Cristobal Chavez has every reason to believe that for 11 years, he and his family were drinking water containing four times the legal limit of nitrate, a possible carcinogen. He moved to his current residence – a 20-acre ranch in rural Tulare County, a few miles outside the town of Porterville, California, – in 2003. In 2014, he had his well tested, and a lab analysis revealed that the water was essentially undrinkable.
He says his 17-year-old daughter has occasional seizures.
“I think it’s from the nitrate,” Chavez says.
According to a 2012 report from UC Davis, in 96 percent of cases where nitrate leaches into groundwater supplies, agricultural operations are at fault. This is almost certainly how the Chavez family’s well became contaminated. A dairy ranch abuts his property, and the greater area is surrounded by orchards and vineyards. He says state workers delivered bottled water to his home for several months.
“But their grant ran out,” he says.
Now, Chavez spends about $200 each month to buy bottled water, which the family uses for cooking, drinking and even for washing their dishes. The Chavez family is hardly unique in their plight. In communities like Lanare, East Orosi, Allensworth, El Porvenir and many more – all affected by either arsenic, nitrate or simply depleted wells – thousands of other families live as the Chavez family does, spending as much as 10 percent of their household income on water.
In the 1950s, California began advancing its water supply and delivery infrastructure with a system of canals, tunnels and pumps that sent water from northern California’s rivers to people hundreds of miles to the south. These projects, funded by the state and federal governments, also allowed landowners in the arid San Joaquin Valley to irrigate millions of acres of farmland, and today, luxuriant orchards and vineyards thrive here.
But while 20th-century engineering brought prosperity to farmers and coastal urbanites, thousands of people in the rural hinterlands of the San Joaquin Valley were left in the dusty past. Today, roughly 100,000 people in this region cannot drink the water that flows from their taps, for it is contaminated with high levels of arsenic, nitrate and other toxins. The number of residents with unreliable access to clean water reaches more than 1 million statewide.
“It’s shameful,” says Jonathan Nelson, the policy director for the Community Water Center, an organization that has been advocating for people without safe drinking water in the San Joaquin Valley for many years. “The water that flows to Los Angeles through the San Joaquin Valley goes to some of the wealthiest water agencies in the state, and that water goes right past these communities.”
While this social emergency has been more or less ignored for decades, this is changing, and murmurs of meaningful activity are now coming from Sacramento. A bill currently making its way through the Legislature would create a reliable fund that would pay for much needed water system improvements and upgrades. The fund, which will need a two-thirds vote from lawmakers to pass, would also cover long-term operations and maintenance costs of delivery systems and treatment facilities. In his 2017 budget proposal, Gov. Jerry Brown declared he was “committed to working with the Legislature and stakeholders” to bring clean, safe, affordable water to all Californians, and he stated much the same thing in this year’s budget address, delivered in January. As far back as 2012, Brown approved AB 685, known as the Human Right to Water bill. The law established as state policy “that every human being has the right to safe, clean, affordable, and accessible water…”
But six years later, the problem persists. A variety of factors are to blame, including groundwater overdraft, agricultural pollution, drought and – according to several sources – institutionalized racism that has marginalized low-income communities of mostly Latinos.
“I believe the selective annexations of some towns and not others are racially motivated,” says Jonathan London, a UC Davis professor of human ecology and community and regional development. “I think the interests of the people in these communities aren’t taken as seriously as those of white, wealthier people.”
East Porterville – a small community near where Cristobal Chavez lives – illuminates a serious problematic nuance of law and policy by which people on private well systems may not qualify for state assistance. Here, the wells that supplied 750 people ran dry during the drought.
“People were going to public shelters just to take showers – it was horrific,” says Jennifer Clary, water programs manager at Clean Water Action, an advocacy group in Oakland. Clary explains that wells serving fewer than 15 households – as the wells in East Porterville did – are technically private. Thus, when they become contaminated, or when they run dry, they are ineligible for public assistance.
