Don’t Drink the Water: Tainted Water Flows from Taps of Rural Valley Homes

Tooleville – From her living room window, Valeriana Alvarado can see the Friant-Kern Canal, where pristine snowmelt flows to farm fields.

She loves walking along the canal, knowing the sparkling water will irrigate oranges, peaches and grapes that keep her farmworker family employed.

But she wouldn't mind getting some of that irrigation water at the drafty two-room trailer where she lives with eight family members.

“It's much better water than we get from the tap,” she said through a Spanish interpreter. “It's not easy for us to buy bottled water all the time.”

The water is often laced with nitrates, a chemical linked to a potentially lethal infant illness as well as cancer.

Rural Valley residents in an area half the size of Maryland live day-to-day wondering if the next drink of water will make their children sick.

As long ago as 1995, the U.S. Geological Survey said nitrates appeared to be a greater threat to ground-water quality than thousands of tons of pesticides.

While on a worldwide investigation of dirty drinking water — with stops in Bangladesh, Uruguay and Namibia — a United Nations investigator visited the Tulare County community of Seville in March. After seeing conditions, the investigator urged state and federal authorities to consider healthy drinking water a human right and clean up the mess.

In a state with the world's seventh-largest economy, it wouldn't take a lot of money to clean up the Valley's small-town water problems — $150 million total for projects on record. San Francisco last year committed the same amount of money to help homeowners and businesses finance solar panels and water efficiency.

But small-town residents face an uphill fight for the healthy drinking water that most Californians take for granted. Townfolk feel they have nowhere to turn. State public health authorities make a habit of inviting them to apply for cleanup funding, then turning them down for technicalities.

Residents, activists, engineers and local officials say the Valley's small drinking water systems are barely a blip on the state's radar.

Take a look at the California Department of Public Health, which doles out funding for small water systems. With a $3.5 billion budget, the agency has 150 broad responsibilities, covering everything from hospital licensing to regulating the movement of radioactive material.

By comparison, the California Air Resources Board — watching over another basic human need — is focused solely on making the air safe to breathe.

With no such agency guarding drinking water quality, residents wade through layers of rules, foot-dragging agencies and politics.

State officials say they are working on speeding up the funding process for fixes, adding more projects to their to-do list this year than ever before. They say they have several dozen projects in process for the Valley.

It all just looks like more bureaucracy and delay to residents. For instance, one project is an important study for a northern Tulare County water treatment plant. It was pushed back early this year due to a technicality. Now it's back to near the front of the line.

With little public explanation, state officials say they are trying to follow the lead of the federal stimulus program .

“We learned a lot about moving quickly from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act,” said Leah Walker, chief of the public health department's division of drinking water environmental management.

That's only created another barrier, says the watchdog group California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation. To qualify for speedier funding, towns need “shovel-ready” projects. Most towns can't afford the experts to prepare for being “shovel-ready,” and these towns will be weeded out of the funding, CRLA says.

“It effectively excludes communities with the most immediate water quality needs,” said CRLA attorney Phoebe Seaton.

High Cost for Poor Families

Valeriana Alvarado, 41, and her husband, Jorge, 46, pay nearly 10% of their monthly farmworker income for water — a higher proportion than many people living in Third World countries.

They moved their family to California from Tijuana, Mexico, about a decade ago, finding work in the fields and a stable life in the Valley. But they never thought they would have to pay extra for bottled water in wealthy, progressive California.

They are not alone in shouldering an extra cost for water. Last year, 95% of the people in a survey of small water systems in Tulare County said they drink bottled water or purified water sold from a machine. The Pacific Institute, an Oakland-based nonprofit group, did the survey as a part of a report on the human cost of nitrates in the drinking water.

The survey results showed some people spend more than 10% of their income to buy water for their families, though the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in the 1990s said 1.5% would be a better guideline.

While Tulare County residents avoid drinking the water, many cook with it, said Eli Moore, co-director of the Pacific Institute's Community Strategies for Sustainability and Justice program.

“Almost half the people were ingesting contaminants because they were cooking with the water,” he said.

The contamination strikes at the poorest families in California. Poverty-level Latinos are the population group most affected by the degraded water, according to a study by the University of California at Berkeley.

“Those who are the least able to cope with drinking water contamination face some of the biggest exposure threats,” said lead researcher Carolina Balasz.

The research rings true at the Alvarado home in Tooleville.

Every few days, Valeriana says, her family fills a five-gallon bottle from a water-vending machine at a grocery store. It costs $1.50 to fill up.

They spend an extra $15 a month to buy the water. That is on top of the $40 a month for their piped water at the trailer.

Their $600-a-month income must cover rent, bills and food. When the money runs short, they drink from the tap, Valeriana says.

It gives her stomach cramps and rashes, and Valeriana thinks it might be thinning her hair. She can't explain why her children are so often nauseated and have trouble keeping food down.

Valeriana has learned about the possible connections between nitrates and cancer — bladder and colon, among them. But that wasn't the worst news. Nitrates can cause methemoglobinemia, or blue-baby syndrome, which could be fatal to infants.

