Friday, October 14, 2011

Rural California Central Valley residents struggle with toxic tap water

It's no secret: rural areas of the San Joaquin Valley in California have nitrate-contaminated water that is undrinkable. Last week, Fresno Bee reporter, Mark Grossi, published a three-day special feature on the surprising drinking water conditions in Tulare County. The special feature highlighted the ongoing struggle of rural California residents to gain reliable access to safe drinking water.

The water quality in Tulare County is particularly unsafe. During a worldwide investigation of contaminated drinking water, a United Nations investigator visited the small town of Seville (population 480) in Tulare County. The residents there reported that due to contamination, they cannot drink the tap water. There are no other alternative water supplies, so residents have resorted to purchasing bottled water.

The United Nations investigation found more than 20% of Tulare County's small public water systems have nitrate levels over the maximum contaminant level (MCL) of 45 ppm. The investigation's calculations also found that with the median household income in Seville being $14,000 per year, families there are spending about 20% of their income on bottled water in lieu of drinking the contaminated tap water. An EPA study in 2002 suggested families should spend only 2.5% of their median household income on drinking water.

Among its recommendations, the United Nations urged state legislatures to look into declaring healthy drinking water a human right to help clean up the contaminated water. This leaves us wondering: what is contaminating Tulare County's water supply? Thomas Harter, a leading ground-water scientist at the University of California at Davis, suspects farm fertilizers and animal manure are the major contributors. He stated:
The largest source of nitrate in groundwater in [Tulare County] is fertilizer and animal manure. And, scattered across the Valley, there is septic leachate and municipal sources, such as sewage treatment, which locally affect groundwater.
Due to a long history of agriculture and pesticide use in the area, it's no surprise Tulare County faces groundwater contamination. What is striking, however, is the disproportionate effect the contaminated water has on Latino and low-income residents. A study conducted by University of California at Berkeley found that communities with large percentages of Latinos and low-income renters are more likely to be exposed to drinking water with unacceptably high nitrate levels. Tulare County is no exception. 

Tulare County is the second poorest county in California, followed closely by Imperial County. Twenty-three percent of Tulare County residents live below the poverty level (the California average is 14%) and more than 60% of the total population is Latino. As of the date of this blog, the EPA's Safe Drinking Water Program considers at least 25 of Tulare County's public water systems as "serious violators." Many of the wealthier counties in California (e.g. Marin County whose poverty level is 7%) do not have any serious violations under the Safe Drinking Water Program.

California legislators are starting to take action. Governor Jerry Brown signed a package of clean water bills just last week. Read more about the specifics of the clean water package here.

To search drinking water violations in other counties across the U.S., visit the EPA's Enforcement and Compliance website here. Read more about safe drinking water issues in related blog posts here and here.


JT said...

I did take a look at the study at the University of California, Berkeley that you linked and was quite shocked at the numbers. While I was aware that safe drinking water would have some impact on the community, I did not anticipate the dire effect it would have on these rural communities. As the saying goes, "There must be something in the water," and apparently it's nitrate. Hopefully the clean water bills signed by Governor Jerry Brown will help the problem soon. Water is a vital source of life, and it is difficult to imagine rural communities are shouldering such a cost to obtain safe drinking water.

JWHS said...

I remember the water in my town was terrible, very mineral-ly. And I turned out fine.

KB said...

If something like this was happening in an urban area, I imagine there would be a lot more uproar and change would come more quickly. I am sure the poverty of Tulare County also contributes to a lack of change in the area.

I hope the new clean water laws and incentives help to remedy this situation. Everyone deserves drinkable water, regardless of location or income. I also found it shocking that people in Seville were spending 20% of their income on bottled water. That is the percentage of income people should spend on housing, not drinking water.