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For three years, ever since she learned her water was contaminated with arsenic, Arlene Clark has been buying bottled water by the case from the supermarket.

The 71-year-old retired cashier can't lift heavy loads anymore, so whenever possible she gets her son to help haul it into her mobile home at Sequoia Gardens on the western edge of Santa Rosa.

But that burden may soon be lifted if the 191-unit mobile home park on Fulton Road is annexed into the City of Santa Rosa and hooked up to clean city water.

"I'll just be happy to go to my faucet and not have to open a bottle of water," Clark said.

The City Council last week signed off on the annexation by approving future zoning for property, the last step before a final decision on annexation is made by Sonoma Local Agency Formation Commission.

The move is the latest in a five-year-long effort to extend city water to more than 600 mostly low-income residents on four properties just outside city limits whose drinking water no longer complies with cleaner state standards passed in 2008.

For decades, the state and federal limit, known as the maximum contaminant level, for arsenic in drinking water was 50 parts per billion. Then in 2001, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency tightened the regulations by dropping the standard to 10 parts per billion, citing studies linking long-term exposure to arsenic in drinking water to cancer and other diseases.

The EPA estimated that the new rule would affect mostly smaller water systems serving 11 million people across the country.

The state Department of Health followed EPA's lead and in 2008 adopted the lower standard for arsenic, a naturally occurring element. It considered an even lower standard but concluded that the costs of compliance would be too high.

The state estimated the 10 parts per billion standard would affect 267 water systems around the state and cost $187million per year in treatment and other compliance costs.

Eighteen water systems that exceeded the new standard for arsenic were identified in Sonoma County. Four are located just outside Santa Rosa city limits.

Sequoia Gardens is by far the largest. It was developed in the early 1970s on nearly 30 acres just west of Fulton Road at the West College Avenue intersection. The over-55 community has about 300 residents in 191-mobile homes. The arsenic levels from its well are 14 parts per billion, according to the state, though the property manager says it has recently dropped to 10.4 parts per billion.

Sequoia Gardens needs to be annexed to the city because of a policy requiring annexation for properties that are adjacent to city limits and request city utilities.

The other three properties are located below Santa Rosa's southern city limit. They don't need to be annexed to the city because they are located in areas that allow hook-up to city utilities without annexation under certain conditions.

Moorland Avenue Apartments are located next to Highway 101 just south where Moorland meets Corby Avenue. About 64 people live in 16 apartments. Their water has the highest average concentration of arsenic of all four: 27 parts per billion.

Rancho Santa Rosa Mobile Home Park is located between Santa Rosa Avenue and Highway 101 near East Robles Avenue. About 175 people live in 80 units served by a well with average arsenic levels of 15 parts per billion.

Field Community, formerly known as Lancelot Mobile Home Park, is located between Santa Rosa Avenue and Highway 101. About 75 people live in 29 mobile homes served off a well with arsenic levels of 16 parts per billion.

In an effort to win state grant funding to resolve the problem, the state Department of Public Health asked Santa Rosa to be the lead agency on a project to tie all four properties into the city water system, explained Kimberley Zunino, water resources manager in the city's Utilities Department.

The city agreed on the condition that the state shoulder the entire cost of the project, including for local staff time, which it is doing through Prop. 84 grant funds, she said. The total project cost, including construction, was previously estimated at $2.6million, but that figure is out-of-date and will be revised, Zunino said.

"It's a big project that's going to be very good for a lot of people," Zunino said.

Santa Rosa has such a small portion of arsenic in its water that it's not detectable.

Treating the water to remove the arsenic is possible but expensive. One study estimated Sequoia Gardens alone would have to pay $262,500 in upfront capital costs and $140,000 in annual operating costs thereafter to remove the arsenic.

"That's a cost that would have to borne by the people living there and it would be impossible for everybody," said Don Jurow, a Walnut Creek investor, and the property manager of the park.

Drilling new wells was also considered but rejected because of the risk of tapping the same arsenic-bearing aquifer or other contamination concerns, according to a city report.

Hooking the residents up to the city system is "their best option for clean potable water that they don't have to worry about any more," Zunino said.

The work is expected to get underway in 2014. It will involve hooking up the private water systems to existing nearby water mains, as well as installing new fire hydrants to improve the water pressure available for firefighters.

In the meantime, residents have been told that the situation is not an emergency and they don't have to stop drinking the water. Jurow called it "overblown" to even refer to the wells as contaminated given the way the standards changed.

The language approved by the state Department of Public Health for notices to residents makes it clear there is no emergency and residents don't have to switch to bottled water, Jurow said.

"They recognize that these things aren't going to be solved overnight," he said.

Jurow has been voluntarily giving residents $20 per month in vouchers so they can buy bottled water if they choose, he said. That's a cost of $45,000 per year.

Some residents, many of whom are elderly, aren't too concerned about the health risks, said Carol Barnas, the on-site property manager.

"Some people still drink it. I do," Barnas said, noting the arsenic level is "unbelievably small" and very close to meeting the new standard. "It's a bureaucratic nightmare is exactly what it is."

Most residents, however, are pleased to hear annexation is progressing. Living inside city limits will mean faster response times from police as well as improved water pressure for fire fighters, several noted. City water should also taste better and does a better job of washing clothes, said Joe Amos, whose 83-year-old mom, Gloria Kelly, lives in the park.

"It's long overdue," Amos said, noting that he regularly hauls 2.5-gallon jugs of water because they're too heavy for her. "It's a huge burden."

(You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or kevin.mccallum@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @citybeater)

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