California farm communities suffer tainted drinking water

by Jeremy Miller

Becky Quintana walks along the gravel shoulder of a rural two-lane road through the sprawling orange groves of California's Central Valley, the snow-white jags of the Sierra Nevada at her back. "On a clear day, it's like you can almost touch the mountains," says the 57-year-old school bus driver, who has lived all her life in Seville, 35 miles south of Fresno. The vast majority of the town's 500 residents are Latinos, and most toil for meager wages in Tulare County's vast nut, olive and citrus orchards.

The nearby Kaweah River, which flows from headwaters in the high peaks of the Sierra, is cool and clean. But most of its flow is diverted into irrigation canals and delivered to a faraway mosaic of farms and cities. In spite of Seville's proximity to the Kaweah, the tiny town's drinking water doesn't come from the river but from wells punched into the intensively cultivated land around town. Quintana points out the array of white tanks and a U-shaped pipe plunging earthward: This, she explains, is where the town's water comes from. As a groundwater activist and founder of a local group called the Committee for a Better Seville, Quintana has worked for several years to improve Seville's primitive water system.

A white PVC pipe runs down the middle of an irrigation canal, which carries three or four inches of water. The pipe -- actually many pipes, loosely connected by plastic couplings -- is the town's water main. Quintana pushes on the rickety assemblage, which creaks and dips below the surface of the canal. She explains that when the canal is full, the pipe is submerged, and when pressure is low (usually in the summer, when people use lots of water), canal water can seep in through loose connections, carrying sand and other debris. A neighbor says a small tadpole once wriggled out of her kitchen tap. In the canal's shallow water, beside the main, the carcass of a dog slumps in a grisly state of putrefaction. "Lots of tourists come through here on their way to Sequoia National Park," Quintana laughs. "They stop to eat in the café. I bet they wouldn't, if they knew what was in the water."

The most harmful ingredients can't be seen. The groundwater underlying Seville, like that beneath dozens of small towns throughout the Central Valley -- the 50-by-400-mile agricultural basin, home to 4 million people, that effectively separates coastal California from the Sierra Nevada -- has long borne the brunt of the region's industrial-scale agriculture and the industrial-scale pollution that comes with it.

While dozens of contaminants, both manmade and natural, have been detected in the region's groundwater, nitrates are the pollutant of greatest concern. Derived from hundreds of thousands of tons of synthetic fertilizer and animal wastes applied to crops each year, nitrates pose an especially acute risk to infants; long-term exposure has also been implicated in various forms of cancer, including gastric, esophageal, ovarian and non-Hodgkins lymphoma. According to a recent University of California, Berkeley report, nitrate exposure's health impacts fall disproportionately on the poor Latino communities of the Central Valley -- the same people who make up most of the low-wage workforce of the agriculture industry itself.

Nitrates and other contaminants are less of an issue in larger, wealthier communities, since treatment or blending with cleaner water can often reduce concentrations to meet health standards. By contrast, the small Latino communities of the Central Valley -- where median household incomes are under $15,000 per year -- simply do not have the tax base to support the construction and operation of treatment plants, or to secure alternative sources of water.

The struggles of these poor communities hint at much larger problems. Unlike every other state in the Western U.S., California does not regulate the quantity of groundwater pumped, although more than eight in 10 of the state's residents rely on groundwater for at least a portion of their water supply. A report released in February by the State Water Resources Control Board identified 31 principal contaminants, including arsenic, uranium, perchlorate and pesticide residues, in the groundwater serving 21 million Californians.

As the state's population grows and its complex water systems are further racked by climate change -- with Sierra snowpack expected to dwindle by as much as a quarter by mid-century -- residents across all income levels will become more and more dependent on increasingly scarce and polluted groundwater. And many already drink water that's less than clean. "As many as 8.5 million Californians rely on supplies that experienced more than five incidences of excessive levels of contaminants in the drinking water in a single year," former Assemblyman Mike Eng, from Los Angeles, testified before the California Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Water.

In response, last October, Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law AB 685, the "Human Right to Water" bill. The 250-plus-word addendum to the state water code is ambitiously phrased, declaring, "Every human being has the right to safe, clean, affordable, and accessible water adequate for human consumption, cooking, and sanitary purposes."