The warning notices about high nitrates in the tap water come out a few times a year. But in between, Valeriana has no idea if the water is safe to drink. She and others suspect that the wells continually produce tainted water.

She worries about two grandchildren — Deci, 2, and Diana, 11 months — who live with her. The Alvarados also worry about their own four children, Griselda, 21, Imelda, 20, Jorge, 19, and Auroa, 9. Griselda's husband, Francisco Peleaz, 26, also lives with the Alvarados.

“The children are the future,” Valeriana said. “They're the ones we want to protect.”

State Looking at Agriculture

Environmentalists say the state has looked the other way for decades on one possible major source of drinking-water pollution in small towns — agriculture.

Years ago, farms simply didn't fit the regulations originally designed for single sources of pollution, such as factories or cities. Yet, experts agree farming is probably a source of nitrates in irrigation seepage containing fertilizers.

After years of discussion, state lawmakers in 1998 eliminated long-standing waivers from water permits for farmers. But the state faced the unenviable task of devising a way to monitor and regulate millions of acres without an army of inspectors.

In 2003 the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board required farmers to comply with surface-water monitoring and cleanup requirements. Eight years later, a program is in place, and the board is working on rules for water beneath farms.

By next summer, farm coalitions will be getting permits that regulate discharges to groundwater in various places around the Valley.

Under the orders, farmers in places where groundwater contamination has been detected in the past must use stringent practices on fertilizer. Areas where contamination has not occurred will need to be examined for potential problems or be shown not to pose a threat to groundwater.

The rules face criticism from farmers, who fear a huge increase in costs. Environmentalists say the rules are not strong enough. Legal action and more delay are on the horizon.

Nitrates in the ground water have long been a concern in places where agriculture has been practiced for many decades, as it has in the San Joaquin Valley.

In Tulare County, tests have detected the chemical in the wells of many towns — Strathmore, Lindsay, East Porterville, Ducor, Woodlake, Lemon Cove, Seville, Cutler, Orosi, East Orosi, Yettem and Tonyville.

Environmental activists suggest farm fertilizers and dairies are likely sources of contamination, but experts are cautious about pointing only at agriculture. Nitrates come from many sources, including septic systems and sewage treatment.

Scientists from the University of California, Davis, this year are studying nitrate sources in Tulare County. They should have some answers soon.

Even if the contamination sources were located and controlled right now, it probably would take many years to have an effect at the tap. The ground water moves very slowly, so the decades-old nitrate plumes may slowly appear in wells anyway.

The Bureaucratic Jungle

In Fresno, a city of a half million, it's not much of a stretch to raise money to pay professionals to handle contamination, breakdowns and expansions in the water system. Many of these experts already are on staff.

But in a community of 400, the local water system is run by townfolk, who hire experts when they need them for complex feasibility studies, evaluation of the system and monitoring. Water rates can climb when there's a big problem.

Most small towns don't have the money even for a feasibility study, which might cost $500,000. A new well might cost $2 million. So they look for public funding. And they enter a confusing maze of agencies.

Here's the rundown of agencies and their functions:

  • State public health officials enforce the requirements of the U.S. Safe Drinking Water Act. They also provide funding for fixing many small water systems.
  • The state Department of Water Resources dispenses some water bond funding.
  • The federal EPA grants some funding, which is funneled through the state public health agency.
  • The state Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control board regulates water quality in rivers and the groundwater.

Many county governments track progress of small water systems, keep records and help identify problems in small water systems. Counties report to the state.

Water activists blame the state public health agency for many delays. The agency is supposed to identify needs of small water systems every five years in the so-called Safe Drinking Water Plan, but it hasn't since 1995.

Without updates, small towns don't get new information to lobby for the money they need.

Residents from several small communities are asking a Fresno County Superior Court judge to order the water plan update. If settlement talks this year are not successful, the case would go to trial.

Even when a town obtains the money and fixes a problem, it's not always a success.

A few years ago, Alpaugh worked through the bureaucratic web for $4 million in funding to drill a well that produces water within the old federal standard for arsenic, a naturally occurring chemical in the water.

But federal officials tightened arsenic standards right after Alpaugh drilled its well, and now the well is out of compliance. The town will need water treatment facilities that could cost millions of dollars.

Josephine Jennnings, volunteer director of the Alpaugh Joint Powers Authority, said many residents already pay $45 to $55 a month, depending on how much water they use. There also is a $10 per month charge to help pay for a federal loan on a well drilled a few years ago.

“I can't imagine how people with low incomes will be able to afford a new cost,” she said.

Former Assembly Member Juan Arambula of Fresno lived in Delano decades ago amid drinking-water problems and poverty. During his time in office, he took on Tulare County's water contamination, but he, too, had trouble bringing together solutions.

Arambula said it is time for state, federal and local officials to clear a path for people to get safe drinking water.

“These are forgotten communities of people,” he said. “They need help now.”

© 2011 McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

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