California’s Prolonged Drought And Its Effects On Economic Inequality: A Case Study On East Porterville

Unincorporated communities with a majority of socioeconomically disadvantaged residents. (Source: PolicyLink)

Though California’s recent El Nino weather pattern has lessened the severity of the drought and quelled concerns about its effects, water rights are still highly correlated with economic inequality, especially in an agriculture-heavy Central Valley. Many policy actions fail to address or include inequality, including Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s [D-CA] California Drought Relief Act of 2015, which proposes techniques to curb water shortages and better wildfire containment tactics through engineering projects and increased pumping. Most importantly, there have been little bills and policy actions with governments to help allow groundwater restoration and the drilling of deep wells, mainly done by large agricultural complexes. Many of the valley’s inhabitants, who work on large plots of farmland for agricultural conglomerates and corporations, rely on private or community wells since there is often no access to modern water infrastructure that supplies running water.

This contrasts with the water rationing loophole that many large agricultural businesses take advantage of. The large reliance on wells was a measure that many Central Valley residents had to take in response to the lack of access to public water infrastructure that is common in established cities and towns. Despite these setbacks, all residents in California are mandated to a 25% reduction in their water usage, where violators are subject to fines if this law isn’t complied to. The reliance on wells by tapping groundwater (that is not part of the state’s water infrastructure) physically displays water access inequities where well-dependent communities are systematically disadvantaged. Large farms and processing plants take up so much of the groundwater that there is little left for small farm owners, and even less from disenfranchised residents and farm workers within the valley. There are costs and taxes needed not only individually, but also amongst communities to even obtain running water. The continuation of this drought since 2012 threatens the vitality of not only these residents but also the supply of much of the water in California, where eventually this structure of those who do and don’t have access to water will eventually lead to a phenomenon which isn’t zero-sum. Rather it will be one where all of California residents, along with countless external parties, entities, countries, and individuals reliant and interconnected with the world’s eighth largest economy will lose due to a significant lack of output from the California economy.

East Porterville, California is a community in Tulare County, in the heart of the San Joaquin Valley, that is experiencing some of the worse effects of the drought. This census tract hosts many of the county’s 1,675-plus obsolete wells. 500 of these wells dried up at the advent of the record-breaking drought in 2011, despite county governmental efforts to collaborate with non-profits to supply and replenish storage tanks for residents with dysfunctional wells. With a poverty rate of 38%, these tanks are vital to keeping a baseline level of water supplied to the predominantly low-income community. Tanks are used because adequate water infrastructure with running water does not exist within East Porterville, and the refilling of such tanks costs around $150 for 1,000 gallons, more per capita than for average Central Valley households with running water access, which is often in the form of a flat fee.

The contrast of tanks and dry wells alongside the sophisticated water infrastructure and irrigation systems in cities, suburbs, remote newer developments, and large agricultural farms and processing centers display the side-by-side disparity that is ubiquitous throughout the San Joaquin Valley. One of the most profound examples is this community itself. The addresses in this community read as “Porterville, CA,” which is actually a municipality adjacent to East Porterville. However, East Porterville does not share many of the same rights of Porterville proper since it is actually unincorporated land, which means it belongs only to a county, but not part of any city. Due to this legal zoning status, East Porterville is denied many of the essential city services that Porterville has, including that of a sewer and general water infrastructure. This leaves this community with 800 households being left to rely on private wells, where many of these wells don’t have any water. This is one of many areas within the Central Valley where there is a sharp distinction between cities and suburbs and that of counties. Unincorporated areas, which is primarily populated by minority, socioeconomically disadvantaged farm workers in the Central Valley, also suffer from other substandard public services, such as police and fire response times and infrequent repairs of roads and streets. East Porterville lies outside of the municipal water district that is responsible for locally managing the water supply infrastructure, a system that sustained Porterville residents throughout the drought with clean, running water. East Porterville does not have the same privileges, so residents had to take drastic measures to get the water they needed.

Wells only means that many East Porterville residents are able to access potable or even semi-potable water outside of tanks, which don’t all contain even potable water. Drilling and constructing wells also put an economic strain on many households, where each well costs around $10,000 to $30,000 on average in a community where the per capita income is only $11,046 as of 2015. This leaves many residents with little choice but to take loans beyond the minimal state and county grant money that is available for well construction. There have been propositions to connect East Porterville households to the Porterville’s water system, but many abodes are often too distant for it to be remotely economical. When the drought hit the state, it hit East Porterville particularly hard as groundwater levels have been dwindling even before the drought started, leading to bickering between neighbors as well as between Porterville and East Porterville residents. The economic inequality is apparent on the physical differences of both communities—where Porterville’s green, well-manicured lawns contrast with an arid and bleak East Porterville with wells that barely have any water.

