how to tell if water is safe, contaminated water

How To Tell If Water Is Safe

How To Tell if Your Water in California is Safe To Drink

In 2012, the California legislature passed the Human Right to Water Act, which recognizes the human right to safe, clean, affordable and accessible water.  Unfortunately, the law was rather light on the details (and, more importantly, the funds) to ensure this would become a reality. 


Most Californians receive their drinking water from public water systems.  These systems are subject to many state and federal regulations intended to ensure that the water provided to their customers is safe. 


The California Water Resources Control Board’s records show more than 266 water suppliers were not in compliance with drinking-water standards as of May 2018. Most of the violations were in the rural agricultural regions of the state.


Exposure to contaminated water can lead to a number of serious health problems, both immediate and more long term. A recent study by an environmental advocacy group found that many contaminants present in California’s public water systems (such as arsenic and hexavalent chromium) could significantly increase the risk of cancer over the course of one’s lifetime. 

How To Tell If Water Is Safe Filling Water

The study found that the state’s smallest water systems, which lack many of the advanced treatment techniques used by larger systems, were more likely to have higher contaminant levels.


The big question, then, is whether or not you’re drinking water from one of them.  Fortunately, there are a number of ways you can check the quality of your water supply.  A little research can go a long way toward providing peace of mind for your household to determine if your water is safe to drink.

Check with Your Local Water Department

If your home is served by a municipal water department, learning the status of your water supply is rather easy. 


Federal law requires water agencies to provide customers with an annual water quality report called the Consumer Confidence Report. This report details any and all contaminants that may be present in the local water supply and provides information about the health risks they present. 


In most cases, the report must be delivered either by mail or through the department’s website (if you pay online) by July 1 of every year. 


Some smaller public water systems are regulated by county environmental health departments. These are called "local primacy agencies." Some even smaller water systems, called state small water systems, are subject to minimum requirements that are enforced by local health agencies.


Some people get their drinking water from wells or other sources that do not meet the definition of a public water system or a state small water system because they serve a small number of people, or perhaps only one household. Those wells and small systems are not regulated by the State in terms of drinking water quality.

How To Tell If Water Is Safe Lab Testing

To assist well owners, the State Water Board has prepared a guide for private domestic well owners. The Groundwater Ambient Monitoring and Assessment Program (GAMA) has information for private well owners. For more information about water quality for private wells, contact your county's environmental health department.


The State Water Board is responsible for adopting drinking water standards, including standards for contaminants, which are called Maximum Contaminant Levels (MCLs). The State Water Board is required to set the MCL at a level as close to the public health goal (PHG) for that contaminant as is technologically and economically feasible, placing primary emphasis on the protection of public health. 


The testing in many areas is done on an honor system in which water is sent routinely to labs across the state for monitoring. Those that do not comply or are found to falsify tests could be fined.

Test Your Well Water

If your home is supplied by well water, it can be a bit more difficult to evaluate water quality. Private wells are generally not regulated by state or federal agencies and should be tested every year to ensure that the local groundwater has not become contaminated. In addition to annual testing, well water should also be tested under the following circumstances:


  • Contaminated water has been reported in the area.


  • The area around the well was recently subjected to flooding, soil disturbances, construction, or industrial activity.


  • Any part of the well system has been recently replaced.


  • There have been changes in your water quality (such as odor, color, taste).


If you do need to have your well water tested, the EPA recommends that you contact a state-certified laboratory or your local health department, which often provides water testing free of charge. 

Signs That Your Water is Not Safe

How To Tell If Water Is Safe Dirty Water

The best way to tell exactly what's in our water is to have it professionally tested, but there are a few ways to screen for contaminants using our senses. Here are some signs that should tip you off to possibly unsafe drinking water.



While cloudy water isn't necessarily dangerous to your health, it could signal the presence of unsafe pathogens or chemicals. 


Slimy Hands

Check to see if your hands feel slimy after washing them with soap and water.


