SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) – Traversing through the snowcapped Sierra Nevada, the American River gushes downstream over 100 miles before draining into the Sacramento River – one of the nation’s longest. Renowned as the site of California’s Gold Rush, the American is a critical component of the Golden State’s most vital but dwindling resource: water.
The American and a host of other rivers are largely responsible for quenching the thirst of nearly 40 million Californians and the health of the most fertile and lucrative agricultural region in the United States. But the river systems and groundwater supplies have borne the brunt of California’s exponential growth over the last several decades.
After centuries of human impact, outdated wastewater technology and overuse, California’s rivers harbor a dirty secret.
On an overcast Saturday morning, nearly 300 volunteers and aspiring environmentalists gathered near the American River in Sacramento to give a 20-mile stretch of the river a spring cleaning. Event coordinators handed out trash bags and directed volunteers to hike through the parkway in search of trash and abandoned homeless camps scattered in the foliage along the banks.
“Please don’t go into active camps, be aware of needles and avoid rubbing your eyes out there,” coordinators with the American River Parkway Foundation repeated to first-time volunteers.
Just five miles from the state Capitol, the urban stretch of river is a hotspot for the region’s growing homeless population. According to Sacramento County’s most recent data, nearly 2,700 homeless individuals were counted on a single night in 2015.
Makeshift camps and temporary structures dot the American River’s banks near its confluence with the Sacramento River in downtown Sacramento. The volunteers, consisting of local families, students and environmentalists, collected over 4,400 pounds of trash from the river and its banks in just a three-hour span.
“Oh God, we’ve found the mother lode,” shouted volunteer Rick Codina of Sacramento.
Codina had wandered into a recently vacated camp under a grove of thick trees and roots that was littered with empty food containers and old clothing. Ashes smoldered inside the makeshift lean-to’s fire pit as Codina quickly filled up two 13-gallon trash bags.
“The homeless situation has really gotten worse,” Codina, who has used the parkway for recreation for over 30 years, said.
The foundation holds monthly American River cleanups and two larger events each year. The goal is to improve conditions for the river’s wildlife, protect water quality and instill conservation practices in young people. The cleanups are funded largely through donations with minor contributions from the city and county, according to parkway volunteer coordinator Jordan Powell.
Powell said people living outside of Northern California “might be surprised” to learn that volunteers regularly pull thousands of pounds of trash from one of the California’s cleanest and most scenic rivers.
“We struggle with the same problems as other states,” Powell said. “Litter is a nationwide issue.”
Last year, state lawmakers passed a bill that would make the American River Parkway eligible for more conservation funding. Over the last several years, the parkway has been plagued by not just trash from illegal camps, but grass fires sparked by arsonists.
Assemblyman Kevin McCarty called the parkway “the jewel” of Sacramento.
“This new program will assist us in ensuring that we can continue to improve access, while at the same time protecting this natural resource and preserve the surrounding habitat for future generations,” McCarty, a Democrat representing Sacramento, said after his bill was signed by Gov. Jerry Brown.
California is home to some of the world’s most advanced and ambitious water-transportation projects. Projects like the Central Valley Project and the California State Water Project funnel supplies from water-rich Northern California through dozens of reservoirs and aqueducts to the state’s southern coastal cities and farming regions. The engineering feats have allowed metropolises and billion-dollar farming operations to exist in areas that traditionally receive very little rainfall.
Yet whether the water derives from the Sacramento River’s headwaters near Mount Shasta or is pumped from ancient aquifers, the final product sold to households and farmers often contains a smorgasbord of contaminants.
“There’s a whole range of pesticides, fertilizers, nutrients from animal runoff, pharmaceuticals and personal-care products and a variety of industrial chemicals. We can find all of those in our surface waters in California,” said Jeff Foran, chair of the environmental studies department at California State University, Sacramento.
Foran’s own employer is currently renovating its drinking fountains after tests revealed lead levels that exceeded federal standards. The university is providing students with free blood testing while it updates water fixtures and installs new filters.
Contaminated drinking water has become a hot topic in the wake of the Flint, Michigan, drinking water disaster, as municipalities struggle to convince residents that tap water is safe for consumption.
Vacaville, a city of 92,000 located 55 miles northeast of San Francisco, is fighting a federal lawsuit over its contaminated groundwater. Tests have revealed that five of the city’s 11 groundwater wells exceed a new state standard for chromium 6, the carcinogen that led to multiple lawsuits documented in the film “Erin Brockovich.”
Overall, California’s drinking water quality is one of the worst in the nation, according to a recent Natural Resources Defense Council report. The study ranked California eighth based on Safe Drinking Water Act violations after states such as Texas, Florida and Washington state.
Experts have urged lawmakers to increase spending on improving water infrastructure to protect public health. Foran said most of the state’s wastewater and drinking-water facilities were built in the 1960s and 1970s and are in need of a remodel.
California’s infrastructure woes are a part of a growing trend: a recent report by the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the United States a D+ grade for water infrastructure.
“The state should be very aggressive in funding wastewater treatment facilities,” Foran said. “Those funds have really declined and the infrastructure has not kept up with technology, so they are not doing the treatment that they could be or should be doing.”
As record amounts of rainfall slammed Northern California this winter, a wastewater plant located in the rolling hills of Napa County overflowed. With its storage ponds brimming with a mixture of stormwater and sewage, the Lake Berryessa Resort Improvement District released 6 million gallons of partly treated wastewater into nearby streams and fields as a release valve. The sewage spills likely trickled into tributaries that provide drinking water for the nearby cities of Vacaville and Vallejo.
“The wastewater flowed to surface water. In addition, the report states that due to intense precipitation during January and early to mid-February the controlled discharge was necessary to lower the pond levels and prevent potential overtopping of the pond berm,” the incident report states.
The small district, which services approximately 160 homes, had increased its holding capacity prior to the storms but blamed the spills on aging infrastructure and a lack of state funding. Regulators have not yet announced fines for the district.
While water districts and wastewater plants struggle to scrape up renovation funding, the state pushes forward with a $15.7 billion proposed makeover of the largest estuary on the West Coast.
The California WaterFix will create twin tunnels under the state’s vital Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, which acts a water-holding bank for suppliers across the state. Planners say the tunnels will protect California’s aging water infrastructure from earthquakes and help deliver water to farmers and Southern California more efficiently by diverting water underneath and around the 1,100-square mile delta.
If approved by the federal government, environmentalists warn the project could be the fatal blow to the lifeline of California’s already ailing water system.
Regardless of whether the federal government approves the contentious plan, the future of California’s water supply is murky at best.
“With the overuse and eventual death of Northern California rivers, California will also lose the San Francisco Bay-Delta, our fisheries, our source waters, drinking water reliability for Northern Californians and ultimately California’s economy,” said Barbara Barrigan-Parilla, executive director of Restore the Delta.