Wells and Groundwater Access between Unincorporated Areas and Cities

Dry wells are characteristic in unincorporated areas like East Porterville, and a large number of these areas are inhabited by poor and non-white residents (65% and 64% respectively). City and county regulations disenfranchise many of these residents as they are denied access to proper water infrastructure not only during the duration of the drought but for many years beforehand. Such wells are also prone to contaminated groundwater that originates from agricultural farmland and processing facilities in the form of runoff. Many of these farms have also exhausted the groundwater beneath them, causing the water table to significantly decrease to the point in which existing wells lose their functionality, and where the construction of new wells which go even deeper beneath the ground are unable to access any groundwater. With many socioeconomically disadvantaged residents relying on these wells for decades, the failure of aquifer recharge due to little rainfall made the wells dysfunctional. The state’s failure to properly regulate water usage and nitrate runoff for large agricultural farms and processing plants lead to the little water that there is to be contaminated. “In most cases, the people living there don’t actually own the land, the home, or the well. They are usually farm workers. The Central Valley problem is mostly an agricultural problem. Agriculture is heavily subsidized, and they use migrant workers. Agricultural would love for the state taxpayers to take care of the water problem, “ says Paul Gilbert-Snyder, an associate civil engineer who also does work in public policy at the East Bay Municipal Utility District. He sees large agricultural entities responsible for amplifying many of the water woes caused by the drought, as these entities. He adds, “especially in times of drought, they just drill deeper and deeper wells which lower the ground level severely. Big corporate agriculture is not concerned about the long-haul. They will pay whatever it costs to drill deeper. They don’t tend to think about sustainability—it is all profit driven. The little guy next door loses his water and goes bankrupt. The little guy is far more likely to be concerned about sustainability.” The lack of regulations and the continued collaboration of government to provide subsidies and loopholes for big agriculture makes environmentally-sound and sustainable practices of water usage extremely difficult and without any institutional reforms, the environmental, economic, and social impacts of the drought will only continue to worsen.

The sprawling design of the Central Valley, where many of its minority and impoverished live in underserved and unincorporated census tracts adjacent to (or even tens of miles away from) to city limits, displays extreme vulnerability to events like the severe drought. This land-use planning, government planning, and sociopolitical negligence and inequity have led to a human-made crisis that is amplified by the drought. Kristin Dobbin, Regional Water Management Coordinator of  the Community Water Center, a non-profit public policy community organization with several offices in the Central Valley, adds, “Urban design and water equity and access rights in the status quo is a causation, not a correlation to racial and economic inequality. “ It has been so apparent that those without water tend to be those who are are socioeconomically disadvantaged that wealthy Californians who are hesitant, or outright refuse to, cut back on water claim that poorer residents should cut more proportionally to themselves. Countless examples of residences in Woodside, Rancho San Cordova, Bel Air, and other affluent communities show the lack of adaptation by their respective residents towards more drought-resident vegetation and landscaping versus those of predominantly green, sprawling lawns. Obsolete wells and large, well-watered lawns display the water inequity that occurs within California. Miniscule fines as low as $100 for large water offenses in some of the state’s most well-off communities (which often face up to 36% water usage reduction regulations) create an atmosphere where the impacts of the drought will only worsen and even amplify water inequality in the Golden State. 

Contamination in Groundwater

For the little water that does appear in wells, runoff—particularly in the form of nitrite compounds—contaminates much of the groundwater across the entire region and has many of its origins from large agricultural farms and food processing centers. Many of the large sources are from dairy farms, where Tulare County alone reaps in the most profit in milk at around $2.5 billion. East Porterville is located in close proximity to these complexes and is even seen as highly desirable among farm workers due to its close location to their workplaces, in addition to having cheaper real estate because it is within an unincorporated area. The lack of access to running water unsurprisingly depreciates the value of those respective homes. Despite the demand by predominantly  migrant farmworkers, dwindling and lower real estate values bode relatively lower property taxes, leading to these homes being the only places where poorer Californians are able to live while simultaneously suffering the lack of water in addition to the lack of other essential public services that are often provided by cities within a micro-federalist state.

Moving Forward

Possible solutions for communities like East Porterville include that of recharging depleted aquifers with freshwater or that of expanding water infrastructure while applying water sanctions to large agricultural complexes. This is ultimately a cost-benefit analysis that has to be done, but mutual exclusivity doesn’t have to be apparent if such inequalities, as well as scientific and engineering ideas and solutions, are applied within the public policy and corporate sphere. This drought, which is causing a groundwater crisis, did not only take place from serendipitous trends in climate change, but also failed policies that prioritized the welfare of certain citizens and large agricultural companies that continued to tap groundwater and dig deeper wells that lowered the water table and led the ground to sink before the beginning of the drought, while also having prime access to water resources. Such policies that have disenfranchised so many farm workers, lower income residents, and small farm owners have also massively benefited the owners of mega-farms and processing plants as loopholes of not having to conform to the 25% cut in water usage, as well as being able to report their own nitrite and discharge output levels alone shows the flaw of inequality and the lack of consideration of weighing beyond commercial interests when bills are debated in Sacramento. Greater political participation within a less representative model of government, where community groups, corporations, and individuals can have more of a voice within the community, municipal, county and state government can better represent more of a utilitarian, yet equitable environment for California. Possible regulations of increasing water fines and instituting economically reasonable, yet necessary water rationing provisions towards large agriculture can help lessen the impact of socioeconomically disadvantaged residents who rely heavily on groundwater and outside deliveries. Without compromise and collaboration, the fate of the Central Valley remains to be dismal and the doldrums will continue to plague California.

Featured image source: PolicyLink