Not a Drop to Drink: Inside California's Water Crisis


Posted on 23 February 2012

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By Elizabeth Royte
On Earth Magazine

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.

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."

Like Nieto, Herrera grew up in Tulare County. Worried about tap-water quality, her family hauled five-gallon jugs of water home every week. "My parents were farm workers, and they sacrificed a lot to buy bottled water and food for us kids. We didn’t go to the movies; we rarely had store-bought cereal in the house."

Herrera has long brown hair and rounded features. She wears tight blue jeans and sneakers, waves to friends as she drives through small towns, and apologizes before checking her phone for messages, which she does at the rate one might expect of a full-time community organizer and mother of four.

Before coming to the Community Water Center, Herrera worked as a store clerk and as a fruit inspector for the state (walking through a field in Seville, she doesn’t hesitate to pluck a fig and take a bite). "I hired Maria because she’s outspoken and smart, and she’d been engaged in advocacy issues at her son’s school," Laurel Firestone, co-director of the center, says. It didn’t matter to her that Herrera wasn’t up to speed on the movement of nitrate through groundwater or how to apply for water-infrastructure funding. Herrera could learn all that on the job. What mattered most to Firestone was that Herrera "understands as much as anyone what it’s like to live with these issues day to day."

Herrera has a natural instinct for social justice. She has a deep empathy for anyone who gets a raw deal, and she doesn’t hesitate to assign blame. "We’ve had no leadership from the people responsible for our water resources," she says. "They haven’t done their jobs." And so Herrera has trained her children to ask, when they’re away from home, "Can I drink the water here?" before sipping from a fountain or tap. "I drink tap water only when I’m in Sacramento," Herrera says. "It feels really different, and really good, to walk up to a fountain and do what you’re supposed to do."

For people with safe water, it’s hard to imagine how widespread the impacts of bad water can be. Besides threatening health and pinching household budgets, poor water quality has, across the San Joaquin Valley, contributed to the denial of loans and lower real estate values, and has reduced the tax base of many towns. Without good water, landowners have little incentive to build on their property. Seville is speckled with unimproved lots. "People need affordable housing," Herrera says. "These communities want to grow." Indeed, the population of the Central Valley, which encompasses the San Joaquin Valley, is projected to increase from 3.8 million to 6 million by 2020.

Identifying possible solutions to water problems and ways to pay for them can be extremely challenging in tiny towns. Herrera makes this idea concrete for me in the unincorporated community of East Orosi, a few miles north of Seville. Driving slowly past small houses on dusty streets, she points out the town’s two wells, each of which regularly exceeds the legal limit for nitrate. "And that’s the Community Services District office," she says, indicating a graffiti-smeared trailer that’s open just two hours a week for customers to pay their water bills. "This is where the board meets," she says in a tone of exasperation. "There’s no room for anyone, so there’s little community participation. The district can’t get a quorum." Nor can it afford an engineer.

One potential fix for East Orosi lies a quarter mile to the east. "This is the Friant-Kern Canal," Herrera says, parking beside the 152-mile-long, concrete-lined ditch that delivers Sierra snowmelt to more than a million acres of farmland on the San Joaquin Valley’s eastern side. "This is what everyone’s fighting over." She sighs. "Some towns with bad water are trying to get permission to tap into it, but they’d have to build a treatment plant, because it’s surface water." Perhaps even more difficult, those towns would also have to wrest water rights from established users -- whether farmers or municipalities -- as the canal’s flow is entirely allocated. So close, I think as I peer down into the clear, cold flow, and yet so far away.

