Santa Maria goes to LAFCO to provide clean drinking water to Bonita Elementary

Photo courtesy of Maggie White
CLEAN WATER: Santa Maria-Bonita School District’s Bonita Elementary is one step closer to connecting water pipelines to the city after receiving a citation indicating high levels of nitrates that make the school’s water unsafe for consumption. The city of Santa Maria aims to provide it with water services.

Bonita Elementary School students and staff are one step closer to drinking from campus water fountains again after the Santa Maria City Council approved an application to connect to the city’s water lines to the school during the June 4 meeting. 

“I want to make clear that the school does have clean drinking water available to them; this is just a permanent solution so that we don’t have to rely on the well water, which has proven to be challenging in maintaining,” Santa Maria-Bonita School District Maintenance and Operations Coordinator Javier Cavazos Jr. said during a Feb. 24 school board meeting, which discussed the project. “This is going to be clean water from the city of Santa Maria like our other schools have.” 

Bonita Elementary sits 3 miles outside the city’s boundaries and serves approximately 600 students and staff with a domestic water well on-site, according to the June 4 Santa Maria city staff report. Because the school is in an agricultural area, Santa Barbara County Environmental Health Services saw elevated levels of nitrates in groundwater, County Environmental Services Director Lars Seifert told the Sun. 

Nitrates are inorganic compounds containing nitrogen that can come from man-made or natural sources and are used to help with soil quality in agriculture, but they can cause cancer or thyroid disease for adults and issues for pregnant women and infants when ingested, according to previous Sun reporting. County Environmental Health Services is required by the state water board to regulate small water systems in the county to make sure they meet state Safe Drinking Water Act standards, including levels of nitrates, Seifert said 

Safe nitrate levels in drinking water are 10 parts per million or lower. Seifert said that Bonita Elementary’s results ranged above the maximum, with its most recent test in 2023 showing about 32 parts per million.

In 2017, the county issued the school a citation of noncompliance for exceeding maximum contaminant levels, and in 2018 the school added nitrate removal processes and filters. 

“What typically happens is they realize there’s variability in treatment and … look for alternatives because treatment can be expensive, and they have a population they want to make sure is safe,” he said. 

Bonita began providing bottled water to students and staff—while continuing to treat the water—and the district explored other options to ensure safe drinking water, Seifert said. In 2021, the Santa Maria-Bonita School District conducted a feasibility study that indicated connecting to the city’s water system was the best solution. 

Dana Eady, the city’s interim director of community development, told the Sun that the school district contacted the city this year to connect to the city’s water supply, which requires Santa Maria to process an out-of-agency service agreement with the Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO).

“These types of agreements are typically approved when there is a potential health and safety issue that will be remedied, such as the current situation with the water quality at the school,” Eady said. 

The district will be responsible for funding the project, including 8,100 linear feet of pipeline from Bonita Elementary to Santa Maria’s water system. Eady said that the district is seeking Drinking Water State Revolving Funds grants from the state Water Resources Control Board to help cover capital and start-up costs. 

Annaliese Torres, a senior environmental planner for Rincon Consultants—a consulting company helping the district with this project—told the school board during its Feb. 24 meeting that construction will take place between January 2025 and January 2026. 

Seifert added that Environmental Health Services will work with the city and the district to ensure that they are proceeding in a timely manner, but a compliance schedule isn’t necessary because “both parties are very excited about this opportunity.” 

“The funding process takes time, going to LAFCO and constructing a pipeline takes time, but the school is committed to making sure that safe drinking water standards are met,” Seifert said. “Long term, this ends up being a better alternative for the school not to have to be a water treatment system. They want to focus on education for the students.”  

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