Coronavirus forces California farmworkers to scramble for safe drinking water

With stores rationing bottled water, some 1 million residents whose tap water is tainted with agricultural pollutants confront the state's failure to solve the problem

Bare shelves in grocery stores have become a fact of life during the coronavirus crisis, as panicked shoppers worried about shortages resort to hoarding. Yet what’s little more than an inconvenience for most people could pose serious health risks for as many as a million Californians living in poor rural farmworker communities with tap water fouled by decades of agricultural pollution.

The crisis has revealed the inadequacy of state programs designed to get safe and affordable drinking water to these communities, leaving organizers scrambling to make sure residents have enough clean water for their families.

California has known about the tainted tap water for decades, but efforts to solve the problem have been piecemeal. Last year, the state passed a law to supplement existing programs and guarantee long-term funding for water system infrastructure and regular bottled water deliveries for communities with water systems containing nitrate and other contaminants, which have been linked to cancer and other health problems. But funds for the Safe and Affordable Funding for Equity and Resilience Program (SAFER) — which doesn’t cover every community with tainted water — won’t be available until July. And, more importantly, many communities will still be left out.

For the past several years communities have relied on grants and emergency funds to get clean water delivered to homes in need. But advocates say the deliveries often aren’t enough for many families — and that was before everyone ramped up handwashing to protect against the virus, and before the hoarding of bottled water began.

“That’s when we saw a huge crisis,” says Tami McVay, manager of emergency services for Self-Help Enterprises, a community development organization that oversees state-funded water deliveries in the San Joaquin Valley. Even if people wanted to go buy their own water, they couldn’t. Meanwhile, vendors who delivered bottled water were short-staffed because drivers didn’t want to risk exposure to the coronavirus, leaving many residents without water.

Lucy Hernandez, who lives in West Goshen, a tiny farming town in the San Joaquin Valley, couldn’t even find enough bottled water in nearby Visalia, one of the biggest cities in the valley, for her family and friends with contaminated water.

“I’m doing the census here in the community and everybody is telling me the same thing,” Hernandez says. “They can’t find water in the stores and a lot of people can’t even find food.”

This crisis spotlights the fact that the state simply hasn’t done enough to help people without safe tap water, says Michael Claiborne, senior attorney with the Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability, a nonprofit that’s helping get water to farmworker communities in central and southeastern California.

People living in these communities are among the state’s most vulnerable residents. Many work in the same fields that polluted their wells, and come home to long-neglected towns without the basic water infrastructure needed to clean it up.

As Claiborne says, they’re trying “to fix a problem that shouldn’t have been there in the first place.”

 A history of neglect

Nitrate is one of California’s most widespread groundwater contaminants, and the state has struggled with the problem for decades. But the true scope and cause of the contamination was first revealed in 2012 by researchers at the University of California, Davis, who concluded that agriculture accounts for 96 percent of the problem. (Read FERN’s story on the report.)

Since then, state officials have chipped away at the problem with bonds and bills to fund community projects and direct consolidation of water systems. But the measures have never matched the scope of the problem or reached all the affected communities. In an attempt to fill in gaps, the state allocated $130 million a year through SAFER to underwrite water deliveries until long-term improvements and infrastructure can be made.

Bottles of tap water from communities in California’s Central Valley, with levels of contaminants listed. Photo by Verena Radulovic.

Resolving decades of neglect and contamination in these isolated communities is a major undertaking that state officials are still trying to get a handle on. “SAFER was a step forward but there are obstacles hurtling at us at the speed of light that are more political than logistical,” says Julie Macedo, staff counsel at the State Water Resources Control Board.

California has a polluter-pays policy, so if there’s an oil spill off the coast, for example, the oil company is required to clean it up. Yet even though agriculture accounts for nearly all the nitrate discharge, she says, “We don’t make the farmers clean it up, because farming has a really strong lobby.” Cleaning up the contamination is “going to be very, very expensive,” Macedo says. “It’s a 50- to 100-year problem.”

And, Michael Claiborne notes, as one system is fixed more go out of compliance. “It’s hard to get ahead.”

