Toolville, California – Toolville is a tiny colonia, or unincorporated and informal settlement of about a hundred families, in the rural San Joaquin Valley, just a couple of miles outside the small town of Exeter. Over recent years, Toolville residents have discovered dangerous concentrations of nitrates in their water supply, which is pumped from the aquifer below the homes. As in many San Joaquin Valley communities, overuse of the water table, especially by giant industrial farms, has led to a growing concentration of fertilizer and other ag chemicals in the water that remains.
Toolville’s residents are all working-class people, many of them farm workers. They can use the water from their taps for washing dishes and clothes, but have to buy bottled water for drinking and cooking.
Eunice Martinez, a leader of the community’s effort to gain safe drinking water, looks warily at a jar of water drawn from the tap. Her mother, Margaret, holds their pet Chihuahua at a table where they keep a case of small bottles of drinking water. Across the street from the Martinez house, Natalie and Paco Rojas play in their yard. The health and development of children especially can be harmed by Toolville’s contaminated water.
In her home by the state highway, Cindy Newton-Enloe, who helped start Toolville’s effort to gain safe drinking water, stores her water in big thermos containers and then boils it for tea on her old-fashioned stove.
Valeria Alvarado is a Mixtec immigrant from Oaxaca, and lives in a trailer with her husband, son and three daughters. Her husband is a limonero, or lemon picker, but work is very slow because of the recession. The family has almost no furniture, and struggles to survive from day to day. Valeria washes her dishes in water from the tap, which is pumped from the ground, but buys her drinking water in five-gallon bottles. She stores them in her empty living room and outside the trailer under the porch.
The hills behind Toolville are the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas (Snowy Mountains), and most of the year they’re covered in dry brown grass. At the base of the foothills runs the Friant-Kern Canal, part of the great California Water Project. Its system of dams extends throughout the San Joaquin Valley, channeling the Sierra Nevada runoff into canals, reducing the valley’s former rivers into often dry watercourses, and lowering the water table. The canals provide water exclusively to growers for irrigation. Although the Friant-Kern Canal behind Toolville could supply the community’s water with hardly a noticeable reduction in its flow, Toolville and water-starved colonias like it can’t get access to a single drop.
As many as half a million people live in California’s 220 unincorporated communities, or colonias. Toolville’s water rights movement got the help of California Rural Legal Assistance’ project for Disadvantaged Unincorporated Communities, supported by PolicyLink.
Text and photos © copyright by David Bacon.
David Bacon is a writer and photographer. His new book, “Illegal People – How Globalization Creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants,” was just published by Beacon Press. His photographs and stories can be found at https://dbacon.igc.org.