Hard water is often characterized by a buildup of substances like calcium or magnesium, aluminum, manganese, and lead, which can leave deposits on your sink, faucet, or drinking glass. It might also be the reason why your hands feel slimy after washing them with soap and water, or you have to use more laundry detergent to clean your clothes. 


Yellow, Orange, or Brown Water

Yellow water could signal the presence of chromium-6, iron, manganese, copper, or lead. Water that's orange or brown could also contain excess iron, manganese, or lead or signal the presence of rust, which can breed bacteria. 


Green or Blue Water 

Blue or green-tinged water is often a sign of elevated levels of copper caused by corroded pipes. Though copper isn't bad for you in small doses, high levels of exposure can produce health problems such as anemia and liver and kidney damage.  


A Bleach Smell

If your water smells like bleach, it may indicate heightened levels of chlorine. Chlorine is deliberately added to the US water supply to kill germs and pathogens, but when it mixes with other organic compounds it can create a few harmful byproducts. 


The Smell of Rotten Eggs 

Water that smells like sewage or rotten eggs could contain hydrogen sulfide, a colorless gas that can naturally occur in groundwater.  When this gas is exposed to certain bacteria, it converts into sulfate, which can cause dehydration or diarrhea. 


A Fishy Smell

Fishy-smelling water could signal an excess of barium, a naturally-occurring chemical that can seep into a water supply through drilling or manufacturing. When barium is present above the EPA's recommended levels, it could cause increased blood pressure, muscle weakness, or kidney, liver, and heart damage.


A Metallic Taste

Rusty pipes can release metals like iron, manganese, zinc, copper, and lead into local water supplies, giving a metallic, or salty taste. In some cases, it's merely a sign of a low pH. 


While these are good indicators to watch for, not all contaminants are detectable by human senses.  A number of contaminants, including arsenic and nitrates, are hidden to the naked eye. 


In many cases, a single drinking water system will contain more than one hazardous chemical, making it difficult for individuals to evaluate the overall health risk and whether water is safe to drink. To be sure your water is safe, lab testing is still the best option.

What to Do if Your Water is Contaminated

How To Tell If Water Is Safe Plumber Work

One of the first questions you need to answer is whether the contamination is the result of problems with the water supply itself or with your plumbing.  If the municipal water supply is contaminated, then the entire community will be affected. 


In this situation, households are often forced to use bottled water until political or legal pressure can be brought to bear on the local authorities to address the problem.  Households may also decide to install water filtration systems to treat water before it enters the home. 


In an emergency or temporary situation, boiling water before using it can eliminate certain types of organic contaminants.


If other homes receiving water from the same source show no signs of contamination, then the problem is most likely with your main water pipe. Cracks in the main supply line bringing water into the house can permit various chemicals and bacteria to leech into the water from the soil. 


In this situation, trenchless pipe replacement offers a cost-effective solution that is less disruptive than traditional repair methods.  While a filtration system may be able to address the contamination, the damaged pipe will likely lead to additional problems in the long run and should be replaced or repaired immediately.


For homes with well water, the options for treating contaminants are more limited. Installing a quality filtration system is the primary solution. Water can be treated either at the point of entry, where it comes into the house, or the point of use, where it is actually dispensed inside the home. 


Some homes also feature multi-system water treatment solutions that incorporate several types of filtration and treatment, allowing them to treat hard water while also removing contaminants and bacteria.

So Cal Services is Here to Help

Whether your California home is supplied by municipal water systems or a well, checking for contaminants on a regular basis is a good practice to ensure the safety of the people in your household. 


With so many areas of the state experiencing trouble with water, keeping up to date on your local water quality is a wise precaution. If you have any doubts about your water quality, be sure to check with the professional plumbing contractors at So Cal Services any time you’re having work done.  Our experience and expertise can answer most questions you may have about your water supply.

Keeping informed and maintaining your plumbing is a great way to keep your water supply and your family safe.  For more information, call us at (951) 926-1978. And click here to review our monthly plumbing specials.

Tags: safe drinking water, how to tell if water is safe, signs of contaminated water, signs of unsafe water, unsafe well water