Water Too Dangerous to Drink: What Life's Like in California's Farming Communities
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.
The number of people exposed will likely grow. It can take decades for nitrates to travel from the soil surface to ground water.
“We know we can’t stop all sources tomorrow and that there will be a time lag until we get the situation under control,” said Thomas Harter, a ground water hydrologist who led the UC Davis study. “We will definitely see an increase in nitrate contamination over the next 10 or 20 years.”
Jessica Sanchez fills a glass from the tap and holds it up to the light. The water appears cloudy, almost opaque, as particles swirl around. After a few minutes, the particles settle, and the water looks normal.
That’s precisely the trouble, water activists say. You can’t see or taste nitrates. “If you have sulfur or manganese in your water, it looks brown and gross and you quit drinking it before it poisons you,” said Jennifer Clary, a policy analyst with Clean Water Action. “But with nitrates, you don’t.”
Nitrates become toxic when bacteria in saliva and the gut convert them to nitrites, which in turn convert hemoglobin into methemoglobin, which can’t deliver oxygen to tissues. Babies are vulnerable in part because their immature stomachs harbor abundant nitrite-producing bacteria.
Affected infants have trouble breathing and develop cyanosis, a blue-gray or purple tint to their skin, giving methemoglobinemia its common name, blue baby syndrome. Left untreated, babies develop brain damage, and eventually suffocate. Studies have linked high nitrate exposures in adults with miscarriage, digestive disorders, thyroid damage and cancer.
Health experts worry that people don’t know about the risks and that doctors may not consider nitrate exposure in their diagnoses.
Dr. Mark Miller used to treat patients in Chico, in the northern Central Valley, where some wells had nitrate levels 10 to 15 times higher than the federal standard. “But there was no awareness among clinicians and no effort from public health authorities to check wells and inform people about this hazard,” said Miller, director of the state’s Children’s Environmental Health Program and head of the University of California, San Francisco Pediatric Environmental Health Specialty Unit.
Doctors might see a newborn that was failing to thrive or had cyanosis and not even think to ask about nitrates, Miller said.
The majority of the at-risk residents get their water from public systems, many of which rely on a single well. East Orosi has two public wells and both regularly have unsafe nitrate levels. Managers of the town’s volunteer water board – the East Orosi Community Services District – did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Sanchez went to Orosi High School, where administrators posted signs warning students not to drink the water. School officials dug a new well, only to find nitrates there, too.
For years, Dias, Sanchez’s mother, had to buy bottled water for her kids to take to school, on top of the water she bought for her home.
Dias makes $7.50 an hour picking fruit, and pays $60 a month for her tap water and up to $75 a month to fill jugs with water from a vending machine. That’s nearly five times more than the average San Franciscan, who earns about $45,000 a year and pays just $28 a month for some of the nation’s best tap water, drawn from Sierra Nevada snowmelt.
“If you looked at people’s water rates, you’d think we were rich,” said Susana De Anda, co-founder of the Visalia-based nonprofit Community Water Center. “The reality is that we’re making sacrifices just to have safe drinking water in the home.”
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.”
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.”
The regional board has long struggled with scant resources to monitor compliance. “We were down to one half of a person for the whole Central Valley in the early '90s,” Landau said.
The board started regulating agricultural waste discharges into surface water in 2003, but applied those rules to ground water only last year. The program requires growers in areas where nitrates pose a high risk to develop nutrient plans and monitor the underground water.
Still, said UC Davis' Harter, “you can’t regulate the problem away overnight.” Once contaminants get into ground water, it’s extremely difficult to remove them. Levels can increase when chemicals move downstream or if aquifers drop after a drought.
Action on nitrate pollution has taken so long in part because the board had to demonstrate threats to public health or water quality before it could impose regulations, Landau said. “There’s been a lot of resistance to acknowledging that irrigated agriculture and dairies are causing the ground water problem.”