Elsewhere in California, communities have addressed their nitrate problems by digging new wells (this won’t work in areas where the water table is already contaminated) or deepening existing wells (although deeper wells are, in some places in the valley, vulnerable to arsenic contamination). Some have built sophisticated water-treatment plants, which can remove nitrate as well as the pesticide dibromochloropropane (DBCP), a carcinogen that, although banned in 1979, still shows up in valley water, and 1,2,3-Trichloropropane (TCP), a suspected human carcinogen used as a binder in parasitic worm-killers. Four hours southeast of Tulare County, for example, the Inland Empire Utilities Agency, which serves roughly 850,000 people in San Bernardino County, is building a $300 million plant that uses reverse osmosis to strip nitrate and other contaminants from groundwater in a region that’s steadily losing citrus groves and dairy corrals to subdivisions and parking lots. Two key differences between the Seville service area and the Inland Empire service area are nearly 2,000 times the number of ratepayers and more than three times the median household income.

Water quality on the eastern side of the San Joaquin Valley has historically been poor. Part of the problem is geological: the water table is shallow and vulnerable to contaminants, and the soil has a 35-foot layer of hardpan clay, starting at a depth of five feet, that inhibits drainage. (In the early 1900s, the water table was 10 feet down; now, thanks to overpumping, it’s 20 to 30 feet lower.) But the problem is also demographic. Small towns often don’t have enough utility customers to fund repairs and upgrades. And in systems serving higher proportions of Latinos, write a group of scientists in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, "language abilities, citizenship status, or lack of political clout could inhibit residents from speaking out and demanding improvements in water quality."

The Tulare County General Plan of 1971 institutionalized discrimination against some unincorporated towns, stating that communities deemed to have "little or no authentic future" would, as a consequence of being denied such infrastructure as sewer and water systems, "enter a process of long term, natural decline as residents depart for improved opportunities in nearby communities." Withering is no longer part of Tulare’s official plan, but this attitude still lingers. Speaking of nitrate contamination, Richard Schafer, an engineer who sits on the Tulare County Water Commission, says, "This is just a few little communities creating a problem for the entire valley. These people created the problem with their own septic tanks, and now they want someone else to pay for it. They should move to cities with treatment plants, and we should abolish these small communities."

Comments like these bring out the fiery best in Herrera, and they keep her coming back to places like Monson, an island of tightly clustered houses with contaminated wells rising from a sea of dairies and grape and pomegranate fields. Going house to house here in scorching weather, battling barking dogs and wary residents, Herrera didn’t at first make much headway. "I told them clean drinking water is a human right, not a privilege," she says, sipping from a bottle of Aquafina. "Some of the older residents said, 'Why should we bother? We’re out the door.'"

Herrera asked them to consider their children: "Don’t you want to leave something for them?" Gradually, they realized that securing good water was an investment in their future. "People here want the same thing as anyone else -- basic services," Herrera says in her no-nonsense tone. "When they saw others like themselves organizing, it created a momentum." Eventually residents persuaded the nearby town of Sultana, which meets federal nitrate standards, to consider extending its water lines to Monson -- a process known as consolidation. That was a big step, because without an official water provider, Monson wouldn’t be eligible for state funds.

In 2006, California’s Proposition 84 authorized $180 million, through the Department of Public Health, to remediate chemical and nitrate contaminants in small community drinking-water systems, with priority given to "disadvantaged" communities (as measured by median household income). But competition for that money is stiff, and the process favors communities that can hire engineers and consultants to navigate the tortuous application process. Hurdles constantly arise. You’re not shovel ready? Go to the back of the line. Your district isn’t currently in violation of California’s Safe Drinking Water Act? Ditto. Say your community wins a grant for new infrastructure. Will it be able to pay for the system’s maintenance and operations? Prop 84 covers only capital costs. "The communities that are impacted the most, and for the longest time," Herrera says, "are the same communities that lack the resources to push through these obstacles."

With the help of the Community Water Center, Seville has applied to the state for a $600,000 grant to launch the multiyear process of building a new town system. But Seville, and other towns in similar straits, including Monson, are pinning their long-term hopes on importing safe water from the Alta Project, a proposed plan that would supply surface water to the region.