“The fact that their problem was part of a drought emergency actually got them help more quickly than others with contaminated water, some of whom have been out of compliance for a decade or more and are still waiting for assistance,” Clary says.
East Porterville has since been connected to the city of Porterville’s water grid and is considered a success story. Chavez says he has asked to be connected to the same pipe network.
“But they said it’s too far,” he says.
In theory, at least, relief for these marginalized communities is not far away. Another report from UC Davis released in March found that most of the people without safe drinking water live near public water systems. In such instances, it might take little more than pipes, and a measure of will, to solve the matter. UC Davis’s London, who led the research, says many towns and cities have grown and expanded over the years to a point where they surround smaller communities yet still do not provide them with water.
“There is often this false impression that these suitable water systems are just so far away that it’s not feasible to connect to them, but they’re actually quite close in many cases,” he says.
Whatever the direct and indirect causes, in nearly all cases where Californians cannot drink their tap water, money is sorely needed. That’s why Senator Bill Monning (D-Carmel) introduced the Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Fund, first introduced as SB-623 in February 2017. If passed into law, the bill – currently in the Assembly Rules Committee, where it needs a two-thirds vote to pass – would create a cash reserve of as much as $140 million per year to assist Californians lacking access to drinkable water. The fund would be created mostly by a 95-cent-per-month addition to household water bills statewide, with 20 percent – $30 million – proposed to come from a tax imposed on agricultural fertilizers that contain nitrogen.
The fund has drawn widespread support from numerous groups, including many farming lobbies, municipal governments, bicycle advocates, Sierra Nevada Brewing Company, environmental groups, and various water districts and agencies.
But the main organization representing those agencies is firmly opposed to Monning’s bill. Cindy Tuck, the deputy executive director for government relations with the Association of California Water Agencies, says her organization believes in the human right to water but takes issue with the key mechanism by which the fund would be created.
“We believe everyone should have safe drinking water, but we don’t think a new tax is the way to do this,” Tuck says.
She argues that asking hundreds of water agencies to collect a tax will impose a heavy administrative burden that could require them to hike up water rates even more to finance the extra office hours for staff.
“The proponents say they’re concerned about affordability, and this could make water less affordable,” Tuck says.
Approving the fund will indeed mean an $11.40 annual hike in most household water costs. Not approving it, however, will likely have disproportionately worse impacts on tens of thousands of individuals like Cristobal Chavez, who would likely see no relief – at least not anytime soon – from his current circumstances. Tuck says drawing the needed money from the general fund, instead of taxing ratepayers, would be a more appropriate way to create and maintain the drinking water fund.
Monning, however, says the general fund, since it gets reallocated every year, is nowhere near reliable enough. A small economic recession, he says, is all it might take to disrupt the flow of general fund dollars toward the Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Fund.
“They [the Association of California Water Agencies] say they care about this problem, but they really haven’t provided any good alternatives,” he says.
Nelson, at the Community Water Center, calls the stance taken by the Association of California Water Agencies “the shame of California.”
“We have some of the wealthiest water agencies in the state worried about a fee of less than a dollar a month that would help bring clean water to communities of low-income people,” Nelson says. “Their actions are saying, ‘It’s not our problem.’”
Clary says she is “encouraged that so many people are supportive,” including the governor, other elected officials and the general public.
“But until we get a two-thirds vote, it’s not enough just to be supportive,” she says.
Near Porterville, Chavez is closely following the procedures of the state Legislature while making routine drives to the supermarket to buy bulk cases of bottled water. He says he is well aware that the surrounding farms probably produced the nitrate that has crippled his life, but he is also aware that knowing who to blame doesn’t bring relief.
“There’s no solution for this as far as I know, unless they vote for that fund in June,” he says.
Top image: Sign indicating buried water line from a new well to serve Allensworth, one of the San Joaquin communities in which tap water is affected by either arsenic, nitrate or simply depleted wells. | Carla Pineda