California’s Other Water Problem

Carolina Garcia and her family live in a vibrant, close-knit community about a mile outside of Sanger, California. She has fresh fruit trees flourishing in her backyard, chickens and sheep frolicking outside her house, and four beautiful children with another on the way. She seems just like you or any other Californian; except for the fact that her family, and most of her neighborhood, is exposed to unsafe drinking water. And her community is not alone. Small, rural areas exist in almost all of California’s 58 counties, and nearly all experience contaminated water. About 300 communities across California have lacked access to this right for over a decade. Shamefully, officials have hardly addressed this issue until recent years. Flint, Michigan’s lead contamination problem, which has been grabbing headlines for years, has recently been declared resolved. Yet over one million rural Californians, more than 10 times the population of Flint, still lack access to potable water. The problem is, hardly anyone knows about the issue.  

California deemed access to safe and affordable drinking water a human right in 2012, but the state continuously fails to provide this basic necessity to many residents. While the rest of the state worries about the “little things”, like the grass in their front lawn going brown, affected communities such as Carolina’s worry about not having water to drink. Particularly in rural areas, high levels of arsenic and nitrates contaminate the water. These chemicals are shown to cause “cancer, nervous system decline, miscarriages and reduced mental functioning in children.”

Unlike large urban areas, rural communities often lack the resources to maintain and operate water supply systems. Rather than large utility districts, which can serve thousands, even millions, of people, treating and providing water for multiple cities, people living in rural areas typically use personal wells to distribute water to their neighbors. The well owners are unable to properly treat the water and remove the harmful chemicals without the funding of a large utility district. As a result, much of the water from these wells exceeds the maximum contaminant levels set by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Despite the fact that farming plays a large role in contaminating the water, California state officials seem to prioritize the returns of large-scale agricultural production over the burdens placed on these rural populations. Cash receipts for California agriculture totaled over $47 billion in 2015, and exports totaled almost $21 billion. But the nitrates from the fertilizers and livestock production runoff seep into the groundwater and ultimately into the wells of rural Californians. As a result, people like Carolina Garcia, a hard-working Californian, are denied a fundamental human right.

In brushing the clean-drinking-water issue under the rug, California politicians disproportionately hurt low-income farmers. To make matters worse, rural residents are least able to deal with this issue. They do not have the resources to treat their groundwater, so they are forced to spend high portions of their income on bottled water in order to safely drink, wash, and cook. The expenses paid for bottled water compound the bills they already pay for contaminated water. The Community Water Center found that some families in these areas are paying up to 10 percent of their income on water alone. This resource ultimately becomes unaffordable for these families with already limited finances.

The tainted water affects more than just families at home. Schools are forced to spend already limited resources on bottled water. By not being able to invest resources in books, school supplies, and teachers, Carolina Garcia’s four children, and the other children in these communities, are denied the quality of education received by children in urban areas served by large utility districts. This further limits their ability to move away from the unsafe drinking water into cities where economic opportunities are more abundant. Garcia’s children will be trapped in the same situation as their mother, and their human rights will continue to be violated.

California officials also neglect to prioritize the issue of contaminated water due to the race and legal standing of those impacted. Most of the communities affected are small, poor, farming communities whose population is up to 95 percent Latino. Many of these communities also have large numbers of undocumented immigrants. Communities can attempt to resolve their situation by applying for federal funds under the Safe Drinking Water Act, but without legal status, these people are unable to apply for the funding. Additionally, California has failed to properly distribute these funds. Rural communities have received no guarantee that they will receive the funding they applied for from the government. To make matters worse, since many of those affected by the contaminated water are poor, rural Latinos and illegal immigrants, they lack the political power to win the battle against big agriculture and to pressure the government to incite change.

However, Latino political power is growing, and people have started to take notice of the clean drinking water crisis in California. The government has started to take action with Senate Bill 623 that would tax farmers for fertilizer use and add a modest fee to urban water bills. The California Water Foundation recently found that almost three-quarters of Californians would be willing to pay an extra dollar on their water bill every month to help fix these contaminated systems and provide potable water to these communities. California has the sixth-largest economy in the world and the highest concentration of billionaires. A state with as much wealth as California should not continue to deny Carolina and a million other residents this fundamental human right. But, without strong support from the government and voters, over one million Californians will continue to bear the burden of unsafe drinking water, something the rest of the population takes for granted.

Featured Image Source: Pexel