Bakersfield water customers face rate increases to counter toxin

City of Bakersfield (shaded in lime green) water rates may go up within three months due to a toxic chemical known as 123 TCP. (Map: City of Bakersfield Water Purveyor)

The city of Bakersfield's water district may increase water bills by 16 percent by October and then down to 13 percent by July 2018, and 8 percent by July 2019.

"It will be a substantial rate increase. Our system is that big that you can't take a $54 million hit without a major rate increase," City Manager Alan Tandy said.

The rate increase is due to a toxin known as Triochloropropane or 1,2,3 TCP. The toxin was used as a soil fumigant over 50 years ago by Dow Chemical and Shell.

The pesticide was banned in the 1990s because there was evidence to support the chemical was harmful to humans. However, by that time the toxin had already seeped into the groundwater and into more than 400 water wells across the state. Kern County has over 150 infected wells, with 46 of those in the city's water district.

The State Water Board has been working to set a limit on how much of this toxic chemical can be in each well without causing danger to humans. That maximum contaminant level is expected to go through by next Monday. With this in place, water companies will have to start testing their wells for 1,2,3 TCP by January 2018, which means water companies will have to act fast and cleanse their wells of the toxic chemical in a small time frame.

"They're only giving us until January 1, 2018, to come into compliance, so we are being asked to do a $54 million project in six months. It's not very realistic," said Tandy.

The only way to get rid of the toxic chemical is through a process called "granulated activated carbon." Basically, this filter attaches to the contaminated particles, so by the time it flows to purveyor's homes the toxin is almost undetectable.

However, the price for this filter is expensive: almost $1 to $2 million per a well. Water companies are currently filing lawsuits against the companies responsible for the toxin, but the lawsuits are still pending, and recovery for costs could take many years.

"We believe we have a sound case, so there may be a chance for recovery, but the mandated implementation date is going to take place before recovery occurs," said Tandy.

Water companies are running on a tight deadline to fix all their wells, which is why they will have to increase water bills.

"We don't have any choice. We have to adjust the system to come into compliance, and we will do it," Tandy said. "It's just we haven't gotten much time to do it."

Next Wednesday, the water board will be meeting at the City Council to discuss this potential rate increase.

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