La Honda-Pescadero Unified School District officials are puzzled by the latest issue they’ve encountered with the water quality at Pescadero Middle and High School.

The State Water Resources Control Board’s Division of Drinking Water cited the school for going over the maximum allowable nitrate levels in samples tested in October 2015. Per state law, public water systems can’t exceed a contaminant level of 10 milligrams per liter for nitrates. Two samples taken a week apart came back with amounts of 15 mg/L and 11 mg/L, respectively. Testing conducted since then has not detected higher-than-allowed levels of nitrate at the school, according to La Honda-Pescadero Unified Superintendent Amy Wooliever.

While nitrate is a naturally occurring compound, high levels of the chemical in drinking water can pose health risks, particularly to infants and pregnant women. It can lead to methemoglobinemia, which occurs when red blood cells are unable to carry oxygen to the tissues of the body, according to the California Department of Public Health.

Water that exceeds the maximum contaminant level for nitrate can be used for bathing and showering, as well as washing produce if fruits and vegetables are blotted dry before consumption, according to the state Department of Public Health. It is not recommended for cooking.

Nitrates in groundwater are “generally associated with septic systems, confined animal feeding operations or fertilizer use,” according to the State Water Resources Control Board website. The school has its own well for potable water and acts as an independent water system, serving staff and students in grades six through 12.

Students, staff and visitors have been drinking bottled water in lieu of the school’s supply for more than a decade. The drinking fountains have been shut off since at least 1999; Wooliever says the faucets have never been on during her tenure, in part because the water had an unpleasant taste.

School water was being used for food preparation until the district got word of the citation in October; after that, staff switched to bottled water, Wooliever said.

In 2011, testing of the school’s water found that it had levels of copper and lead slightly above health standards. The district had months of clean tests for those contaminants, only to get word about the unpermitted nitrate levels in the fall, Wooliever says.

“We had two bad tests and since then we’ve been clear,” Wooliever said. “So we’re a little puzzled. We’ve never had nitrate issues.”

Nonetheless, the bad tests triggered the state to act. The citation gave the school district several directives. Besides mandating that the school’s water comply with the law, it called for the district to conduct monthly nitrate monitoring beginning in November 2015; it had been doing so every six months as required. The district was also required to put together a plan specifying possible methods and timelines for bringing the water system into compliance with the nitrate maximum contaminant level.

That plan was presented at a recent school board meeting and includes two possible courses of action. One would be for the school to be annexed into County Service Area 11, a two-well water system that provides water service in the town of Pescadero. The cost is unknown, but the district could pursue grants to help fund the endeavor. According to the timeline provided to the state, it would require working with the state, county and the San Mateo County Local Agency Formation Commission, as well as a ballot measure.

Joining CSA-11 would provide the high school with sustainable water quality, Wooliever said.

“We have an old well, so there could be more problems,” she said.

The other possible resolution would be for the district to install an ion exchange system, a water softener system and a tank, equipment that would cost $70,000 to purchase and install.

Either timeline would fix the problem by January 2017. The plan indicates that, as they progress through the steps in the timelines, La Honda-Pescadero Unified staff members will direct time and resources to the solution that emerges as the most manageable. Bottled water will continue to be provided for cooking and drinking.

“We have two different pathways we are starting to investigate and we have a long timeline,” Wooliever said. “We don’t have the answer about the quality of the water long term, but monthly testing will give us a good indication.”

If the monthly testing continues to return permissible nitrate amounts, it’s unclear whether the state will require the district to implement one of its proposed resolutions. Eric Lacy, a district engineer with the State Water Resources Control Board’s Division of Drinking Water, could not be reached for comment before Review deadlines.

“We’re in limbo. Do we correct something that doesn’t exist any longer?” Wooliever said. “We’re a small water system but we’re serving a lot of folks, so we want to make sure it’s properly monitored.”

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