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Water Too Dangerous to Drink: What Life's Like in California's Farming Communities

State officials know the primary sources of contamination, just how extensive it is and who's shouldering the burden. But will anything be done?

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Sierra snowmelt reaches the Central Valley through the Friant-Kern Canal and California Aqueduct. But only farmers and cities that pay for water rights can use it. And East Orosi, like most unincorporated towns, must rely on ground water instead.

Becky Quintana lives just a few miles from the Friant-Kern Canal in Seville. Her parents, both migrant workers, met in the fields and settled here in 1946. Quintana uses her tap water only to flush the toilet, shower and wash clothes. But showering makes her skin itch. “My whole back, and especially my mom’s back, is so scarred from all the scratching.”

To help defray the costs of buying water, Quintana hopes to get state grant money to install a community-owned vending machine. She knows it would be just a short-term solution.

“People in San Francisco get their water straight from the mountains. Well, we have the snow mountain water here too,” she said. “We can see it. We can almost touch it. But we have no right to it.”

Codified Neglect

In 1971, Tulare County released a report on community sewer and water systems as part of its development plan. The report recommended concentrating resources in areas with existing systems where improvement might spur economic growth.

The plan identified 15 “non-viable” communities, including East Orosi and nearby Seville, “with little or no authentic future.” As mechanized harvesting technology made farm workers’ jobs scarce, the report said, these communities would “enter a process of long-term, natural decline as residents depart for improved opportunities in nearby communities.” The towns declined as predicted. But enough farm jobs remained that residents, for the most part, didn’t leave. And the water quality didn’t improve.

In East Orosi and Seville, more than 94 percent of the population is Latino. Based on the latest U.S. Census, conservative estimates place more than half of East Orosi residents, and one in four of Seville’s, below the poverty line.

Nitrate contamination adds to the burden of people living in low-income communities, who typically have more severe health problems and less access to health care, said Asa Bradman, associate director of UC Berkeley’s Children’s Center for Environmental Health Research. “This is the kind of exposure that can exacerbate their risk for health problems.”


De Anda works with disadvantaged communities throughout Tulare County to help them get clean water, which she sees as a basic human right.

On Route 63 north of Visalia, the musty, acrid stench of manure wafts through the car window. Cows gather near 25-foot-high mounds of manure, not far from a rectangular pool of liquid waste. “That Olympic-size lagoon has no proper liner, so you know it’s trickling down to the ground water,” De Anda said. “Then they use that to irrigate the corn they feed to the cow. It’s a dirty kitchen.”

In 2007, after engineering studies found that even dairy ponds built to state standards were leaking, the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board adopted stricter regulations. But lagoons occupy just a fraction of dairy lands. Nitrogen pollution comes primarily from manure applied to crops grown to feed cattle.

The UC Davis study found that less than 40 percent of the nitrogen applied to farmlands is used by crops. The rest escapes into the air, waterways and ground water.

Citrus groves are abundant around East Orosi.

Nitrate contamination has been a concern for regulators for decades, said Kenneth Landau, assistant executive officer for the Central Valley water board. Although state law requires “reasonable practices” to prevent pollution of surface and ground water, he said, “it left a whole lot of freedom of choice up to the dairies.”

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