The California Farm Bureau Federation did not respond to a request for comment.

People with unsafe tap water rely on bottled water for everything, even brushing their teeth, Claiborne says, so it’s critical for them to find adequate bottled water supplies. He’s especially worried about people in Pixley, a San Joaquin Valley town long plagued by unsafe arsenic levels in its water. Arsenic, a known carcinogen, occurs naturally in the soil and groundwater in this region. Utilities can either build filtration systems to remove it or dig new wells to find clean water. Both options are too costly for towns like Pixley. One grandmother Claiborne knows had to drive more than 20 miles to find bottled water because all the stores in the town of 3,000 were sold out, putting herself at risk of contracting the virus and forcing her to spend more money on gas.

Those who can’t find bottled water at stores have been going to drinking-water kiosks, vending machines where they can fill 5-gallon jugs. The kiosks are maintained as part of a settlement agreement between the state’s water board and agricultural interests to help communities affected by nitrate-contaminated groundwater. But there aren’t kiosks in every town, Claiborne says, “which means that people are spending more time out driving and looking for options they’re not used to using.”

Even worse, Claiborne was distressed to hear that people were using a kiosk that was connected to Pixley’s system. He thinks they probably came from somewhere else and didn’t know the water contains arsenic. “That’s one reason we pushed so hard for an executive order on water shutoffs,” he says. “So we don’t hear any more stories like that.”

Every year about 200,000 low-income residents who can’t pay their bills have their water shut off. Claiborne’s organization joined a coalition of water advocates to urge California’s governor to stop shutoffs at a time when everyone’s supposed to be staying at home and washing their hands.

Three weeks later, in early March, Governor Gavin Newsom issued an executive order placing a moratorium on water shutoffs in California during the coronavirus crisis, recognizing that “water is critical to our very lives.”

But that doesn’t help people with tap water they can’t drink.

One reason that towns like Pixley have struggled with contamination for so long is that before a community can be eligible for state assistance, community leaders must request help from the state water board. That places an extra burden on towns throughout the valley, where a lot of people speak only Spanish, which can make asking for help harder. Many residents are undocumented and have justifiable concerns about asking the state for help. Plus, some of these towns are unincorporated, established as farm-labor camps, and cut off from city services and government officials who would typically handle this kind of outreach.

Now, though, a Pixley resident sits on the SAFER advisory board. And just last week, Self-Help delivered nearly 200 gallons of water to a local church, where volunteers set up a drive-through distribution system, dropping cases into people’s trunks to maintain social distance.

It’s inspiring to see neighbors come together in an emergency, Claiborne says. But it should never have come to this. Hopefully the coronavirus emergency will end soon, but it’s just a matter of time before the next wildfire or drought hits. “We should be better prepared than this.”

A national problem

Nitrate contamination isn’t just a California problem. More than 2 million Americans live in communities with nitrate levels in their drinking water that have been linked to an increased risk of certain types of cancer, a 2018 review of studies by epidemiologists from the U.S. and Europe shows. Nearly three-fourths of those communities, according to an Environmental Working Group analysis of its tap-water database, are in California and four other states where agriculture is big business: Texas, Kansas, Oklahoma and Arizona.

The nitrate hotspots on EWG’s map are concentrated in parts of the country where there’s lots of fertilizer and manure being applied to the land, says Craig Cox, EWG’s senior vice president for agriculture and natural resources. While public water systems must undergo regular testing and alert customers whenever contaminants exceed safety standards by law, people with private wells are on their own, without any mandatory testing or regulation at all. Since nitrates have no color or odor, residents may have no idea their wells are contaminated.

The allowable limit for nitrate in drinking water hasn’t changed since 1962, when it was set at 10 parts per million to protect against “blue baby syndrome,” named for the peculiar blue-gray tinge a baby’s skin develops when nitrate stops oxygen flow, leading to suffocation if not caught in time. Since then scientists have found increased risk of some cancers, thyroid disease and birth defects from chronic ingestion of water containing just half the legal limit of nitrate.

It’s clear that the allowable threshold is not safe, Cox says. “We should be keeping nitrate well below the legal limit.”