Dave Kranz, a spokesman for the California Farm Bureau Federation, calls nitrate contamination a legacy issue, stemming from outdated fertilizing practices.
Last spring, after the proposed regulations were announced, Jack Hamm, a vice president of the San Joaquin Farm Bureau Federation, said that the new rules would be “extremely onerous” for farmers due to requirements for evaluations, record-keeping and water monitoring.
Long-term solutions would cost $36 million a year to bring everyone’s water in the Tulare Lake Basin and Salinas Valley into compliance with federal safety standards, according to the UC Davis report.
The report identified 85 public water systems, serving about 220,000 people, with high vulnerability to nitrate contamination, and 34,000 people with private wells, which the state doesn’t regulate.
Depending on the severity of contamination, treating nitrates at a single well head can range from $135,000 to $1,090,000 per year.
Becky Quintana of Seville purchases water at the Kmart in Orosi because her town's well water is contaminated with nitrates.
“The poorest communities in the state are paying the highest price for water and there aren’t any mechanisms to fix that,” said Clean Water Action’s Clary.
Funding is available from California’s Proposition 84, which allocated $60 million in 2006 to fund new wells, treatment systems and other projects. But many communities have yet to receive a penny. Most small systems are run by volunteers and can’t afford to hire experts to help them navigate the funding process, Clary said.
“If, on top of that, the community is very small, very poor and has a large number of non-English-speaking ratepayers, those barriers become astronomical,” she said.
Many people in these farming communities have been living with nitrate contamination for most of their lives, De Anda said.
“They think it’s normal not to drink water from your tap, that it’s normal to have to go buy bottled water. Part of our job is telling people, ‘This is not normal.’ ”
Bertha Dias lugs five gallons of water to her car.
By law, water system managers must notify customers when contaminants exceed safety standards. But the notices are confusing, even to proficient English speakers. Complicating matters, Tulare County tests just one contaminant at a time.
“We were in Seville last week doing survey work and heard about people getting boil notices when there’s bacteria,” said Balazs, who joined the Community Water Center as a staff scientist after completing her Ph.D at UC Berkeley. “But one of the worst things you can do is boil water when there are nitrates. It just concentrates them.”
Much of the Central Valley’s ground water should never have been used without treatment, said the water board’s Landau. In Tulare County, it is contaminated with uranium and arsenic in addition to nitrates. The two elements are found naturally in soil and rocks and can migrate into water.
The water in Alpaugh, one of the “non-viable” towns targeted by Tulare County, has violated the arsenic standard for as long as Sandra Meraz can remember. In 2000, the water tested eight times higher than the current standard.
Notices assure customers they don't need alternative water supplies, said Meraz, a board member of the Tulare County Waterworks District. But most people buy water anyway, she added, even though “some people don’t have money even to pay for the water they get through the tap.”
Joanna Mendoza lives in Cutler, a 20-minute drive from Sanchez. “Our water district sends notices to our house that our water’s contaminated with nitrates, with [the pesticide] DBCP, but on the notice it says it’s not an immediate risk and you don’t have to buy bottled water,” she told a crowd at a conference on access to safe drinking water at UC Berkeley in March. “Yet it says that if you drink that water for many years there’s a possibility you’ll be diagnosed with cancer.”
“The years are passing and people are drinking the water. What are the consequences for them? It’s really hard to take in.”
The legacy continues
Sanchez delivered her baby boy, Jordan, in April. “It was scary, so many complications,” she said. Jordan had trouble breathing. He needed breathing tubes, IV fluids and a heart monitor. After five days in intensive care, his breathing returned to normal, and she took him home.
It’s unlikely that Jordan’s condition was caused by nitrates. Sanchez didn’t drink tap water while pregnant, and she’s even afraid to bathe her baby in East Orosi's water.
Still, she said, "when I think about this whole water thing, it really brings me down, knowing he’s going to have to deal with this problem, too.”