"Ag doesn’t want to give up water for people," says Chris Kapheim, general manager of the Alta Irrigation District, which waters 130,000 acres in parts of three counties with a significant portion of the Kings River. "But we can add to the supply by ramping up the district’s water storage program." With a grant from the State Water Resources Control Board, Alta has already started building ditches and pipes to channel stormwater and wet-year river surpluses into shallow earthen basins, which look like retention ponds and fill with dust-coated weeds in the dry season. As water accumulates in the basins, it settles into the earth, creating a water bank from which disadvantaged communities can draw.

But not without cleaning up the supply first. The irrigation district has also applied for California Department of Public Health funding to build a treatment plant that would blend surface water with groundwater; filter, treat, and disinfect the resulting mix; then send it off to thirsty Seville, Yettem, Cutler, and East Orosi. Though the funding isn’t in place yet, the Community Water Center’s Firestone is hopeful. "This plant could be a model for the region," she says. "Just getting these small communities together was a huge breakthrough."

Of all the possible solutions to nitrate-contaminated water -- including deepening or moving wells, blending bad water with good, building treatment plants that remove pollutants, and interconnecting small towns with larger, safer systems -- only one addresses the problem systematically: reducing nitrogen at the source.

But what is the source? As in most places, nitrogen in the Central Valley comes largely from human and animal waste and from synthetic fertilizer, of which California farmers apply roughly 700,000 tons a year. Because of varying topography, soil types, rainfall, and irrigation practices, says Thomas Harter, a University of California, Davis, groundwater hydrologist, "you can’t easily say the nitrates in this well are because of this field or that septic tank. The nitrates are continuously distributed over an incredibly varied landscape." They also move readily through the water table, and they linger in groundwater for decades: isotope testing has identified nitrate applied as fertilizer as far back as the 1950s.

This uncertainty provides plausible deniability for nearly any aggrieved party. Don’t like the synthetic fertilizer hypothesis? Blame the nitrate on wastewater treatment plants. Or take a poke at the dairies, or, like Shafer, deny that nitrate is a significant problem. "The farm bureau basically says, 'Show us the dead babies,'" Firestone says.

"It’s reasonable to say that agriculture has some impact on the groundwater," Jack Brandt, a large fruit grower and packer in Reedley, northeast of Seville, says. "But it’s hard to say whether this guy here or that guy there is the source. In this part of the Central Valley, you can’t walk 200 yards outside a city limit without hitting an irrigation well. You don’t know what you’ll find in the water or who put it there.”

Even those worried about drinking their own tap water are reluctant to point fingers at the industry that provides their livelihood or that of their neighbors. They may believe that tainted water -- as well as the cost of avoiding it -- is simply the price one has to pay for the San Joaquin Valley to continue generating more than $9 billion worth of food a year.

Firestone has no interest in pursuing individual polluters, but she’s hopeful that the state’s new Irrigated Lands Regulatory Program will make a difference. The ILRP will classify farms based on their risk of contaminating drinking water, then require those considered likely to pollute in high-risk areas to formulate management plans to reduce their impact -- for example, making adjustments in the volume and timing of fertilizer applications. "This is a big deal," Herrera says, as irrigators have largely been exempt from federal Clean Water Act regulations.

While some environmental groups are skeptical that the new program will be adequately protective (the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board has a history of leniency toward big ag), the biggest push-back comes from -- no surprise -- farmers, who worry that their management plans will be made public and that the expense of compliance will either push them out of business or substantially raise the price of food. "I’m not sure we could survive with no chemicals," Chris Kapheim, who recently sold his tree-fruit and grape farms to a larger operation, says. "There’s a balance of sustainability and realistic objectives and affordability of product. We don’t want to drive small farmers off."

Dairies, which spread their manure on cropland that feeds their confined herds, are already under state order to reduce nitrogen runoff. In 2007, operators were required to begin filing nutrient management plans with local water boards and to report the nitrogen levels in their manure, plant tissue, wells, and ditches. Discharging manure water into surface water or off-property was forbidden, and operators were required to line new manure lagoons with plastic (existing lagoons were grandfathered in).