And that means keeping nitrate out of the water in the first place with stronger regulations, says Cox, who spent years at the U.S. Department of Agriculture working with farmers to help them manage fertilizer and manure runoff, the primary sources of nitrate in drinking water.

“Otherwise you have to pay lots of money to take it out and the cost of doing that can be crippling to these communities.”

Though water systems in some large cities and towns have elevated nitrate, they typically have the customer base to cover the cost of filtration. But in the smaller rural towns where nitrate pollution is concentrated, adding a treatment system would be a serious financial hardship. An EWG report estimated that cleaning up water supplies could cost anywhere from $666 a year per person for the cheapest option up to as much as $2,776 a year per person for a reverse osmosis system, which can also remove other contaminants.

“This is a huge rural problem,” says Cox. “And the people who are disproportionately affected tend to be people and communities that can least afford to deal with the problem.”

Exacerbating disparities

Most California residents who can’t safely drink their tap water are poor, Latino and live in historically neglected towns in the nation’s richest farming regions. In the San Joaquin Valley, long a destination for immigrants seeking farm work, about half are undocumented.

The Covid-19 emergency is magnifying existing disparities. “We are struggling here in our communities,” says West Goshen’s Hernandez, a 51-year-old grandmother who lives with her husband and three grown children in a house next to her son, daughter-in-law and three granddaughters.

She knows families in other small communities that have only small stores that can’t keep up with demand for water. “They run out of water very quick,” she says.

Hernandez doesn’t know anyone in her community who’s sick. But she worries that there have been many cases in nearby Visalia, where a single nursing home recently reported 150 cases. Everyone knows they have to wear a mask to go to the store, she says, “but we don’t have the money for masks, even if we could find them.”

The fight for clean water has been a years-long struggle for West Goshen, a square mile parcel surrounded by crops and dairies in a county with more than twice as many cows as people. Finally, in 2016, with the help of a $3.5-million state grant, the town hooked up to the water system of Visalia. But only houses that were already hooked up to West Goshen’s system benefited. That left about a quarter of unconnected households in town, more than 30 families, stuck with contaminated wells.

A public notice advisory from a community in California’s Central Valley warns residents of water contamination. Photo by Verena Radulovic.

Some have been relying on neighbors and relatives to make sure their babies who need formula and vulnerable older family members have safe water to drink. Others go from store to store searching for bottled water, knowing they may be violating orders to stay at home, and spending precious funds on gas.

Hernandez is among the lucky ones. She has clean water from the Visalia hookup. But a legacy of poisoned tap water in a town where 70 percent of people live in poverty has left many unwilling to risk it. As a member of the advisory group for implementing the state’s drinking water fund, she has been working with local organizations to make sure her community gets safe water.

The situation in West Goshen is “pretty typical,” says Claiborne, of the Leadership Counsel. “Most communities have some sort of public or private system with pockets of contaminated private wells around the system.”

Maria Olivera, who also is a member of the SAFER advisory group, lives about 20 miles east of Hernandez in Tooleville, which has long wrestled with nitrate contamination. She says “everyone went crazy” buying bottled water when the virus hit. But things have settled down recently. Most people in the town of 340 have been getting by on state-sponsored bottled water deliveries, she says, “unless they have big families.”

But Tami McVay, of Self-Help Enterprises, the organization leading efforts to get water to families in need, says they have run into an unanticipated roadblock: “We’ve had families literally saying, ‘No, we don’t want that water,’” she says.

A large proportion of the people in these communities are undocumented. Many are already suspicious about census workers coming to their door, afraid they’ll be reported to immigration authorities. “Even people with legal status have family members or neighbors who are undocumented,” Claiborne says.

“Unfortunately, sometimes it takes an emergency like Covid-19 to shine a light on an issue like this,” he says. “This is a scary time.”

Lead image: In many Central Valley towns, like Stratford, farmworkers and their families rely on bottled water for everything — even brushing their teeth — because their tap water is contaminated with nitrate from the nearby farm fields. Nitrate has been linked to certain types of cancer and other health problems. Photo by Matt Black/Magnum

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