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Not a Drop to Drink

Residents of one of the richest agricultural regions of the world can't drink water from the tap. Is there a way to fix the problem?
For those who labor on the richest agricultural land in the nation, clean water is a luxury

When Josie Nieto visits her relatives in Mexicali, Mexico, she luxuriates in long showers. And when she’s thirsty, she enjoys a glass of water straight from the kitchen tap. At Nieto’s own house, the water pressure is so low it can take her 45 minutes to shower and shampoo. And sometimes there’s no water at all, which is why some of her neighbors hoard water in buckets. It’s fine for laundry and houseplants, but Nieto isn’t keen on drinking the stuff. The main pipe of her community water system runs straight down the middle of an irrigation ditch. "I’ve seen dead animals in there," Nieto says. The plastic water pipe itself suffers frequent breaks, which can allow contaminants to seep into the system. Washer screens on fixtures routinely trap sand and flecks of rust; a neighbor without a screen once drew from his tap a tall glass of polliwogs. In response to bacterial spikes, the water-system operator sends out boil-water notices, but boiling when nitrate levels rise would only concentrate the tasteless, odorless compound. So frequent are these alternating messages that Nieto neither drinks nor cooks with her tap water.

Curiously, Nieto doesn’t live in Mexico, or in any other developing nation that routinely struggles with water quality and quantity. She lives on the eastern side of one of the most productive agricultural areas in the world, the flat-bottomed bowl of California’s San Joaquin Valley. And yet in 2009 and 2010, when the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation set out to collect data and draw attention to communities that lack clean water, she visited not only Namibia, Senegal, and Bangladesh but also Nieto’s hometown of Seville, in Tulare County.

An unincorporated village of just a few streets, one gas station, and an elementary school, Seville is engirdled by agriculture. Avocado, citrus, and nut trees stretch to the distant horizon, interrupted only by row after row of table grapes; fields of cotton, corn, and alfalfa; and dairies that confine thousands of cows in dusty corrals. (Tulare County is the biggest milk producer in the nation.)

Such bounty was unimaginable when this region was first settled in the mid-nineteenth century. Then, farmers on the valley’s eastern side grew dry-land wheat on hardpan soils and prayed that neither drought nor deluge from Sierra Nevada snowmelt would wipe out their crops. But in the 1890s, laborers began constructing the hundreds of miles of canals, ditches, and headgates that would channel and control the four great rivers -- the Kings, Kaweah, Kern, and Tule -- that tumbled out of the mountains. With railroads to transport crops and a dependable supply of water, farmers soon diversified. Packinghouses, storage warehouses, and labor camps sprang up. No one could have predicted at the time that the irrigation water that turned a semi-arid desert into a horn of plenty would eventually threaten the health of those who lived among and worked those fields.

Established by the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway in 1913, Seville is home to roughly 480 residents, most of them Hispanic and poor, many of them farm laborers. The community water system serves 83 percent of the population, including the Nietos; the rest of Seville’s residents rely on their own wells, which draw from the same aquifer as the town supply.

The hydrologically astute will note a striking disparity: while poor people in tiny towns drink groundwater that could be making them sick, pomegranates and almonds thrive on river water that is relatively pure. But in a state where the right to capture river flows is fiercely adjudicated -- and both humans and delta smelt, among other environmental constituents, have legal claim to more water than the state’s rivers sometimes hold -- almost 90 percent of San Joaquin Valley residents rely on groundwater for domestic use.

NRDC: The Thirsty State

Noah Garrison

Q&A with an attorney in NRDC’s Santa Monica office, specializing in stormwater pollution and water supply issues in California.

Is groundwater pollution in California limited to the communities in Tulare County featured in this story?

No, the problem is widespread. While nitrate pollution is particularly common in the Central Valley, pollution from pesticides, salts, and other contaminants is a constant threat to drinking-water supplies for millions of Californians. NRDC brought a series of successful lawsuits against dairy farms in the Chino Basin that resulted in efforts to clean up these operations and prevent further pollution of surface water (our rivers, lakes, and streams) and groundwater. But in other parts of the state, agricultural and industrial activities still threaten groundwater quality.

Read the rest here.

The contamination is hardly limited to Seville. Between 10 percent and 15 percent of California’s community-supply wells exceed federal nitrate standards, and the highest number of those tainted wells are located in the San Joaquin Valley, which also has some of the highest rates of poverty and percentages of minorities in the state. In 2006, when the State Water Resources Control Board sampled 181 domestic wells in Tulare County, which lies near the middle of the valley, an astonishing 40 percent had nitrate levels above the federal limit of 45 micrograms per liter. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that across the United States, up to 15 percent of wells in both agricultural and urban areas exceed federal levels for nitrate.

