Californians are in deep water — dirty water, to be more precise. Over half a million residents are neglected the same basic access to clean drinking water enjoyed by the rest of the state. Hardest hit are children (a quarter of California schools fail to meet water provision standards) and farmworkers in the Central Valley, particularly low-income Latino communities.
The toxic groundwater in these communities often features lovely chemicals such as arsenic, pesticides, uranium, bacteria, nitrates and even carcinogens. As a result, citizens have higher cancer rates, higher obesity rates (a result of substituting soda for tap water), higher birth defect rates (from contaminated water consumption) and overall shorter lives.
Farmworkers in the Valley who want safe water are often obligated to drive about an hour away to purchase bottled water after spending sweltering days sweating in arid fields. Spending about 10 percent of their paychecks on this basic commodity, hard-pressed families are sometimes forced to forego bottled water for cheaper sodas, or to drink contaminated water and bare the health consequences.
It is an absolute abomination that in a state where agriculture accounts for 80 percent of water use, about 95 percent of farmworkers are neglected access to safe tap water. As with many situations, money, policy and political pull provide structural causes.
Small communities do not have sufficient funds for adequate water treatment systems. To get the money, they need to be incorporated into county districts. Fatally, counties can refuse to incorporate small towns if they do not seem like “profitable” additions to their jurisdictions. Counties deem these districts as “non-viable,” pointing to shortages of preexisting public facilities and services in these areas. By “non-viable” they mean that the communities have brief futures and “do not need” long-term water infrastructure.
Tulare County’s 1971 General Plan acutely captures this attitude, describing how water infrastructure is purposely withheld from the community in order to trigger “a process of long-term, natural decline.” In other words, community planners intend to bleed these small communities dry by withholding infrastructure. While the communities suffer as water quality worsens, life persists. Many neglected Central Valley populations and their residents remain for generations — water or no water.
Yet the entire premise of “viability” is anathemic to human rights and sound governance. It is neither fair nor equal. Guaranteeing access to safe water is not something that should be decided based on income, demonstrable wealth or political pull.
Furthermore, while California has emergency water funds, it neglects to use the money to provide clean water for all of its residents. Apparently, saving the water for communities that experience the inconvenience of short-term water shortages is more important than ensuring everyone has some water to begin with.
If impacted communities were composed of upper-class white residents, they would never be denied clean water. High tax brackets alone would provide sufficient incentive for counties to incorporate the communities. If for some reason, tax margins had failed as motivation, the political influence and law degrees inherent in wealthy, non-marginalized communities would mandate change.
To make matters worse, President Trump began the month by announcing his intention to withdraw the United States from the Paris Agreement. While Michael Bloomberg’s plan to finance the United State’s commitment to the international treaty is economically promising, it is insufficient in providing the nation with the policy directive needed to transition to a water-wise future. Failure to implement necessary mitigation and adaptation infrastructure will result in continued desertification and rising freshwater scarcity. In a state where a majority of food is grown in an already arid climate, Trump’s inaction will exacerbate the problem. Current trends promise a future filled with higher food prices and further damage to the livelihood, health and life quality of our food growers.
Our state itself must act up. California has the eighth largest economy in the world and a brimming reserve of emergency water funding. Clean water can definitely become a reality for all. As California residents, we need to pressure local and state officials to provide equitable clean water access. Community planners, particularly throughout the Central Valley, must prioritize protecting vulnerable populations, rather than class composition. Legislators must continue formulating constructive water policies and allocate sufficient funding towards potable water projects.
These changes are completely feasible. Community groups such as the AGUA Coalition have already encouraged legislators to pass numerous constructive measures. For instance, Senate Bill 1263 outlawed small water agencies, with the goal of incentivizing new communities to integrate into large water districts rather than attempting to set up their own system. Similarly, Senate Bill 552 permits the State Water Resources Control Board to hire independent contractors to aid struggling communities to develop clean water systems and long-term sustainability plans.
Getting clean water to all Californians is completely doable. Let us keep the flow of change steady, tap into our coffers and open the floodgates. It is time to thank the people who feed us with the water they deserve.
Heliya Izadpanah is a rising third year studying society and environment with a concentration in justice and sustainability. You can contact her at [email protected]