Location of City Well #1. Photo courtesy of Google Maps.
City Well #1. Photo by Robert Eliason.
City Well #2. Photo by Robert Eliason.
Location of Pellet Plant and City Well #2. Photo courtesy of Google Maps.
City Well #2. Photo by Robert Eliason.
The Pellet Plant. Photo by Robert Eliason.
Site of capped City Well #3. Photo by Robert Eliason

This article is part one of a series of articles that resulted from BenitoLink’s investigation into San Juan Bautista’s water status.

San Juan Bautista’s water problems hit a critical impasse in March when the State of California imposed a substantial fine on the city for its continued inability to process large amounts of pollutants that it discharges into the Pajaro River, which then enter waterways that empty into Monterey Bay.

The amount of the fine is not public record. Thea Tryon, an enforcement director with the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board, said the letter was confidential because it is a pending enforcement action. BenitoLink’s request to the city for a copy of the letter has been denied on the same basis. San Juan Bautista City Councilman John Freeman would only describe the number as “very large fine.” At a June 30 meeting, Councilman Cesar Flores said the city faced around $800,000 in penalties.

While the specific number is unavailable, Tryon pointed out that the minimum fine for a violation is $3,000 per offense, with penalties for more serious violations going up to $10,000 per offense. Using that as a guide, and with information about previous fines, BenitoLink has come to an approximate minimum figure of $820,000.

But that does not reflect the amount the city would have to pay, assuming it would pay anything at all. 

Both Tryon and San Juan City Manager Don Reynolds stress that the amount of the fine is under negotiation and that any penalties imposed would most likely be rolled into the cost of any solution. 

“It makes no sense to fine a small community on top of the cost of fixing the problem,” Reynolds said. “It is all part of negotiating a settlement.”

The water problem dates back to June 2006, when the State Water Board issued a citation for high chloride counts found in the water being discharged from the wastewater treatment plant.

Chlorides as a pollutant are limited to 200 milligrams per liter (mg/L). The measurements that resulted in the citation are not on the state website, but measurements from September 2006 indicate a chloride level of 276 mg/L.

The city has been cited frequently since 2006, most often for excessive levels of pollutants and coliforms, a form of bacteria that comes from biological waste. A search of the records since 2006 reveals 328 violations, including 140 chloride violations, 21 sodium violations, three ammonia violations, 128 coliform violations, and 25 “suspended/dissolved solid” violations, which are the result of sludge from processing.

Water hard and soft

San Juan’s water problems stem from the hardness of its well water. Water hardness is gauged in milligrams per liter of calcium carbonate (CaCO3). Soft water ranges from 0–60 mg/L of CaCO3 with moderately hard water ranging from 61-120 mg/L and hard water ranging from 121 to 180 mg/L.  

Water softeners found throughout the city treat the hard water with a process involving salt.  Some of the salt ends up in the water, but most of it is discharged as brine when the softener regenerates. This results in high levels of sodium and chlorides which are then passed on to wastewater, creating pollution problems at the sewage plant. Solving the water softener problem has been at the heart of the debate since the first citation.

San Juan’s original water source was a spring in the hills above the city, located near 1783 San Juan Canyon Road, which the city still owns. That source of water is still part of what is drawn from what is known as City Well #1.

As demand grew, the city began acquiring wells. Prior to 2018, there were two more, designated as City Well #2 and City Well #3. But the city still drew most of its water from City Well #1, located on the Alameda near Old San Juan Hollister Road.

Lloyd Bracewell, who oversaw the city’s water for 30 years until 2018, said City Well #3 was deemed unusable. 

“Well 3 has always had a nitrate problem, a serious one,” Bracewell said. “Unless a nitrate treatment plant was built, you really could not use it for drinking water.” The well is on the site of a small park on the Copperleaf development property.

All the water from the city wells straddles the “moderately hard” and “hard” designations. An April 9 report measured the calcium carbonate level at City Well #1 as 110-150 mg/L.  

Under normal circumstances, the water production from City Well #1 is sufficient for the city’s uses. However, that changes as the year progresses. As flow diminishes, it is supplemented with water from City Well #2 located on Old San Juan Hollister Road. 

On a recent tour of the wells, George Dias, who served on the San Juan Bautista City Council from 2004-2008, said, “Well 1 is a good well, but it cavitates towards the end of summer. It’s old and it sucks air.”

Cavitation is when rapid changes in water pressure lead to the creation of air pockets in areas of low pressure. There is a loss of efficiency, which can result in damage to the pump.

Drawing water from City Well #2, a very productive well, to supplement City Well #1 creates a new problem. Because of ground pollution causes City Well #2 to run high in nitrates, which on several occasions, starting in 2015, resulted in “Do Not Drink” orders being issued by the State Water Resources Control Board.

Residents were warned by the city that high levels of nitrates made the water unsafe for drinking by the very young, pregnant women, and seniors. At-risk residents were forced to switch to bottled water or water made available at the fire station. Restaurants in town were unable to provide tap water for drinking and needed to bring in water from outside sources to use in cooking.

“Well 2 was used for a long time until a few years ago,” Bracewell said. “The assumption is that the nitrate problem came from fertilizer from the agricultural fields around it.”

Both Bracewell and Dias both primarily blame ammonium nitrate used in fertilizers for the pollution. When interviewed by BenitoLink, Dias suggested that leaking septic tanks might also contribute to the problem, an idea Bracewell discounts.

“There is no other known source of nitrate in that area,” Bracewell said. He thinks drought is another reason it is not dispersing, saying “there is no dilution of the nitrates without the groundwater.”

The nitrate problem may have been fixed by simply running water through the well.

According to Dias, “Bracewell told us that if we used the well, eventually the nitrates will start to dissipate. It’s not going to happen overnight, we all know that. But we let one of the farmers use the water.”

The plan to flush nitrates out of the system by letting the farmer use the well ended when a new well for that farm was put into use. Since then, the city has not tried any other plan to flush the well.

Determining the fix 

At this point, San Juan was faced with two problems. The first was not having enough consistently safe drinkable water; the second was excess pollutants going into the wastewater through water softeners, resulting in violations and fines from the State Water Board.

“The city decided rather than fixing the problem at the sewer, they would fix the water coming in, which should eliminate the water softeners and the salt going out,” Dias said.

One plan was to bring in extra water from the San Luis Reservoir via the San Felipe Project. The capped line leading from that water source can be seen in a field across the road from City Well #2, at the corner of Mission Vineyard and Old San Juan Hollister roads. 

According to Dias, the water from the San Felipe Project is softer than the water from the existing wells and would not require the use of water softeners in the city, solving the chloride and sodium pollutant problem. However, this imported water would still have to be treated before it could be used by the city, with a plant most likely built near City Well #2.

“We were in negotiations with the water district for a loan to build a filtration plant,” Dias said. “It would only work on imported water, not well water. That was fine because we had plenty of water coming in from the San Felipe Project that we could use.”

Ultimately, in 2008, the San Felipe water option was put aside when the city came across another possible solution: purchasing and installing a water softening system called a “Pellet Plant.” And that is when things started to go very wrong.


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Robert Eliason

I got my start as a photographer when my dad stuck a camera in my hand on the evening of my First Grade Open House. He taught me to observe, empathize, then finally compose the shot.  The editors at BenitoLink first approached me as a photographer. They were the ones to encourage me to write stories about things that interest me, turning me into a reporter as well.  BenitoLink is a great creative family that cares deeply about the San Benito community and I have been pleased to be a part of it.