Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Rural Communities and the California Drought

A issue that is often ignored by mainstream media outlets is that of access to drinking water to rural Californian communities. As seen in this article by the Washington Post the drought has created dangers for rural communities that cannot access clean water. A common sense reason for this may be that it is inconceivable that in this modern age, in a state that holds itself as a paradigm of progress and success, there are communities that lack access to clean drinking water. A more cynical suspicion may be that rural communities are not the bulk of the electorate in California and therefor have less priority to the state. This is compounded by the fact that many of these communities impacted by drought and lacking clean water are economically disadvantaged. Regardless of the reason(s) the fact remains that somewhere around one million Californians in rural environments lack access to clean water.

Some of the water shortage predates the drought. In communities east of Coachella, the chromium-6 levels in the local aquifer is so high that it has been deemed unsafe. Residents must drive to Costco or other locations up to 30 miles away, to fill up bottles and store them in their homes. In instances like this, the issue has been longstanding and lacking state support in resolving the problems associated with tainted water.

As the drought has continued, farms have turned to wells for the bulk of their water needs. This has led to residential communities suffering, as their water runs out. A hot shower at the end of the day turns from something most people can enjoy, to a fantasy in the mind of a field worker, who hasn't had access to running water in five months. The farms and townships are so thirsty that the ground is dropping at a rate of 2 inches per month, in a 6 month study conducted by NASA.

In some extreme instances, townships have communal showers and have had to raise money for wells that extend far enough into the parched earth to acquire usable water for the community to utilize. Wells are often shallower than industrial wells that service farms and are the first to "tap out" of water. The township might house the employees who work on the farms nearby, or consume the produce from the farms, creating an off issue of dependency, where the town needs the water, as do the farms, but there is not enough for everyone.

This isn't to say that there is no hope, or that nothing is being done for residents. In Kern county, the Agua4All campaign has been working on establishing filling stations for rural residents to fill up bottles. The campaign is focused on creating as many communal stations as possible to supply the local community and provide a central hub for water access. This has been a campaign funded by a local county based coalition that has sought to provide potable water to local residents. This helps tremendously, especially when considering that in some areas with poor rural residents, potable water can be up to ten percent of a household's income. One such filling station recently opened in Arvin, one of at least one hundred communities who have had their water supply violate the maximum contaminant level set by the EPA.

Even in areas with water, such as Arvin, the water may not be potable due to the arsenic value. But to make the matter worse is the fact that wells are expensive to drill and there is no surety the water will be good water. In the instance of Arvin two wells are scheduled to cost at least five million dollars. This is an expensive gamble because the water may be poisonous or it may be usable If it's usable, then more wells will be drilled, to the tune of almost nineteen million dollars. Given that the townships are in rural areas, they must acquire the monies necessary for the wells from coalitions, government subsidies, and what taxes can be levied against the residents, who are not in the wealthiest percentile of the state.

What can be done? The state could begin to reprioritize its commitment to rural communities. In large part there has been little to no demand by the legislature that mega farms move to more drought sustainable methods of farming. In many areas over-watering remains an issue and farms continue to retain methods that abuse the water system. Some smaller farmers have begun dry-farming, an attempt to utilize the soil's nutrients, minimize runoff, and maximize on what little water has been allocated for usage. More emphasis and funding can be placed on osmosis filter installation, which would require dipping into the state's overtaxed finances to be affordable, but would help ease the pressure on communities too poor to help themselves. In the instance of Agua4All and similar campaigns to have community filling stations, programs would need to be funded and advertised more thoroughly so that locals are aware of that resource.

In areas where water is tainted by naturally occurring arsenic or chromium-6, a pipeline similar to the one that runs to Los Angeles could be considered or the state could look into filtering the water as it emerges from the aquifer. Either option would be expensive and purification doesn't have a guarantee of working. In the instance of a pipeline there is the question of where to get water in an already parched state.

Some communities have turned to reverse-osmosis techniques, which requires expensive filters and installation to work and while it cleans the water, it doesn't help communities that cannot afford to install such filters into every water faucet. In that instance the state could explore subsidizing the community's efforts or exploring ways to make the process more economical for families who spend substantial portions of their income on a basic necessity of life.

The need for clean water is something that is paramount in this day and age. Children, pets, gardens, and animals raised for personal consumption all require clean water. By ignoring the communities that suffer as a result of waste and excess the mainstream media has drawn attention away from communities in parts of rural California that desperately need help.

1 comment:

Daniel Quinley said...

The drought has definitely created severe conditions in very poor, remote communities. In terms of freeing up water, how useful will grey-water systems be for big ag? Or a mandate to implement more efficient irrigation systems? In a broader context, will mandating these changes increase the cost of food, thereby further stressing the budgets of the rural poor? Should the state take these budgetary concerns when deciding how to regulate---or are things too dire and warrant an everything and the kitchen sink approach?

I feel like there is such a strong interplay between agricultural water use, access to potable water, and the interacting costs of increased state regulation and action, that we could end up doing more harm than good in the long term.