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One of America's hottest cities is down to one water well. What happens if the taps go dry?

Ralph Vartabedian, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

Daniels said he complained about the list of requirements in the citation, and shortly after, the board issued a revised citation that moved the corrective action plan deadline to the end of 2021. Zúñiga, the water board engineer, said the original date was a typographical error and had nothing to do with comments from the city.

Manganese, not to be confused with magnesium, is a metal abundant in the Earth’s crust. At low levels, it is an essential nutrient for humans, but at elevated levels it poses undefined risks. The state established a maximum allowable level, citing “aesthetic” issues with high concentrations, which stain clothes, sinks and stucco. It also leaves water with a bitter taste. Iron was another aesthetic problem in the wells, but it is generally not high enough to be harmful.

Water toxicologists say there is growing evidence that at higher concentrations manganese can cause neurological disorders, particularly in young children.

“We are moving toward a regulated level,” said Donald Smith, a recognized national expert on manganese and a toxicology professor at UC Santa Cruz. “It is unclear whether a level of 50 micrograms per liter causes neurological effects. My professional opinion is that there is reason to be concerned. We don’t know what level is safe and what level is unsafe.”

California may be the only state to regulate manganese. Minnesota has a guidance limit of 100 micrograms per liter, twice California’s level. Zúñiga said he is not aware of any other states that regulate the metal.

Janice Paget, a board member of the Needles Chamber of Commerce, said most people in town aren’t aware of the manganese issue.

“I don’t even know what kind of side effect it causes,” she said.

 

Cost is a more common complaint, Paget said, noting that she and her husband, the only surgeon in Needles, had a water bill of $174 in June.

Drilling a new well would be one solution for Needles. The city hired a hydrologist who identified a site unlikely to be contaminated.

But the city doesn’t have the roughly $1.5 million needed to dig the well, Daniels said. As it is, utility customers are more than $300,000 behind on their bills.

“Our disadvantaged residents,” he said, “can’t afford a water rate increase.”

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