U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works
Field Hearing on MTBE and Impacts on Water Supply
December 9, 1997, Sacramento, California
Testimony of Stephen K. Hall
Executive Director, Association of California Water Agencies (ACWA)

Senator Boxer and Members of the committee, thank you for providing me an opportunity to submit this statement on behalf of the Association of California Water Agencies (ACWA) regarding methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE) and its impact on California water suppliers.

ACWA's 437 public water agency members collectively manage and deliver 90% of the urban and agricultural water used in the state. Over 30 million Californians rely on ACWA members to provide a safe and reliable supply of drinking water to their homes, schools and businesses. Every time they turn on the tap, they are trusting our members to provide an adequate supply of healthful water at a cost they can afford.

Public water agencies have worked hard to earn and maintain that trust. In fact, our members believe that consumers should never have to think twice about the quality of their drinking water.

The job our members do has never been easy, given California's unpredictable weather, its complicated distribution system, and its ever-growing and conflicting demands for water. But the emergence of MTBE is presenting a new and ominous challenge that water agencies fear will make their job even more difficult.

Though the subjects of gasoline additives and air quality regulations may be unfamiliar terrain for water agencies, ACWA members have a compelling interest in decisions regarding the continued use of MTBE and other oxygenates in gasoline. The potential for widespread drinking water contamination and the tremendous treatment costs involved demand that water utilities weigh in to ensure that water supply impacts receive due attention and consideration in the MTBE debate.

ACWA members believe failure to adequately study and consider MTBE's impact on water resources before it was approved for use is the direct cause of the problems we face today.

This testimony will describe the scope of the problem from the perspective of water utilities, highlight our primary concerns, identify some preliminary estimates for cleanup costs, and recommend several actions we believe are needed to protect water supplies and drinking water consumers from the impacts of MTBE use.

Scope of the Problem

Monitoring data compiled to date by the California Department of Health Services (DHS) indicates that MTBE is indeed finding its way into the state's water sources. Data collected through November 1997 shows that 29 water sources sampled had detectable levels of MTBE. Five of the 29 were above California's current action level of 35 parts per billion; 12 were above 5 ppb, the level at which DHS believes consumers can smell or taste MTBE in water. It must be noted, however, that MTBE detections are under-represented in the DHS data, particularly with respect to surface water. The data reflects sampling results for only 22% of the state's 11,000 water sources, and does not include testing done by water agencies over and above the state's monitoring requirement.

MTBE typically enters groundwater as a result of leaking underground storage tanks or pipelines, or as a result of a spill. Because it is highly soluble in water and is not easily biodegraded, it enters groundwater basins faster than other components of gasoline and is much more difficult to remove once it is there.

To understand what this means for water utilities and their customers, several points must be made about the importance of groundwater resources in California. In a typical year, groundwater accounts for about 40% of the state's total water use. In drought years, California relies on groundwater for up to 60% of its needs. Many communities, particularly in the Central Valley, coastal regions and deserts, depend on groundwater exclusively for their drinking water needs. Most of the groundwater supplied to Californians today is served just as it comes out of the ground and requires no treatment.

In Santa Monica, MTBE contamination of groundwater at levels of up to 500 ppb caused the city to lose 80% of its local water supply. Santa Monica is now forced to buy alternative water supplies at a cost of over $3 million per year. Elsewhere, MTBE is constraining the operations of public water systems. South Lake Tahoe Public Utility District, which has detected MTBE in two groundwater wells, has been forced to shut down two unaffected wells to try to prevent further travel of the MTBE plume in its main aquifer.

MTBE is also being detected in lakes and reservoirs where gasoline-burning recreational vehicles such as jet skis and power boats are used. Preliminary data from a statewide survey of surface water sources coordinated by ACWA during last summer's boating season shows that some MTBE is being detected on the surface of reservoirs and near boat landings and at water intakes. In many cases, MTBE levels are near or slightly above the 5 ppb level that DHS is expected to propose as a secondary (consumer acceptance) standard for MTBE early next year. A report on the survey is due to be completed in early 1998.

Water Utility Concerns

Though some call MTBE the most studied component of gasoline, little definitive data is available on how ingestion of MTBE in drinking water affects human health. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is expected to issue a revised lifetime health advisory level for MTBE in drinking water of 20 ppb to 40 ppb before the year's end. The California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) is also evaluating human health risks and is expected to make a recommendation in 1998. The health risk assessments of both EPA and OEHHA are important because they will drive the primary (health-based) drinking water standard that California is required to establish by July 1, 1999. Water utilities have been required to monitor for MTBE since February 1997.

To date, water agencies have been frustrated by the apparent emphasis EPA and California's own Environmental Protection Agency (Cal/EPA) have placed on the air quality benefits of MTBE. Their consistent focus on achieving clean air goals -- even at the expense of drinking water quality -- has contributed to what many water agencies see as a downplaying of water supply impacts and an unjustified tradeoff between air and water quality protection. While the two agencies have struggled with their own internal debates over MTBE, precious time has been lost that could have been better spent addressing health effects and treatment research needs.