The bill, which reaffirms the larger goals of the 1974 Safe Drinking Water Act, is one of the first clear victories in acknowledging the unequal burden of water contamination in California. It's the product of an aggressive seven-year-long grassroots-inspired legal campaign focused on the Central Valley. But successfully turning the bill's fine words into reality won't be easy. The effort to secure clean drinking water in the Central Valley requires reversing a century's worth of pollution, and it will be a slow, expensive process -- entailing reform of one of California's most powerful industries, which has transformed the valley into one of the planet's most heavily engineered and industrialized landscapes. In the meantime, says Laurel Firestone of the Community Water Center, the effort to bring clean water to places like Seville will require determination, creativity -- and a recognition of the problem's multiple facets. "On one hand, the solution is complicated, and on the other it's not," Firestone says. "We need to look at what our priorities are as a state and what we are using our resources on -- it's pretty obvious it hasn't been on bringing safe drinking water to places like Seville. … All of us have to play a part in creating that solution."

Along with providing around half of the nation's fruits and vegetables, Central Valley farms generate tens of billions of dollars in revenue annually. The Environmental Working Group estimates that California farmers have received more than $10 billion in subsidies since 1995. Indeed, California farmers achieved their regional economic and political dominance largely through government largesse and publicly financed, gargantuan water projects, such as the State and Central Valley Water Projects, which funnel huge quantities of water (as much as 80 percent of the state's overall supply, by some estimates) to the area.

And yet, the industry has spent millions on lobbying and a public relations campaign that portrays itself as the victim of over-regulation and water policies aimed at its destruction. For years, local farmers have protested reductions in water deliveries to the area from the San Francisco Bay Delta -- posting signs along the roadside with messages such as CONGRESS CREATED DUSTBOWL and FOOD GROWS WHERE WATER FLOWS. Similarly, a pack of pro-agriculture groups has railed against AB 685. Opponents, including the Western Growers Association -- a trade group that represents California farmers -- and the state's Chamber of Commerce, offered up a litany of criticism, warning that the law could, among other things, prevent local districts from shutting off water to non-paying customers, create subsidies for poor residents, and expose farmers and water districts to lawsuits. "A new 'right to water' in California law could potentially upset decades of legal precedent and could cost the State of California untold amounts of money," the Association of California Water Agencies wrote Gov. Brown, strongly urging a veto.

Supporters of AB 685 included numerous environmental groups, such as the Sierra Club and the California League of Conservation Voters, but the on-the-ground effort was headed by the Visalia-based Community Water Center and la Asociación de Gente Unida por el Agua, or AGUA, a group made up of local representatives from towns with contaminated water. "Part of the reason we're in the situation we're in, is because communities have been segregated and isolated," says Firestone, whose Community Water Center helped organize the AGUA coalition, many of whose members work in the very farm fields generating the pollution. "They're now speaking with a unified voice."

AGUA's efforts are in many ways reminiscent -- even an extension -- of the grassroots organizing of Cesar Chavez and The United Farmworkers Union. That group's famous rallying cry, "Sí, se puede" ("Yes, we can"), galvanized the movement that drew national attention to the often-terrible working conditions faced by California farmworkers.

On a March evening, just off Visalia's main drag, around 40 people crammed into the living room of the small bungalow that serves as AGUA's main offices, discussing strategies for an upcoming rally and meeting with legislators in Sacramento.

One AGUA representative, Sandra Garcia, 48, who picks fruit and vegetables near her hometown of Poplar, shook her head when I asked if she worried her activism might land her in trouble with her employer. "We have no choice," she says. "A few years ago, my boss said, 'I don't want you out stirring everyone up.' I told him, 'I'm trying to keep you from getting sued.' "

In rapid and impassioned Spanish, the group discussed the need to press state representatives about securing grant money to improve the water supplies of disadvantaged communities. Applying for the funds -- available through Proposition 84, a 2006 bond act funding safe drinking water initiatives -- is a complex process, requiring input from engineers and technical experts that the towns most in need often lack the funds to hire.

Such are the problems with the new law. In spite of AB 685's bold rhetoric, it does not actually require state agencies to do anything new. Though it mandates that state agencies take a "multi-agency" approach and consider the policy when they adopt or revise regulations, it does not require California to provide clean water or to allocate "additional resources" to fix ailing water systems. Nor does it require the agencies that oversee public water systems -- the Department of Water Resources, the State Water Resources Control Board and Department of Public Health -- to increase enforcement.

