Water is a currency in California, and the low-income farmworkers who pick the Central Valley’s crops know it better than anyone. They labor in the region’s endless orchards, made possible by sophisticated irrigation systems, but at home their faucets spew toxic water tainted by arsenic and fertilizer chemicals.
“Clean water flows toward power and money,” said Susana De Anda, a longtime water-rights organizer.
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 1 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 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, director of the Water Policy Center at the Public Policy Institute of California.
Gov. Gavin Newsom has proposed a tax of about $140 million on urban water districts and the agriculture industry to pay for redevelopment in districts serving unsafe water. That money would come in addition to $168 million he has allocated toward water infrastructure improvements.
Some have bristled at the proposed tax, given already high tax rates in the state and a budget surplus of more than $21 billion. The Association of California Water Agencies — whose members provide an estimated 90% of water distributed in the state — has spoken out against the proposed solution, arguing it would affect the cost of living in already-expensive California.
“There’s agreement with everyone involved in policy that there is a problem and it needs to be solved,” said Cindy Tuck, the group’s deputy executive director for government relations. But, “we think it doesn’t make sense to tax a resource that is essential.”
State Sen. Melissa Hurtado, a Democrat representing the Fresno area, whose district is severely affected by tainted water, said she would like to see more money allocated for infrastructure spending, but believes a tax on water is a nonstarter. Last week, the Democratic-controlled state Senate budget subcommittee voted against the governor’s proposed water tax.
Veronica Corrales, 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.
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. 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 long-standing problem in the valley and accelerated during the drought from 2012 to 2016.
It is exceedingly difficult to say with certainty whether any illness is directly tied to specific environmental factors, including contaminated water. But an article published last month in Environmental Health, an academic journal, estimated that 15,500 cases of cancer in California could occur within 70 years because of unsafe drinking water.