Regardless of what is eventually learned from health effects research, water utilities already know that MTBE fouls the taste and odor of drinking water at relatively low levels. Initial studies by ACWA member agencies and others show that consumers can detect it in drinking water at levels as low as 2.5 ppb. Many describe it as reminiscent of turpentine. With such a low taste and odor threshold, MTBE contamination will render drinking water unacceptable at levels much lower than California's current action level and the heath advisory limit EPA is expected to propose.

Even as regulations are being developed and proposed, water utilities are fielding a growing number of calls from consumers who are concerned about MTBE contamination and the safety of their drinking water. Water agencies take these calls very seriously, and are extremely concerned that ongoing detection of MTBE in drinking water sources around the state will cause consumers to lose confidence in the safety of their local water supplies. The extremely low taste and odor threshold of MTBE only serves to heighten that concern. In many respects, once consumers believe that they can taste or smell MTBE in their drinking water, that water is effectively lost and no amount of treatment or health effects data can restore it.

Though the vast majority of California's water supplies have not been compromised by MTBE to date, any erosion of public confidence is too high a price to pay for a problem the water supply community did not create. Nonetheless, ACWA members will continue to assure their customers that the water delivered to their taps is safe and will further engage in activities on a number of fronts to address MTBE.

Water agencies are tremendously concerned about the cost of treating and cleaning up MTBE in drinking water. Most feel strongly that water utilities and their customers should not be forced to shoulder the high cost of removing this contaminant or purchasing alternative drinking water supplies. There is also concern that too little is known about the best treatment options for removing MTBE from drinking water.

Even if treatment questions were to be resolved tomorrow, ACWA members believe there is not enough being done to protect water sources from the threat of MTBE contamination. Though treatment technology is needed now in Santa Monica and will soon be needed in other communities, in many respects it is too little too late. More must be done to prevent MTBE from reaching groundwater and surface water sources in the first place.

If nothing else, the current MTBE problem has exposed tremendous gaps in our collective knowledge of leaking underground fuel storage tanks, oil pipeline spill detection, refueling practices at retail gas stations and marinas, and the impacts of motorized watercraft on reservoirs. State officials believe there are more than 31,000 leaking underground tanks in California, and one can only assume there are hundreds more that have yet to be identified. Though the State Water Resources Control Board is mounting a major effort to upgrade and replace old tanks with new, double-walled models, to date only 55% of the tanks have been upgraded to the new standard. About 30,000 tanks have yet to be upgraded or replaced. Legislation signed this year will prohibit delivery of fuel to tanks that have not been upgraded by January 1999, but ACWA members remain concerned that tanks and refueling practices associated with them will continue to pose a threat to water sources -- especially since releases of MTBE are being detected at tank sites that have already been upgraded.

There are also concerns that high-pressure pipelines that carry fuel into and across the state present a significant risk not only to important water sources, but also to treated water distribution lines. In Placer County, for example, there have been two leaks involving pressurized oil pipelines in the past 18 months resulting in contamination by MTBE of water transmission lines carrying treated water to homes. More information is needed to assess this threat of contamination and develop notification and prevention strategies.

It's clear that we will never fully address the MTBE problem until decisive action is taken to protect drinking water sources through such means as removing MTBE from gasoline, improving the way gasoline is handled and stored, and minimizing MTBE releases from motorized watercraft with two-cycle engines.

Water Community Response to the Problem

Even though this is clearly a situation water agencies did not create, ACWA and its members are working proactively to address MTBE rather than pointing fingers. As we have previously done on water quality issues such as arsenic and radon, ACWA is taking a leadership role to get answers and find solutions. The following is a synopsis of our activities to date:

Statewide Surface Water Occurrence Survey. As mentioned above, in May 1997 ACWA began coordinating a voluntary statewide effort to sample reservoirs for the presence of MTBE. As part of the survey, water utilities were asked to use a sampling protocol to test reservoirs for MTBE levels at various points during the summer recreation season. A report on the survey is expected to be completed in early 1998.

Research into treatment technologies. ACWA is working with its member agencies to secure funding for research into treatment technologies to remove MTBE from drinking water. Several short- and long-term research needs have been identified, and water utilities are actively engaged in discussions with oil industry representatives to explore a number of options for funding and carrying out research projects.

Legislation. ACWA was active in passage of MTBE-related state legislation in 1997, and is developing language for proposed legislation in 1998. ACWA is considering proposals to address liability for environmental cleanups and drinking water treatment, notification of public water systems when pipeline or underground storage tank leaks occur, and access to private well information needed to develop basin-wide groundwater protection strategies.


Most drinking water systems in California are not equipped to remove MTBE. The limited research that has been done to date indicates that MTBE is more difficult and more expensive to remove from drinking water than other components of gasoline. Developing, constructing and operating treatment processes to remove MTBE will be tremendously costly at a time when public water agencies already face mounting costs to keep healthful water flowing to their customers taps.

