PALM DESERT, Calif. - The Board of Supervisors voted unanimously Tuesday to oppose a plan by the California Department of Public Health to raise drinking water standards -- and consequently increase many Riverside County water customers' bills -- in order to reduce the amount of chromium-6 in aquifers.
``This is a very big problem looming for us,'' said Supervisor John Benoit. ``We're requesting that the state delay this and do further studies. It's noble to ensure the cleanest drinking water available. But this is a standard that's not applicable anywhere else in the nation.''
The health department is seeking to limit chromium-6 to 10 parts per billion in wells and reservoirs throughout the state. The agency is giving concerned parties until Oct. 11 to submit comments on the proposal, which if approved, would take effect immediately under regulations approved by the Legislature in 2004.
``There are a hundred different drinking water wells in the Coachella Valley. The average level of chromium-6 is 9 parts per billion. But it can range as high as 22 parts per billion,'' said Steve Bigley director of environmental services for the Coachella Valley Water District.
During an off-site board meeting in Palm Desert, Bigley explained that 10 parts per billion is equivalent to 10 drops of water or any other liquid source in a 10,000-gallon swimming pool.
Chromium-6, also known as hexavalent chromium, received notoriety in the film ``Erin Brockovich'' for its impact on the residents of Hinkley, Calif. In that case, carcinogenic levels turned up in drinking water as a result of industrial pollution.
However, according to Bigley, most of the chromium-6 uncovered in Coachella Valley aquifers can be traced to natural soil erosion at or near quake fault lines.
``Chromium is an essential component, a nutrient our body needs,'' said Supervisor Jeff Stone, a licensed pharmacist. ``Centuries ago, when we didn't have vitamins, people got chromium supplements from the water they drank. Ten parts per billion is practically nothing.''
According to Benoit, filtering out groundwater chromium-6 at the micron- level proposed by the state entails constructing treatment facilities that are expensive to build and operate -- costs that will have to be passed on to consumers.
The supervisor estimated the average Coachella Valley water customer could see his or her bill go up $500 a year if the new standards are put in place.
Supervisor Jeff Stone said water users in Idyllwild, where both high levels of chromium-6 and uranium have been found, could expect similar increases. Estimates for other parts of the county were not immediately available.
Benoit said the California Department of Public Health should undertake a more thorough cost-benefit analysis before moving toward implementation. State health officials have estimated the average ratepayer would only see a $64 spike in water costs -- a figure that ``severely underestimates the cost impacts to Coachella Valley" residents, Benoit said.
The board vote included a resolution that will be forwarded to the Department of Public Health, as well as a directive to state lobbyists to take up the county's cause with policymakers.