Communities in California Are Plagued by Contaminated Drinking Water

Dirty Public Drinking Fountain

Students at Stone Corral Elementary in Seville, California. The school budgets $100 to $500 a month for bottled water.

Impoverished agricultural communities in Central Valley, California have been plagued for decades by contaminated drinking water.

This is the result of more than five decades in which chemical fertilizers, animal wastes, pesticides, and other substances have infiltrated aquifers, seeping into the groundwater and eventually into the tap. 20% of public water systems in Tulare County are unable to meet safe nitrate levels, according to a United Nations representative.

Farmworker communities like Seville, population 300, are places with rusty rural mailboxes, backyard roosters and an average yearly income is $14,000. Residents here pay double for water. For the tap water they use to shower and wash clothes and for the five-gallon bottles they must buy to drink, cook, and brush their teeth. Schools budget $100 to $500 a month for bottled water.

In Tulare County, one of the US leading dairy producers, animal waste lagoons penetrate the air and soil. A University of California Davis study estimated that 254,000 people a year in the Tulare Basin and Salinas Valley, prime agricultural regions with about 2.6 million inhabitants, are at risk for nitrate contamination of their drinking water. These nitrates are linked to thyroid disease and make infants susceptible to fatal conditions that interfere with the blood’s capacity to carry oxygen.

Fertilizer and chemicals applied to cropland decades ago will continue to affect groundwater for years according to the study. Residents must rely on county governments and resident-run public utility districts. The fragmented water delivery system is part of a frequently deteriorating infrastructure.

These communities started out as farm labor camps without any infrastructure, states John A. Capitman, from the California State University. One in five residents in the Central Valley live below the federal poverty line and many spend up to 10% of their income on water.

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