2023 cohort
Water and drought

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Nitrate, toxins continue to taint Central Valley water. Solutions are hard to come by.

Most of California’s unsafe water systems are in the Central Valley. This year’s extreme weather has only worsened the problem.

Aya Hashi, Jesse Morris

October 24, 2023

Water pond adjacent to a Tulare County dairy, captured on June 14, 2023. Jesse Morris/JCal

About this story

This story was produced by a reporter in the 2023 cohort of the AAJA/Calmatters JCal program and originally published in Fresnoland.

In spring, Erica Diaz stood in front of about a dozen people at the Orosi Branch Library in Tulare County and held up two water bottles: The first had unappealing murky water, while the second bottle was clear.

Diaz asked which they would choose to drink—a seemingly leading question. Turns out, the murky water was safer to drink than the clear water bottle which was contaminated with nitrates.

“A lot of people here in California are paying twice for water,” Diaz said in a later interview. “Once for unsafe water, and then twice for … the bottle of water for their family.”

The nitrate sample was from East Orosi, where for years nitrate levels have exceeded limits.

A state audit from the California Water Resources Control Board released last year found that over 920,000 residents faced an increased risk of illness–including cancer, liver and kidney problems–due to consuming unsafe drinking water. A majority of these unsafe water systems are in the Central Valley.

This year’s extreme weather has only worsened the valley’s problems.

The storms that hit California at the start of this year caused stormwater tainted with farm industry fertilizer, manure and nitrates to flow into valley aquifers.

Residents in the valley are often unable to get clean and accessible water despite community and legislative efforts.

California’s 2012 Human Right to Water law (AB 685) declared that “every human being has the right to safe, clean, affordable, and accessible water adequate for human consumption, cooking, and sanitary purposes.”

Advocates point out that impacted areas, including those in Tulare County, tend to be majority Latino with low median incomes.

Waukena Elementary School, a majority Latino and socioeconomically disadvantaged school, has had four nitrate contamination violations, according to a 2021 California State Water Resources Control Board Annual Compliance Report.

This is not an isolated situation. At least another three elementary schools had water contamination violations, according to the same report. 

Susana De Anda is head of the Community Water Center, an environmental justice nonprofit headquartered in Visalia with offices in Sacramento and Watsonville.

Fertilizers and manure from agriculture can also add nitrates to the region’s water, causing a myriad of health problems for all age groups, like blue baby syndrome, De Anda pointed out.

“If a baby that is [under] six months of age ingests high levels of nitric-contaminated water …  the blood in their body is unable to provide oxygen, so it turns blue,” De Anda said. “Nitrates have also been linked to kidney and cancer diseases.”

Uncertainty lies in future solutions

Assemblymember Devon Mathis (R-33, Visalia) on June 21, 2023, in his Sacramento, CA, office. Mathis’s legislative priorities include securing agriculture funding and resources, along with water quality. Aya Hashi/JCal

Assemblymember Devon Mathis (R-33, Visalia) points out that much of the region he serves – Fresno, Kings and Tulare counties – has a history of developing homes over farmland.

“All these old wells and things were ag[ricultural] wells,” Mathis said. “So those wells [developers] were going into, they weren’t looking to see, ‘Well, does this water have nitrates?’”

His district is home to many water issues, including wells running dry from overpumping. One solution Mathis has focused on is groundwater storage expansion through his bill, AB 62, which did not pass through the Assembly Appropriations Committee. 

Some solutions are underway, such as groundwater recharge programs and incentive programs for farmers to flood their land in hopes the water will percolate into the exhausted underground aquifers. 

Bulldozed berms near Woodlake, Calif., on July 3rd, 2023, form a holding location for incoming water for aquifer recharge. Jesse Morris/JCal

But while the recharge projects promise improved long-term groundwater security,  California stewardship organization Sustainable Conservation raised concerns in a 2021 report about possible contamination. The land often used for recharge flooding is farmland, which has fertilizers and pesticides that may be transported with the water into aquifers, the report showed.

Because of this, the report argued that communities must be involved in decisions that impact their groundwater.

“People will need to make these difficult decisions together (e.g. temporary worse water quality in exchange for long term water security),” the report’s authors wrote.

And yet, there are times when stakeholders can not agree on the best path forward.

Mathis has voted against bills like 2021’s SB 403, already in effect. It authorizes the state to order water system consolidation — a process that connects a water system in compliance with a nearby system that fails to deliver safe water. SB 403 also requires the state’s water resources board to seek out community feedback before ordering consolidation.

As for his approach, Mathias said, generally speaking, that solutions are “very dependent on the exact location and what’s going on in that situation.” He also said he favors speedy approaches to water policy.

Since 2015, Mathis has scored low on his Sierra Club environmental scorecard–“a badge of honor in my area,” he said.

“The Sierra Club isn’t interested in solutions. They’re not interested in speeding up a process,” he added.

And with him being the vice-chair of Water, Parks, and Wildlife as well as Agriculture committees, his vote could hold sway.

Building community trust

De Anda’s Community Water Center (CWC) works across the Central Valley to educate residents on water issues. While reading through water toxicity reports years ago, she noticed many of the water systems in her area were out of compliance.

She went door knocking in Tonyville, one of the noncompliant areas, where residents wanted to know: Is the water why people were getting sick?

“I don’t know,” she responded. “But what we could do is, I could call a meeting here. And we got to talk about water quality.”

She mobilized residents to engage their water board. “The water board has the resources to solve this,” she said.

But galvanizing the community is not always so easy, advocates find.

An Alpaugh, Calif., gas station on June 14, 2023. Gas stations are a frequent stop for residents who need to purchase bottled water. Jesse Morris/JCal

In 2020, an arsenic treatment plant was installed in Alpaugh, a Tulare County town, after years of water contamination. Speaking with residents, some say they still do not trust the treated water and opt to purchase bottled water.

Of residents’ mistrust to treatment plans in general, CalEPA’s Deputy Secretary for Environmental Justice Moisés Moreno-Rivera said, “They remember the rashes, they remember the fear.”

De Anda said it’s taken a long time for her organization of 17 years to get the resources to be able to properly fight for safe and affordable drinking water.

“It took a long time to work within government agencies to recognize the importance of making sure that residents were part of the space,” she said.

The CWC encourages residents to look up one’s water quality using the California Drinking Water Watch.

She also encourages residents to lobby their local water provider. Without an outlet for their input, De Anda said, residents lack trust in their government’s decisions and there’s a higher chance of misinformation spreading.

“They did not provide adequate translation for a lot of the hearings. So I would do all the translation,” she said. “We didn’t feel welcomed. We didn’t feel invited. We were forced to go and be heard.”

About the authors

Aya Hashi is a 2023 JCal reporter from Los Angeles County.

Jesse Morris is a 2023 JCal reporter from Tulare County.

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JCal is a free program that immerses California high school students into the state’s news ecosystem. It is a collaboration between the Asian American Journalists Association and CalMatters.