In California, 1 million people lack access to clean water

Why one community has struggled with arsenic in its water for so long, despite the state’s Human Right to Water law.

 

When Sara Gallego*  turns on her faucet, she’s never sure what will come out. “In the mornings, it’s the color of coffee,” she said. At other times, “It’s super yellow.”

Gallego is one of the roughly 1,900 residents of the Oasis Mobile Home Park, a community of 220 dilapidated trailers in the unincorporated community of Thermal, California. Located on Torres Martinez Indigenous land, Oasis is home to low-income people with few other housing options. Many are farmworkers, and many are also undocumented.

Residents of the Oasis Mobile Home Park in Thermal, California, complain that the community’s water is tainted, and that management has failed to fix the problem.
Andy Cullen / High Country News

The trailer park is bordered on one side by agricultural fields, but the park itself is characterized by unpaved dirt roads and seeping sewage. Fields of tall grass encroach on its edges. At home, Gallego and her four kids use bottled water for drinking and cooking. For showers, dishwashing and brushing their teeth, however, they still depend on the tap. Lately, Gallego has emerged from her showers with red eyes and clumps of hair in her hands.

Oasis has a history of unsafe drinking water. In August 2019, water monitoring detected arsenic, a known carcinogen, in the park’s groundwater supply at nearly 10 times the legal limit mandated by the federal Safe Drinking Water Act.

The Environmental Protection Agency cited and fined the park’s owner for violating the Safe Drinking Water Act and ordered him to provide an alternative supply of drinking water while he fixed the water supply. In late May, after nearly a year of additional monitoring, the EPA declared the water safe again. The emergency water deliveries halted, but Gallego and her neighbors remained suspicious of the liquid flowing from their taps; one resident said it sometimes came out “oily, like butter.”

After months of complaints, in late August, the Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability, a Fresno-based nonprofit, conducted its own tests and detected high levels of arsenic in Oasis’ water — over eight times the legal limit. That prompted another EPA investigation and citation.

Gallego and her neighbors are among the estimated 1 million Californians who lack clean drinking water, generally because they live in impoverished rural communities with small water systems and limited budgets. This is still happening despite the passage of California’s Human Right to Water law in 2012. The only such legislation in the country, it is supposed to guarantee that every resident has access to clean drinking water.

Shelves bow underneath the weight of water bottles purchased in bulk for drinking and cooking in the home of one Oasis Mobile Home Park resident in Thermal, California.
Andy Cullen / High Country News

Today, the arsenic problem continues, even as the coronavirus pandemic makes access to clean water increasingly urgent. Even though California law states that water is a right, the story of Oasis exemplifies how difficult it is to ensure clean drinking water for the most vulnerable people, not just here but across the West.

ON A SATURDAY AFTERNOON in early September, with a record-breaking heat wave that sent desert temperatures soaring to 118 degrees Fahrenheit, about 10 Oasis residents took advantage of the minimal shade of two saplings by an empty parking lot to share their grievances with High Country News.

They arrived in small groups — mostly family units — in separate vehicles, each person responsibly masked. They were mostly women, all mothers; one was a representative of the local school board. A teenage girl came, and a couple of men, too. One woman wore a hair-wrap, which she later carefully unwound to show us how her dark locks, like Gallego’s, were falling out.

People were still arriving when the meeting began. At times, driven by a sense of urgency, they spoke over each other and finished other people’s sentences. “We don’t want to be forgotten,” one woman said. One of the men expressed his astonishment that this was happening in America. “Can you believe this is the richest country in the world?” he asked.

Arsenic occurs naturally in the groundwater, here in California and throughout the Southwest. But most communities have filtration systems that remove most of it from the drinking water. Such infrastructure is costly to maintain, however.  In California, a 2017 study from UCLA found that water systems in mobile home parks were more likely to have had health-related violations, and four times as likely to experience water service shut-offs. Altogether, they were 40% more likely to have less reliable groundwater.

“Can you believe this is the richest country in the world?”

Responsibility for providing clean drinking water — and other utilities and amenities — falls to landlords, who are generally focused on maximizing profits, said Gregory Pierce, co-author of the study and a senior researcher on water and transportation initiatives at UCLA’s Luskin Center for Innovation. But even when the mobile property owners are operating in good faith, the cost of updating aging water infrastructure can be prohibitive, especially if the water system is small, as they are in most mobile home parks.