According to J. P. Cativiela, a spokesman for the industry group Dairy CARES (Community Alliance for Responsible Environmental Stewardship), these measures, which cost operators $20,000 to $30,000 a year, have significantly reduced runoff incidents. But it’s unlikely that nitrate levels have dropped much below those reported in 2008, when many dairies had levels two, four, or more times higher than drinking water standards. The industry successfully lobbied for a one-year delay in filing nutrient management plans, from 2010 until 2011. Even up and running, the requirements may not be strongly enforced. The Central Valley water board has manpower sufficient to inspect dairies only once every five years, and it has generally failed to levy fines against habitual violators. In the past, years have gone by between notices of violation and the resolution of problems.

Realistically, Thomas Harter says, "it could be decades until nitrate concentrations improve or get below the drinking water limit," in part because of such delays and in part because of the lag between application of nitrogen and its appearance in wells. But this is no reason to give up. Nitrate contamination is preventable, and mitigation efforts have proved effective. In Wisconsin, education programs, mandatory soil testing, and paying farmers to plant crops that are less nitrogen-dependent than corn reduced nitrate to safe levels in less than 10 years. In Denmark, nitrate reduction measures were launched in the mid-1980s; since then, increased regulation and technical improvements in farming have decreased surplus nitrogen in groundwater by 40 percent -- while crop yields have held steady and animal production has increased.

In the long run, preventing nitrate pollution is far less expensive than cleaning up water at the point of consumption. But that message, which implies the need to change land-use practices, could take years to percolate through regulatory agencies and onto farm fields. It has always been easier to pour concrete than to shift a paradigm. Of the 100 nitrate mitigation projects on the California Department of Public Health’s priority list for funding, not one proposes "wellhead protection" -- which means managing land use within a source area -- as a strategy to prevent contamination.

The drinking-water problems of the eastern Central Valley are a consequence of the hydrological civilization that harnessed the Sierra Nevada’s snowmelt and allowed farms and powerful agribusiness interests to expand exponentially. The Central Valley gives us cheap food, and lots of it. But the human and environmental price of high yields and low cost may not be worth the bargain. To solve the valley’s water-quality problems, then, may require far more than utilities filtering at the back end or asking farmers to modify their application of fertilizer at the front. The solution could mean fundamental and dramatic changes in agriculture, including growing fewer low-value, water-intensive crops like cotton and alfalfa; ending subsidies that prop up CAFOs and commodity crops; and shifting from a reliance on synthetic fertilizer to sustainable farming methods. These would include more efficient use of water, the use of composted animal manures, and the planting of cover crops, which are grown to improve soil quality, not for food.

Cultural changes are also in order, including a drastic decline in meat and dairy consumption (cows are the primary consumers of the nation’s corn, the most nitrogen-intensive field crop we grow) and a reduction in food waste (between farm and fork, Americans waste almost half the food produced in this country). The solution likely includes a return to regional food systems that support small- and medium-scale growing and processing operations and possibly an acceptance of higher food prices, along with more government programs to help those who can’t afford them.

None of this, of course, is going to be politically easy or come quickly. But for Josie Nieto and others who have long been hauling -- and paying a premium for -- potable water, change, however incremental, can’t come soon enough.

Nieto steps outside the house and gestures east, beyond the golden foothills toward the smog-obscured Sierras. "Millions of people come through here every year, heading toward Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park," the source of the region’s purest water. "People just don’t connect these kinds of water problems with the United States," she says. "They have no idea that the people who live in these little towns can’t drink the water coming out of their taps."

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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. This article originally appeared in the magazine On Earth.

Truly amazing. I was shocked when I read that this is taking place in our own state. Thank you for this well-written piece.

The drinking water standard for nitrate is 45 milligrams per liter (as nitrate), not micrograms per liter.

Sounds like a job for Erin Brockabich. I'm sure she could solve this problem.