VUSD combats contaminated wells at Sycamore Valley Academy

The Sycamore Valley Academy’s main well scored high levels of nitrates in their 2021 water quality test, and now have until February 2025 to resolve the issue

VISALIA – During their quarterly water testing on a well at Sycamore Valley Academy, the Visalia Unified School District found high levels of nitrates in the water, causing them to get to work on water solutions this year.

When Visalia Unified School District (VUSD) found the high levels of nitrates in the school’s water, they were given until February 2025 to resolve the issue. VUSD’s consultant, Pueblo Water Resource, gave them four options to resolve the nitrate issue, but before they can start construction on these options, a well investigation is needed to see which option is most feasible. Once the investigation is complete, the school district will be able to break ground on a solution. The total cost for the investigation will be roughly $82,500, according to chief operations officer Erik Kehrer.

“Once we have the lab results and information from the well, we can determine if we can change the depth of intake water, or if a new well is needed in a different location onsite,” Kehrer said in a statement. “Our corrective Action Plan is to be in compliance by September of 2025.”

From January to September, Pueblo Water Resource, had been working through viable remedial options. The first would be to modify the existing well, the second option would be to dig an entirely new well, the third would be installing a new California Water Service line and the fourth would be installing an onsite filtration system. In September of 2022, Kehrer said VUSD received a report that contains each of these options, along with their potential cost estimates and overall rankings. This report was then sent off to the State of California Water Resource Control Board in October of that same year.

“In December, we tried to complete option one, but couldn’t meet the schedule due to the winter session,” Kehrer said. [The study] will begin on March 31, 2023, and continue over the weekend, over spring break and shall be completed on April 7.”

Until the problem is resolved, VUSD will be required to:

  • Implement quarterly sampling for nitrates and report the results to the SWRCB and to all water system customers on a monthly basis until the problem is corrected
  • Prepare and submit a Corrective Action Plan (CAP) to the state water board, outlining the steps that will be implemented in the mitigation of the problem
  • Implement the CAP and bring the water system into compliance with the states nitrate levels by Feb. 8, 2025

According to Pueblo Water Resource documents, option one would be the quickest solution, as well as the cheapest. Option 1 sits at about $50,000 in capital costs, and a little under $6,000 in annual operations. The study that will be conducted will see if this option is even feasible. The third and fourth options are by far the priciest, ranging from roughly $1 million in capital costs for water treatment and $3 million for annexation to the state water board.

The California State Water Resources Control Board found that high-levels of nitrate in water can not only cause kids and adults to become nauseous and sick, but it is hazardous to women who are pregnant as it cuts off oxygen to growing babies. The nitrates were not necessarily a natural occurrence, however, as Pueblo documents report that the contaminated well, Well 02, began developing high levels of nitrates after the previous well, Well 01, was destroyed in 2003.

The high levels of nitrates is a significant water quality issue, and Pueblo believes its occurrence is peculiar, according to their documents .Similar wells typically do not exceed nitrate levels. However, the Well 02 construction presents the possibility that the problem could be the result of this wells construction due to the lack of grouted annulus, which is the filling of any space or crack created between the soil or rock in the wells lining.

Sycamore Valley Academy (SVA) was constructed in 1961, and was originally named Packwood School. Well 01 was constructed to supply the domestic and irrigation needs of the school in 1961 and served the school’s domestic and irrigation needs for over 40 years. In 2003, Well 02 was constructed as Well 01’s replacement at the northeast corner of the parcel during a major redevelopment of the property.

Well 02 is currently the sole water supply for the school, and includes a combined domestic and firewater storage tank of approximately 50,000 gallon capacity. The well is operated by VUSD staff, where they monitor the water system performance, schedule and collect water samples for regulatory compliance, and schedule and perform routine and special maintenance on the system. The water system includes not only the 50,000 gallon tank, but also a domestic booster pump pressurization system and a fire water booster pump system. The irrigation, domestic and fire water uses are consolidated into a single system.

Pueblo’s review of SVA historical records indicate that the annual water use at the school is roughly 1.8 million gallons per year, varying from a low of 15,000-20,000 gallons per month in the winter periods, to a high of 350,000-400,000 gallons per month during the summer period.

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