Nonetheless, local activists call AB 685 an important, if largely symbolic, first step toward greater recognition of the connection between clean water and human health. Firestone says AB 685 makes "a problem that was invisible into a priority. People have to pick up that rock and see the disparities around water in our state," she says. Debbie Davis, community and rural affairs adviser for the governor's office, agrees. "The bottom line is that the legislation spells out our intent, which is that everyone in the state should have access to safe water for basic human needs," says Davis, who worked as a community water activist before joining the governor's office. "In California, that should be a reasonable, minimum expectation."

In the Central Valley, however, what is "reasonable" often clashes starkly with what is. According to the Community Water Center, one in five Tulare County communities is unable to provide clean drinking water on a daily basis. To see the conditions facing those communities and their tens of thousands of inhabitants, I traveled to several small agricultural towns in the county, outside Visalia. In East Orosi, a tiny hamlet of 500 people, residents live in small wood-frame and stucco bungalows, many painted in bright pastel colors reminiscent of a rural Mexican village. My guide, 19-year-old Jessica Sanchez, shows me a recent warning from the East Orosi water district, citing nitrate levels that exceed the state maximum of 45 milligrams per liter. The notices that frequently come in the mail are often obvious facsimiles of previous warnings. "A lot of times, you can see tape marks around the date," says Sanchez.

Sanchez has been active in local water issues since high school, but these days she has a new reason to be concerned -- her 11-month-old son, Jordan, whose stroller she pushes along a trash-strewn gravel shoulder. Sanchez points out an abandoned-looking trailer tagged with graffiti -- the main office of the East Orosi Community Services District. "There's no one there," she says with a laugh. "They hardly ever are."

As in Seville, the East Orosi's Community Services District delivers water to homes with "no method of treatment such as coagulation and flocculation, sedimentation, filtration or disinfection," according to a 2011 Tulare County report on the area's small community water systems. Moreover, its groundwater pumps sit a few yards from an orange orchard -- meaning whatever is applied at the surface can potentially percolate into the shallow groundwater below and into drinking supplies.

Local municipal groundwater pumps are often located beside orchards, alongside agricultural canals and beside sprawling dairies and their huge sewage lagoons. "The Third World conditions of these systems are truly shocking, particularly for a state that is a leader in so many areas of environmental governance," says Richard Frank, an environmental law professor at the University of California, Davis. "It's a striking anomaly."

Farms and dairies are responsible for 96 percent of the nitrates entering groundwater in the Central and Salinas valleys, according to a 2012 UC Davis study. Some 220,000 tons leach into that groundwater every year -- more than four times the "benchmark" level at which nitrogen will not further degrade the region's groundwater. However, since the bulk of it comes not from single point sources, but from application of fertilizers over vast areas, farms are not required to have discharge permits for the large quantities of nitrogen pollution they generate. California's dairies are now required to submit waste and nutrient management plans if they are located in "high risk" areas, over shallow groundwater, say, or near municipal water supplies. But much of the manure and sewage sludge generated by these dairies is destined for fields, potentially jeopardizing the groundwater beneath.

There is mounting evidence that the nitrogen in the groundwater today originated decades ago. Which is to say, the Central Valley's problems stand to get significantly worse. "Even if we got rid of all of the sources tomorrow, it's going to be decades before this mess is cleaned up," says Thomas Harter, a co-author of the UC Davis nitrate report. "To think that this is a problem that we're simply going to be able to remediate away is the wrong path."

In the meantime, Latinos living in the Central Valley are suffering disproportionately from nitrogen contamination, according to a study published in 2011 in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives. That study's lead author, Carolina Balazs, a UC Berkeley researcher, says that previous research on water contamination overlooked socioeconomic and ethnic disparities, assuming that all communities served by small water systems faced similar risk of nitrate contamination. "We found that, yes, small systems do tend to have higher nitrate levels. But it's small systems (serving) high percentages of Latinos that have the highest levels of nitrates," says Balazs. Both economic and social factors may play a role in exposure risk. Data from the 2000 Census show that more than one in four Spanish-speaking families in the Central Valley are "linguistically isolated," meaning that all adults in a household speak a language other than English, and none speaks English very well. Because of this, these families are less able to advocate for themselves and successfully use civic channels available to effect change.

