President’s Message ― OCWD Takes Proactive Approach to Address PFAS in Drinking Water

Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) are chemicals of emerging concern prevalent in the environment that were commonly used in many consumer products including carpet, clothing, fabrics for furniture, paper packaging for food, and other materials (e.g., cookware) that are resistant to water, grease or stains. They are also used for firefighting at airfields and in industrial processes. PFOA and PFOS are two of the more than 4,000 per - and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), a group of synthetic chemicals that have been in use since the 1940s. PFOA and PFOS are no longer used in the United States but are still produced elsewhere in the world.

Humans have been exposed to these chemicals for decades through consumer products. Drinking water is only one source of potential exposure.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) established lifetime advisories for PFOA and PFOS and the California Division of Drinking Water (DDW) established notification levels for PFOS and PFOA, as well as a single health advisory response level.

As enforceable regulations are pending at the state and federal levels, the Orange County Water District (OCWD; the District) has been proactive in testing for PFOA and PFOS. We are currently working with the Regional Water Quality Control Board and the Santa Ana Watershed Project Authority to identify and control potential sources of PFAS in the watershed and will soon begin pilot testing potential treatment techniques for removal of PFAS in groundwater. We will also initiate a planning study with impacted water retailers, which are part of the OCWD PFAS taskforce, to assess the feasibility of treatment for individual retailers served by the District.

Look, this is a complex issue and the District is doing everything it can to stay ahead of the issue and respond to it. There is a lot to this, folks, and I would like to share a brief history of PFOA and PFOS, so that you understand the complete picture.

2009: EPA issued provisional health advisories for PFOA and PFOS of 400 parts per trillion (ppt) and 200 ppt, respectively. Health advisories are non-enforceable drinking water levels that are intended to provide technical guidance to state regulators and public health officials. These health advisories were based on the evidence available at the time. Over the past decade, the application of newer and more sensitive analytical laboratory technology revealed widespread occurrence of PFOA and PFOS in the environment.

2013-2015: The District’s Philip L. Anthony Water Quality Laboratory performed testing as part of the EPA-required Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule (UCMR) 3 program. OCWD’s lab is one of only three public agency labs in the nation to provide full chemical analyses for UCMR3. PFOA and PFOS were on the UCMR3 list of compounds to test. Testing results revealed PFOA and PFOS detections in some water systems’ drinking water wells and were provided to the impacted water retailers, EPA and DDW. UCMR data is a primary source of occurrence and exposure information that supports the development of EPA regulations.

May 2016: The EPA issued a new health advisory for lifetime exposure to PFOA and PFOS in drinking water set at a combined 70 ppt to provide Americans, including the most sensitive populations, with a margin of protection from a lifetime of exposure. Immediately, three retailers within OCWD’s service area with UCMR3 results above the EPA lifetime health advisory took measures to avoid serving water above this guidance value.

July 2018: The DDW established interim drinking water Notification Levels (NL) and Response Levels (RL) for PFOA and PFOS. The NL for PFOA is 14ppt and for PFOS is 13 ppt. The RL for PFOA and PFOS is a total concentration of 70 ppt for both contaminants. Results above the NL require agencies to notify the governing body of the areas where the water has been served within 30 days of receiving the verifying test results. If the RL is exceeded in drinking water provided to consumers, DDW recommends that the water agency remove the water source from service.

February 2019: OCWD’s Philip L. Anthony Water Quality Laboratory became the first public agency laboratory in California to achieve state certification to analyze for PFAS in drinking water. OCWD has invested more than $1 million in equipment to support the lab in performing this analysis.

March 2019: DDW sent monitoring orders to 209 public water systems across the state to test for PFAS such as PFOA and PFOS, including 12 in OCWD’s service area. Wells were selected based on proximity to either landfills, municipal airports or past detections of PFAS in wells.  

Where are we today? OCWD has completed the first quarter monitoring on behalf of the local water retailers it serves who received DDW monitoring orders. There are nine retailers with one or more initial monitoring order results greater than DDW NLs for PFOA and PFOS and all have notified their governing bodies, as required by statute. DDW has stated it will soon be reducing the NLs and RLs. OCWD is assessing the impact that lowers levels would have on water systems within its service area.

OCWD is committed to water quality and will continue to assist local water retailers to ensure that their drinking water meets requirements for PFOA and PFOS established by the EPA and DDW. It will also continue to collaborate on this critical issue and engage legislators and elected and appointed officials who are working to set regulatory levels on these compounds.

Earlier this month, General Manager Mike Markus, General Manager of Santa Clarita Valley Water Agency Matt Stone and I met with Secretary of Cal EPA Jared Blumenfeld, Deputy Director of the Division of Drinking Water Darrin Polhemus, and Director of the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment Dr. Lauren Zeise to discuss the state process of setting notification levels, response levels and maximum contaminant levels for PFAS and other contaminants of emerging concern.  The discussion was positive—opening the door for continued dialogue and transparency as the state addresses this important issue.

The District tests water from about 1,500 locations throughout the Orange County Groundwater Basin, taking more than 20,000 samples and conducting 400,000 analyses of these samples each year. OCWD and the water retailers it serves provide some of the cleanest drinking water in the world and we plan to keep it that way. We did not create this problem, but we will be a part of its solution.

Vicente Sarmiento, Esq.