According to the California State Water Board, the state’s 2,100 small, independent water systems account for 80% of all drinking water citations. 

At Oasis, the issue is further complicated by the park’s location on Indigenous land. Owing to laws concerning tribal sovereignty, state regulators, including the public utilities commission, lack jurisdiction there. This leaves regulation to the EPA Region 9 office, which covers California, Nevada, Arizona, the Pacific Islands and 148 tribal nations. Oasis is just one community on a very long list.

“We are aware of residents’ concerns about the color and odor and taste that is coming out of the taps,” said Amy Miller, EPA Region 9’s director of enforcement. But “the EPA does not regulate taste, color and odor.”

It does, however, regulate arsenic. “Because (Oasis) is on tribal land, EPA is the primary agency overseeing the water system,” Miller added. “But I think, as a community down in the Coachella Valley ... we all need to, to work together, all the different agencies, to find solutions.”

Indeed, water systems located on tribal land are not even counted among the 7,403 public water systems in California the state water board tracks. Water systems in Indian Country generally have much poorer infrastructure than the ones serving the general population. In 2018, Indian Health Services identified nearly 2,000 potential projects for addressing water, sewage and wastewater infrastructure needs; their estimated cost came to $2.67 billion.

Meanwhile, the Oasis community continues to live without clean drinking water. The sewers overflow, and the old electrical boxes often overheat, causing power and water outages that force families outside, interrupting the children’s homework and sleep schedules. “I’d like for one of the politicians to come and live here for a week, to see what we suffer,” one resident said.

In addition, after the EPA declared the water safe to drink again, the park was no longer required to provide water. So Gallego continued to buy seven large boxes of bottled water and three gallon-sized jugs every week for her family of five, at a cost of roughly $75 each month. Many of her neighbors do the same; one family had a cabinet filled with rows upon rows of neatly stacked 12-ounce bottles of water.  

FOR A FEW MONTHS at the start of the pandemic,  panicking consumers hoarded bottled water and other basic supplies. At the time, the EPA had not yet declared the park’s drinking water safe, and the park owner couldn’t obtain the large quantities the agency ordered. As a result, Riverside County and the Coachella Valley Water District, a regional water district that serves several towns in the western part of the valley, stepped in. They provided water trucks for the local residents — a service that could continue if the funding were available, said Castulo Estrada, the vice president of the water district’s board of directors.

The only longer-term solution, Estrada said, would require consolidating Oasis’ water supply with that of the Coachella Valley Water District. But this would take time, and money: The district has identified 100 small local water systems that are ripe for potential consolidation, and each would cost multimillions.

“I’d like for one of the politicians to come and live here for a week, to see what we suffer.”

California has passed a number of laws to simplify funding, including earmarking $130 million each year for the next 10 years for clean water projects. Even though Oasis is fourth on the list of local water projects, each will take years to complete, meaning that it may be a decade or more before residents have consistent access to clean water.

And for many, that’s simply too long to wait. “Residents no longer believe that there’s a way to have a healthy community,” said Nataly Escobedo Garcia, a water rights specialist with the Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability.

So Escobedo is currently helping people like Gallego look for alternative housing in the area, aided by a local poverty alleviation organization and the Riverside County Housing Authority. But affordable housing is hard to find, and it’s not clear who would fund such a move, or how many residents would benefit.

Since the new citation was issued in September, Gallego no longer has to drive to the grocery store every Sunday to pick up the family’s water for the week. Instead, she gets at least a gallon of water per family member every day.

Storage tanks for the Oasis Mobile Home Park’s water supply in Thermal, California.
Andy Cullen / High Country News

But these deliveries will eventually end, too. And when they do, Gallego wonders how many years will pass before there’s a lasting solution. How old will her children be?

That’s what worries her most, despite her own physical problems: the impact that all of this will have on the health of her four young children. Gallego came to Oasis hoping to give them a better life, but lately, she’s been wondering whether she made the right choice. In the meantime, there’s little else she can do but wait, either for a long-term plan for clean water or for assisted relocation.  

* Some names in this story have been changed in order to protect the source from possible retaliation.   

Eileen Guo is an independent journalist who covers inequality. After years covering Afghanistan, China, and Latin America, she reports on the Western United States from Los Angeles. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor

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