For mothers like Sanchez, nitrates are particularly worrisome since they can cause methemoglobinemia, or "blue baby syndrome," a sometimes-fatal condition in which an infant's red blood cells cannot carry enough oxygen. "I definitely won't use this water to make formula," says Sanchez, looking down at Jordan in his stroller. "But should I even give it to my dogs?"

The 300 people in Tonyville, tucked between the beige Sierra foothills and the boundless green of surrounding orchards, also face severe water problems. Senaida Aguilar, a vigorous 71-year-old farmworker, raised three children here after moving in the mid-1980s from her hometown of Morelia, in southern Mexico. Her skin is tanned and creased after nearly 30 years of laboring in the olive and orange orchards.

Thick gloves protect her forearms from thorns, and she wears a heavy canvas fruit-picking apron, with a large, kangaroo-like pouch in front. It takes 18 filled aprons -- over 1,600 pounds of citrus altogether -- to fill a single bin, she explains; she earns $14.50 for each bin.

She is still strong and though she no longer climbs the ladders, Aguilar says she can keep up with most of the younger pickers by working the lower limbs, filling a bin an hour. But the contract work that has become standard today makes her wages unpredictable. "Now they tell you they need a certain number of bins, and they send you home once they are filled." That means that, on many days, it is simply not possible for Aguilar to fill her eight bins.

This strains her budget, which includes $650 a month in rent. She also pays around $50 a month to the Lindsay-Strathmore Irrigation District for water that's undrinkable. So she spends another $50 to $100 a month for five-gallon bottles at water vending machines for drinking and cooking. Aguilar's situation is not unique; seven out of 10 Tulare County households surveyed in 2011 by the Oakland-based Pacific Institute spent close to 5 percent of their annual income on water -- three times the "affordability threshold" set by the EPA.

Aguilar shows me several recent warnings from the irrigation district, one mentioning "disinfection byproducts" -- trihalomethanes and haloacetic acids -- found at concentrations nearly twice the state limit. The warning that follows is confusing at best. One sentence reads, "You DO NOT need to use an alternative (e.g., bottled) water supply." But the following line is hardly reassuring: "Some people who use water containing trihalomethanes in excess of the MCL over many years may experience liver, kidney, or central nervous system problems and may have an increased risk of getting cancer."

The most ominous warning, however, arrived with Aguilar's February bill. It reads, TONYVILLE WATER HAS HIGH LEVELS OF PERCHLORATE. DO NOT DRINK THE WATER OR USE IT TO MAKE INFANT FORMULA. Perchlorate, a potent thyroid inhibitor, is often used in munitions manufacturing but can also be derived from fertilizers.

Aguilar runs a glass from her bathroom tap and brings it into the light. The water has a slightly yellowish tinge and some days looks cloudy, she says, "the color of pond water." It has a faint acrid smell, reminiscent of wet animal fur tinged with lighter fluid.

No one knows the actual toll bad water is taking on human health around here. But residents all share stories of illness or death. Aguilar mentions people who developed strange rashes and sores after using the water for bathing. Another Tonyville resident, Guadalupe Nunez, tells me she knows 11 people who have died of liver, stomach and kidney cancers in Tonyville in less than 10 years.

Public health statistics show the death rates from infant health issues (including birth defects, miscarriage and Sudden Infant Death Syndrome), digestive system cancers and other illnesses associated with nitrate exposure in Tulare County have been above statewide averages at one time or another since 2001. California public health workers found a cluster of childhood cancers in the Tulare County town of Earlimart between 1986 and 1989 -- all the victims were children of farmworkers. Of course, proving a definitive link between water contaminants and disease requires long-term, longitudinal studies -- the sorts of public-health inquiries that are rarely made in these virtually invisible communities.

To learn more about what water managers are doing to fix Tonyville's problems, I call Scott Edwards, Lindsay-Strathmore's district manager, whose name and number are listed on the warning notice. Edwards explains that most of the time Tonyville's water comes through surface canals, but that the perchlorate spikes occur every year or two when the canal is "dewatered" and the town switches from canal water to groundwater.

