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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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Photo Credit: Tomas Ovalle

 
 
 
 

Photos by Tomas Ovalle

EAST OROSI, Calif. – Jessica Sanchez sits on the edge of her seat in her mother’s kitchen, hands resting on her bulging belly. Eight months pregnant, she’s excited about the imminent birth of her son. But she’s scared too.

A few feet away, her mother, Bertha Dias, scrubs potatoes with water she bought from a vending machine. She won’t use the tap water because it’s contaminated with nitrates.

Every day, Dias, 43, heads to the fields to pick lemons or oranges, lugging a ladder so she can reach the treetops. She often skips lunch to save money for the $17.50 she needs each week to fill jugs with vending-machine water.

Four years ago, the family learned that it had nitrates in its drinking water, which Sanchez drank as a little girl. She started speaking out about her town’s toxic water when she discovered that nitrates can cause “blue baby syndrome,” a potentially fatal blood disorder that cuts off an infant’s oxygen supply.

“Now it really hits me,” she said, “because now it’s  my baby.”

Sanchez, 18, who graduated from high school last year, lives in East Orosi, a square parcel carved out of 160 acres of land in Tulare County surrounded by orchards in the shadow of the snow-capped Sierra Nevada. Fewer than 500 people, nearly all Latino, live in this long-neglected town with no sidewalks, street lights, parks or playgrounds. More than half live below the poverty level.

The struggle to find clean drinking water has become a way of life for the residents of East Orosi. But they’re not alone. Like a growing number of California's poor people, they’re paying for water that’s not fit to drink.

One in 10 Californians in two major agricultural regions pays high rates for well water that’s laced with nitrates, pesticides and other pollutants. Most are low-income Latinos; many speak only Spanish.

Public health researcher Carolina Balazs suspected that nitrate-tainted water was an environmental justice problem, so she examined the contamination along with income and ethnicity in small public water systems in eight counties of the San Joaquin Valley.

She found that nearly 5,200 people had drinking water that exceeded federal nitrate standards, and half were Latino. Another 449,000, more than 40 percent Latino, had medium levels that ranged from just under the limit to half the maximum allowed.

“It was in the small systems with highly Latino populations where the nitrate levels were the highest,” said Balazs, lead author of  research at the University of California, Berkeley that was published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives last September.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency considers the water systems in East Orosi, nearby Seville and seven other Tulare County towns “serious violators” of federal safe drinking water standards. In the past three years, these systems exceeded safety levels for coliform bacteria, nitrates, or arsenic at least nine times. East Orosi and Seville violated nitrate standards 12 times.

Nitrates are byproducts of nitrogen in synthetic fertilizers, animal manure, septic tanks and wastewater treatment plants. Farmers douse crops with nitrogen, an essential nutrient for plant growth, to boost yields.

California’s $37.5 billion farming industry has led the nation in food production for more than 50 years. The state has known for decades that nitrate contamination has been a cost of that productivity. But now, state officials know the primary sources of contamination, just how extensive it is and who’s shouldering the burden.

Nitrates jeopardize the drinking water of 254,000 people out of the 2.6 million who rely on  ground water in the Central Valley’s Tulare Lake Basin and Salinas Valley, according to a University of California, Davis  study commissioned by the state Legislature and released in March. Agriculture accounts for 96 percent of that contamination.

 
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