In California’s agricultural center, farmers and their families are living with toxic, potentially deadly, water that is a direct result of the thriving industry. A new investigative report in The New York Times, titled “‘Flint Is Everywhere’: California Farmworkers Confront a Tainted Water Crisis” was published today (May 21). Written by Jose A. Del Real, it exposes the water crisis that is affecting the majority-Latinx communities of Central Valley.
The families there are unable to safely use their tap water as it contains arsenic and other contaminants—a direct result of the agriculture industry that primarily produces oranges and dairy products:
Many factors have led to the groundwater contamination reflected in the state’s data, but public health experts say the region’s agriculture industry has played an outsize role. Chemical fertilizers and dairy manure seep into the ground and cause nitrate contamination, like the kind plaguing East Orosi. Such contamination, which is common throughout the valley, takes years to materialize and even longer to clear up.
Arsenic is naturally occurring in some areas but can become worse with exhaustive groundwater pumping, which has been a longstanding problem in the valley and accelerated during the drought between 2012 and 2016.
An estimated 15,500 cases of cancer could happen in the next 70 years in the state because of the unsafe drinking water. The problem, according to The Times, is part of a growing trend in the state:
Today, more than 300 public water systems in California serve unsafe drinking water, according to public compliance data compiled by the California State Water Resources Control Board. It is a slow-motion public health crisis that leaves more than one million Californians exposed to unsafe water each year, according to public health officials.
Though water contamination is a problem up and down the state, the failing systems are most heavily concentrated in small towns and unincorporated communities in the Central and Salinas Valleys, the key centers of California agriculture. About half of all failing water systems are in the agricultural San Joaquin Valley, in the southern section of the broader Central Valley, said Ellen Hanak, the director of the Water Policy Center at the Public Policy Institute of California.
East Orosi is a predominantly Latinx farmworker community that is at the foot of the Sierra Nevada mountains in Central Valley:
There, residents complain of conditions that resemble the developing world, not the richest state in the nation. Fears of nitrate exposure in the tap water—which numerous studies have linked to an increased risk of infant death, and at high levels, an elevated risk of cancer in adults—compound other difficult realities like faraway grocery stores and doctors, grueling work conditions and a lack of political clout.
Veronica Corrales, the president of the East Orosi water board, wonders why more people are not outraged that, in 2019, people living in a state as wealthy as California lack such a fundamental necessity.
“Everyone is saying ‘America First,’ but what about us?” she said.
The article spotlights Martha Sanchez’s family, which, like many others in East Orosi, relies on bottled water—provided from a state grant or purchased with their own money—for tasks like cooking and washing dishes:
Her husband, who is a supervisor in the fields, pays for clean water out of pocket for the employees he manages, because the farm does not provide it. Sometimes he brings in about $80 for a full day of work.
These problems are not new. The failing infrastructure at the heart of the potable water crisis in these communities is tinged with the legacy of rural redlining, said Camille Pannu, the director of the Aoki Water Justice Clinic at the University of California, Davis, who likened the situation in the valley to the one in Flint, Michigan. “Flint is everywhere here,” she said.
Governor Gavin Newsom has proposed a tax of about $140 billion on urban water districts and the agriculture industry. It would provide the state with money to address unsafe water in various districts. The tax has been met with resistance by the Association of California Water Agencies, which controls 90 percent of the water distributed in the state and believes California should use its $21 billion surplus instead. A group spokesperson told The Times: “We think it doesn’t make sense to tax a resource that is essential.”
Next month, the state legislature will vote on alternative measures for funding:
“Clean water flows toward power and money,” said Susana De Anda, a longtime water rights organizer in the [Central Valley] region. She is the daughter of lechugueros who worked in lettuce fields and helped make California one of the agricultural capitals of the world. “Homes, schools and clinics are supposed to be the safest places to go. But not in our world.”
Read the entire article here.