Nitrate is formed when nitrogen, present in all living organisms and in synthetic fertilizer, combines in soil with oxygen. Farmers apply nitrogen-rich fertilizers to increase their yields, but even under ideal conditions, plants take up only 50 percent to 60 percent of the nutrient. What’s left can easily seep into both groundwater and surface water, where it contributes to algal blooms and dead zones. Nitrate in water may derive from natural mineral deposits or airborne deposition, but its major sources are leaking septic systems, wastewater treatment plants, inorganic fertilizer, and discharges from food processors, feedlots, dairies, and other confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs). Considering Tulare County’s bovine population (nearly half a million cows, producing 9.9 million tons of organic fertilizer a year) and the vast acreage treated with synthetic fertilizer, it’s not surprising that nitrate is the greatest contaminant threat to California’s drinking water. In fact, nitrate is the most common chemical contaminant of groundwater worldwide -- a problem that will only get worse as the population increases, farmers spread more fertilizer, and warmer temperatures diminish freshwater supplies and concentrate contaminant levels.

In 1974 the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) set a maximum level for nitrate in drinking water to protect against health risks including blue-baby syndrome, a potentially fatal condition that reduces the blood’s capacity to carry oxygen. Exposure to high levels of nitrate has also been linked to pregnancy complications, including birth defects and premature birth, dysfunction of the spleen and kidneys, respiratory tract infections, pancreatitis, and cancer of the digestive system, bladder, and thyroid.

Sitting in the dimly lit living room of a Seville neighbor, Nieto tells me that her granddaughter has spina bifida. Three other family members have problems with their thyroid. "But we can’t link it with the water," Nieto says, shrugging. "We’re surrounded by agriculture here." Her implication is clear: risk factors abound. The application of pesticides and fertilizers is ubiquitous, and particulate matter and ozone pollute the valley’s air. Unfortunately, there haven’t been any longitudinal studies on high nitrate levels and illness in the area (although death rates in Tulare County from diseases associated with high nitrate are double, or more than double, state rates), and many residents are poor, and therefore less likely than others to receive adequate health care.

Although Nieto doesn’t drink or cook with her tap water, she still pays $60 a month for water service. (San Francisco families spend, on average, half that amount for pristine water piped from Yosemite National Park.) She spends an additional $60 a month on bottled and vended water for her husband and herself. When her three daughters visit, she asks them to bring potable water from their homes and uses it to bathe her grandkids, anxious about the risks of bacteria.

For middle-income families, an extra $60 a month might not hurt. But the Nietos aren’t middle income. "I could use that money for food," Nieto says.

"I could use the money for gas," Becky Quintana, a neighbor, chimes in.

According to an analysis by the Pacific Institute, the costs of public water service plus the costs of avoiding that water (including filtration systems and bottled and vended water) constitute 4.6 percent of median household income in the San Joaquin Valley -- more than three times what the EPA considers affordable. Some Tulare County families spend nearly 10 percent of their income on water.

* * *

The heart of Seville’s drinking-water system is one 550-gallon tank, one well with a pump (no backup), and an inadequate booster pump, all segregated behind a chain-link fence. For years, a hand-painted board offered a phone number for reporting any problems. "But the number was disconnected," Maria Herrera, the outreach coordinator for the Community Water Center, an advocacy group based in nearby Visalia, says, rolling her eyes. (The number was recently updated.)

The well’s nitrate level has, for the past several years, fluctuated from just below the legal limit to just over. The result, for customers, is frustrated confusion. No one knows exactly when nitrate levels spike or when they drop (concentrations tend to be higher in the dry season). Nor do they know exactly how nitrate may affect their health. Will the water sicken a healthy adult today? What about over 50 years? The answers aren’t clear. Even those who speak English as their first language scratch their heads over the often-convoluted wording of water-quality reports and alerts. Governor Jerry Brown recently signed legislation requiring drinking-water alerts to be translated when 10 percent or more of a water district’s customers speak a language other than English. But warnings don’t always reach the intended recipients, Nieto says. "The notices blow off the door, or the landlord doesn’t let renters know. Once, I saw a bunch of notices in the trash can of the school."

This article was made possible by a grant from Furthermore, a program of the J. M. Kaplan fund.

image of Elizabeth Royte
OnEarth contributing editor Elizabeth Royte also writes for the New York Times Book Review, which called her "no stranger to the pleasures and perils of chasing errant pieces of plastic and other castoffs to surprising (and often disgusting) places."... READ MORE >