According to Edwards, Tonyville's filtration plant is simply incapable of removing the perchlorate from its groundwater. (He admits he doesn't know where the perchlorate is coming from.) "State and federal regulations say we must deliver clean drinking water, even though we can't afford to do that," he says, explaining that treatment costs already run from $1,500 to $2,000 an acre-foot, while residents are paying only $250 per acre-foot. "Tonyville residents would be paying $450 a month to operate that plant. What am I supposed to do, raise the rates? They can't afford that."

But clean drinking water is a human right in California, I point out, referring to the new bill's wording. "Drinking water is not a human right. Get that off your head right now," says Edwards. "If it costs somebody else money to provide it to you, it's not your right."

He quickly shifts to a more sympathetic tone, though, noting that he lives in an unincorporated part of Tulare County and his water, too, is unfiltered and undrinkable. "We have bottled water in our house at all times."

As a manager tasked with delivering high-quality water across the county, does he find this fact troubling or, at the very least, somewhat ironic? "It is what it is," he replies.

Overwhelming costs and technical complexity compound this kind of institutional apathy. Since large-scale groundwater cleanup is, by most measures, not feasible, a different approach called "pump-and-fertilize" has been proposed. In essence, farmers would use nutrient-loaded groundwater for both irrigating and fertilizing, a practice that, over time, could gradually reduce nitrate levels in aquifers. Another idea is a tax on nitrate-rich fertilizers, meant to dissuade farmers from overusing them. The tax funds would be used to tackle nitrate contamination in towns served by small community water systems. (The UC Davis report estimates it will cost $36 million annually to bring clean water to the two regions examined in the study -- either through new infrastructure or securing new sources of water.) Not surprisingly, agricultural groups are strongly opposed. "It's going to take action not only from the water board but the Legislature and other state agencies, to move forward," says John Borkovich, program manager for the state water board's groundwater monitoring program.

The most promising technical fix may, in fact, be rooted in the ties forged by the AGUA coalition itself. The hope is that these small towns can pool their resources to create larger districts with economies of a scale capable of reducing the high costs of treatment. "If you take seven communities and combine them into one district," says Solis of the Community Water Center, "you eliminate the costs of seven secretaries, seven attorneys, seven engineers, seven everything. You're also much stronger politically."

Steve Worthley, a member of the Tulare County board of supervisors, is exploring just such a possibility. The county, which took over operation of Seville's water system by court order a few years back, is considering linking it up with the water system of the nearby town of Yettem. He notes that the greatest impediments to consolidation are political. "There would have to be an election to create a district and form its boundaries and determine its governance structure. But it can be done." He adds that another nearby district is considering delivering clean water to these towns via water "swaps," which entail exchanging cleaner surface waters for groundwater stored in large underground reservoirs.

While the concept of swapping tainted groundwater for cleaner surface water seems like a no-brainer, it's not as simple as it sounds, explains Worthley -- particularly in years like this, in which, as of May 1, the state's snowpack stood at a meager 17 percent of average. Communities across the region have no choice but to turn to groundwater to augment supply.

Given the myriad threats to the Central Valley's groundwater, I ask if the state might have a larger role to play, helping the county to more carefully manage the pumping of groundwater and more rigorously regulate sources of pollution. "I'm totally opposed to it," says Worthley. "We can manage our own groundwater."

Like most places in California and across the country, already-strapped Tulare County was decimated by loss of tax revenues during the financial downturn. "We know we have a problem, and we're trying to fix it," says Worthley. "We don't have the money to fix it. The community services districts don't have the money to fix it."

So where will Tulare County get the money? I ask. "We're looking for some assistance from the state," he says.

Back in Seville, as we walk toward Becky Quintana's house and the snowcapped peaks beyond, Quintana reflects on what's been accomplished. Still, she acknowledges that the struggle to secure clean water for her community never ends.

"People always ask me, 'How come you don't just move?' Is that going to solve my problem -- just taking off? My parents built their house here 60 years ago. Should I just say, 'OK, I'm leaving, the water will take care of itself?' " She shakes her head emphatically, her large earrings swinging defiantly in the cool spring air. "It's not just about me. It's about the next generation. It's about the next human being that's going to want to come make a home here. Why not make a difference?"

Jeremy Miller is a contributing editor for High Country News. He writes from his home in Richmond, California.

This story was made possible with support from the Kenney Brothers Foundation and with reader donations to the High Country News Research Fund.

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