State poised to order another investigation of water company.

More Scrutiny for Alco: Water Pressure: Salinas City Attorney Vanessa Vallarta argues against Alco expansion at an April 2 meeting.— Zachary Stahl

Alisal Water Corporation (Alco) will likely become the subject—once again—of a probe into its water quality. This time the Salinas company will meet the scrutiny of a state arbiter, instead of a federal judge.

The California Public Utilities Commission (PUC) is expected to initiate the investigation on April 12. Ultimately, the examination will conclude whether Alco is meeting customer demands.

Salinas, Monterey County and California Water Service Company want to stop Alco from serving about 7,500 homes in Salinas’ planned growth area. The jurisdictions criticize Alco for providing foul-smelling and corrosive water with weak pressure. Alco currently serves about 30,000 people in East Salinas. But despite the outcry from public officials, it appears Alco has successfully staked its claim on an additional 2,200 acres that will eventually be annexed.

Alco is meeting all California water quality standards, according to the state.

Fred Curry, chief of the PUC’s water branch, told a county and city subcommittee that the company can extend to the contiguous land, even without PUC approval. “There was really no way for the commission to do what they were asking us to do in the protests,” Curry told the Alco subcommittee on April 2.

The PUC is expected to approve Alco’s service map to include the eastern portion of the city’s future growth area. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it will serve those homeowners. Curry said a developer typically chooses the water provider, and it’s not too late for the City or another utility to step in.

• • •

Scrutiny is nothing new to Alisal Water. It’s still managing the fallout of a 10-year federal prosecution that stripped away its ownership of eight Monterey County water systems.

In 2002, US District Court Judge Jeremy Fogel ruled that Alisal Water and its owners, the Adcock family, were liable for falsifying lab reports in the early ‘90s and neglecting to test water for lead and copper. Fogel appointed a receiver to operate and sell off all of the small water companies owned by the Adcocks.

Fogel allowed the Adcocks to keep their largest system, Alco, but only if it made improvements. Engineers recommended a host of upgrades to the East Salinas system, including repairing wells and installing new pipes.

John Richardson, the court-appointed receiver, initially monitored Alco’s improvements and said the water company followed through on the upgrades. Alco says it has completed the court-ordered enhancements to date.

Alco is meeting all California water quality standards, according to the state Department of Health Services. An independent firm regularly collects water samples, which are then tested by state-certified labs. Alco’s last violation was in 2004 for “failure to monitor and report synthetic organic chemicals and hydroxide alkalinity.”

Three of Alco’s wells are on “standby,” however, because of arsenic levels that exceed the Environmental Protection Agency’s maximum concentration of 10 parts per billion.

Alco says it stopped using the wells the same time that the EPA regulations went into effect in January 2006. “We have not sent any water to our customers whatsoever that was above the new level of arsenic,” says Tom Adcock, Alco vice president.

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He says the latest samples came back with levels of arsenic at 17, 22, and 21 parts per billion. These levels are below the EPA’s old standards and in compliance with the state’s maximum concentration of 50 parts per billion.

When the Bush Administration approved the new EPA standards in 2001, environmental organizations pushed for a stricter arsenic standard of three parts per billion. Those who ingest the chemical for a long period are more susceptible to developing cancer and may experience discoloration of skin and partial paralysis.

Adcock says the arsenic in Alco’s wells is naturally occurring. In its organic form the toxic chemical enters groundwater through rocks and soil.

Adcock says the plan is to blend the tainted well water with other sources that have lower concentrations of arsenic so that the water won’t exceed the federal standards. Alco wants to do the mixing at the site of a planned 5-million-gallon storage tank, which the company wants to build in the future growth area.  

But before that can happen Alco has to prove that it is adequately serving its East Salinas customers. 

THE WEEKLY TALLY 5
The equivalent number of times the average person walks around the Earth over the course of their lifetime. April is National Foot Health Awareness Month. Source: California Podiatric Medical Association.

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