People are very much a part of HCN's environmental coverage

by Paul Larmer

The environment might seem like a confining beat for a publication whose mission statement promises to serve everybody who cares about the American West. But it's actually pretty roomy. As naturalist John Muir famously said, "When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe." That's especially true for environmental issues.

These days, High Country News often reaches beyond the traditional land, water and wildlife topics that fill most "nature" magazines. We've long believed that environmental issues cannot be understood without also understanding the social, economic and political forces behind them.

Still, readers occasionally object when we stretch our boundaries. Sierra Crane-Murdoch's recent story on northern Idaho's changing political landscape, for example, elicited this response from an Indiana reader: "I read HCN to learn about how land use and conservation are impacted by political decisions … not about how a bunch of California conservatives took over county government in Idaho."

We respect our readers' opinions -- and their criticism -- but still hope that the story offered some helpful insight into the political forces shaping the West. And I hope that our Indiana reader sticks with us long enough to read HCN Contributing Editor Jeremy Miller's cover story on the struggle for safe drinking water in many small farming communities in California's vast Central Valley. It's not a public-lands story, but it connects the dots between intensive land use -- in this case, large-scale, chemically intensive agriculture -- and the health of the people who work and live around it.

California's contaminated groundwater, which supplies mostly Latino populations in small towns like Seville, recently resulted in the passage of a new state law. The Human Right to Water bill ostensibly guarantees that all Californians can trust the water in their taps, but it lacks regulatory teeth and provides no funding for badly needed water-treatment facilities. Still, the activists who fought for it hope that they have turned an important symbolic corner -- one that will eventually lead to tangible results.

Miller, who grew up in Arvada, Colo. and later lived in the New York City borough of Queens and taught biology to high school kids in the Bronx, many of whom lived near polluting industries,  is drawn to stories that connect working-class people to environmental issues. "I've always liked wandering through the parts of cities where tourists don't go -- the old industrial parts," he says.

Since moving to California a few years ago, Miller has become intrigued by the farming communities so vividly portrayed by John Steinbeck, one of his favorite authors. So much has remained unchanged since the '40s, he says, including poor working and living conditions for farmworkers.

"People assume that there is this disembodied thing called the 'environment,' " he says. "But if you can show that the environment and the place where people live are the same, then it's not so esoteric."

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