Friday, October 6, 2023

California struggles to provide its rural residents with safe drinking water

Last week, a Los Angeles Times story detailed how rural California residents often consume contaminated drinking water, with 400 (or about 25%) of the state's water systems failing to provide safe drinking water to residents.

The article explained how California cannot provide clean water to residents in California's Central Valley. In particular, the article found Kern County's water systems do not function effectively. Almost 80% of the county's water supply (65 systems) have been categorized as failing for three years

Kern County is home to around 900,00 residents, of whom 18.5% live in poverty.  The county's economy is primarily based on agriculture and petroleum extraction industries and its median household income is $58,000 is significantly less than California's median household income of $86,000

The Central Valley, a vast agricultural region of California and ranks among the United State's most polluted areas, due to heavy vehicle trafficdiesel-burning locomotivestractors and irrigation pumps, and wood-burning stoves and fireplaces. 

Despite its booming agricultural industry, Central Valley residents are among California's poorest. About 24% of the Valley's population lives below the poverty line. While suburbs like Elk Grove and cities like Fresno sprawl out of the region, the Central Valley's agricultural communities are classified as rural according to CivicWell, a Sacramento-based nonprofit. 

Overall, the region covers more than 20,000 square miles and is home to around 2 million people. For comparison, Los Angeles County covers 4,084 square miles and is home to almost 10 million residents.

According to the American Bar Association, water supplies in farming areas (like the Central Valley) often contain high nitrate levels because the nitrates seep into the groundwater from fertilizer and manure. 

Ingesting too much nitrate can affect how the blood moves oxygen through the bloodstream and can cause methemoglobinemia (also known as blue baby syndrome), which can result in serious injury or death. In adults, high nitrate exposure can potentially lead to an increased risk of cancers like gastric cancer, although there is yet to be a scientific consensus on causation. 

Despite these data, 85% of the communities with nitrate-contaminated drinking water have no treatment systems in place to remove the chemical.

Madison Condon of Boston University School of Law wrote a piece for the American Bar Association and further explained that rural residents are those most likely to face poor water quality and unsafe drinking water: 

All across rural America, small community water systems are failing to protect public health due to a perfect storm of forces. Poor regulation of agricultural waste and other pollutants, shrinking populations, and aging infrastructure all contribute to the increasing incidents of water quality violations dotting the rural landscape.

It is troubling that the Central Valley experiences a lack of clean and safe drinking water, especially because the water used produces 25% of the U.S.'s food and 40% of American fruits and nuts. The region is a major agricultural output not just for California, but for the entire county.  

Water contamination in farming and industrial communities is unfortunately typical. 

In 2017,  environmental lawyer Rob Billot reached a $631 million settlement with chemical corporation DuPont for releasing 7,100 sludge tons of perfluorooctanoic acid (also known as PFOAs or C-8) into a landfill in Parkersburg, West Virginia. The chemicals ended up in the town's waterways, leading to deleterious health effects in the Parkersburg community.  Many residents suffered cancers, thyroid disease, high cholesterol, pre-eclampsia and ulcerative colitis–– all verified scientific effects from exposure to PFOA. A few years after the settlement, Focus Features made a film about the Billot's story called Dark Waters, starring actor and environmental activist Mark Ruffalo

Having access to reliable and safe drinking water is not merely a rural phenomenon, and happens in urban settings as well.   

In 2014, Flint, Michigan switched its water supply from Detroit’s system to the Flint River to save costs without the proper testing. Flint residents complained of a foul-smelling odor and suffered numerous health effects, but they were ignored for years. The Michigan Civil Rights Commission deemed the poor governmental response to the Flint crisis a “result of systemic racism.”

Having access to safe drinking water is essential for our health and wellbeing, according to The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While EPA regulations require federal and state agencies to regulate public water systems, those regulations do not apply to privately owned wells. This can be a problem in rural communities like those in the Central Valley, where most private wells are the source of many landowners' water.

In a 2019 paper posted in Environmental Health, Schaider et al. studied the link between low-income communities and drinking water contamination. They found that

Low-income and minority communities often face disproportionately high pollutant exposures. [...] Small water supplies, particularly those that serve low-income and minority communities, may have poorer source water quality due to closer proximity to pollution sources.

Rural residents suffer higher rates of poverty than their urban counterparts. According to Circle of Blue, a nonprofit aimed to educate and inform about the problems plagued by climate change, found that many rural towns have neglected their drinking water systems for decades:

As some rural towns lose population and government funds shrink, some drinking water systems are one failure away from crisis.

With the lack of affordable housing and the rise in housing prices in the Bay Area and Southern California, the Central Valley's population is expected to increase by five million people by the year 2060. Lawmakers, politicians, and policymakers should ensure safe access to drinking water in rural communities, despite the region's low population density.

Regardless of the size of a population cluster in an area, where one's water comes from, and what a town's primary industry is should not impact safe and reliable access to drinking water. 

You read more about water contamination on the blog here and here. You can read more about California's Central Valley here and here.

1 comment:

Laretta Johnson said...

Thanks for shedding light on this issue, Natalie. I feel like drinking water access stories pop up every once in a while but are rarely at the forefront of ongoing conversations. In addition to the need for better infrastructure, the details you included about nitrate levels made me think about the role regenerative and organic agriculture must play in environmental justice. If we can stop the contamination at the source then perhaps we can solve (that part) of California's water issues.