Water treatment experts believe that air stripping and advanced oxidation processes currently offer the best options for removing MTBE from drinking water. For groundwater, the estimated cost of installing either of these processes is $1 million - $1.5 million per well. The price tag escalates dramatically if additional land must be purchased or other site-specific needs must be addressed. Operating and maintaining such a treatment system would cost up to $100,000 a year per well.

Since potentially hundreds of wells could be affected by MTBE, the total treatment costs could easily reach hundreds of millions of dollars in capital outlay alone. If alternative water supplies must be purchased, the cost can reach $400 per acre-foot, the amount of water used each year by two average familes.

It should be noted that loss of groundwater supplies as a result of MTBE contamination could create additional demands on the San Francisco Bay-Delta estuary if agencies are forced to purchase alternative surface water supplies. Increased pressure on the already stressed Bay-Delta could negatively affect the ongoing water supply and ecosystem rehabilitation effort there.

Several water utilities already are incurring costs as a result of MTBE contamination. Santa Monica has spent about $5 million this year on sampling, investigation and replacement water supplies. Santa Clara Valley Water District has spent an estimated $500,000 this year in staff time and resources to monitor and test groundwater and surface water supplies, analyze the risk to its system and develop plans to respond. South Tahoe Public Utility District has spent $200,000 since April 1997 to investigate MTBE contamination in its groundwater basin.

Beyond these costs and the expense of treatment, widespread MTBE contamination will result in some intangible costs such as loss of consumer confidence, which no water agency can afford, and societal costs such as reductions in property values.

Recommended Actions

ACWA members believe several actions are needed to protect water sources and drinking water consumers from the impacts of MTBE use.

1. Research funding. Significant dollars must be allocated for research into MTBE treatment technologies, occurrence, source protection and health effects. Millions of dollars are needed now and in subsequent years to accomplish both short- and long-term research efforts to bring treatment techniques on line and improve our understanding of how MTBE moves in the environment so we can better protect water sources. Research must also be planned, funded and carried out to fill the tremendous gaps in our knowledge of the health effects of MTBE in drinking water. The federal government bears a major responsibility for seeing that the research is funded and carried out.

2. Source protection. Action is needed at both the federal and state levels to minimize the risk of MTBE contamination of our water sources. The state must get better data about leaking underground storage tanks, examine regulations governing their use, improve leak detection and reporting methods, and accelerate cleanups. Initiatives are underway to address storage tank issues, but the state must ensure that adequate resources are provided to get the work done. The state must also equip regional water quality control boards with funding and resources needed to deal with MTBE contamination and cleanup.

At the federal level, leadership is needed in Congress to ensure that the source water assessment and wellhead protection programs authorized under the 1996 Safe Drinking Water Act Amendments are fully funded. The amendments allow states to use 15% of their state revolving fund (SRF) for projects that protect drinking water sources. In addition, 10% of the state's SRF funding for the first year can be spent on source assessment activities, including wellhead protection. Senator Boxer, California water agencies need a strong commitment from you to ensure that these programs receive the full appropriation.

Also at the federal level, California needs flexibility to meet clean air goals without the use of additives such as MTBE that pose a threat to drinking water. HR 630, the Bilbray bill, is the type of legislation that takes that approach. It should be considered along with other measures.

Federal legislation is also needed to promote better regulation of interstate pipelines to prevent MTBE contamination of drinking water sources.

State, federal and local agencies should examine recreational practices on reservoirs and ensure that there are adequate controls on motorized watercraft and fueling operations that may contribute to surface water contamination by MTBE.

And to address the "human factor" involved in refueling practices, industry and regulatory agencies must work to develop best management practices and ensure that they are followed at every stage in the handling, transport and storage of gasoline.

3. Ensure that water supply impacts are considered before chemicals are approved for use. There are growing indications that oxygenates such as MTBE may not be needed in the long term to achieve the air quality goals sought by both state and federal agencies. Recent actions by Chevron Corp. and Tosco Corp. recommending a phase-out of MTBE reinforce the need to fully consider impacts on water supply and the potential for other cross-media pollution before gasoline additives and other chemicals are approved for use.


California simply cannot afford to lose any of its limited water resources to MTBE contamination. According to projections by the state's Department of Water Resources, California will be 4 million to 6 million acre-feet short of water each year by 2020 without additional facilities and water management strategies. Given these growing demands, protection of our state's drinking water sources must be given full consideration in every forum in which MTBE and other oxygenates are evaluated.

Even if MTBE were taken out of gasoline tomorrow, we will still have to deal with significant amounts of this contaminant in our environment. The potential for drinking water contamination and the tremendous treatment costs involved warrant serious consideration by this Committee as it explores any further measures affecting MTBE use.

We are certain, Senator Boxer, that with your deep and caring concern for the health of children and familes, you will work diligently with us to protect California's water supplies and the health of Californians. ACWA and its members stand ready to assist this Committee and other agencies and industry representatives as they seek to address MTBE and related issues.