They Grow the Nation’s Food, but They Can’t Drink the Water

By Jose A. Del Real May 21, 2019

EAST OROSI, Calif. — 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 in the 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.”

As she spoke, Ms. De Anda drove through several towns where tainted water is a fact of life, here in the state’s agricultural center. In the foreground, along State Route 201, were miles of lush orange groves and dairy farms. Spotted out the passenger window of her silver Toyota was Stone Corral Elementary in the town of Seville, where century-old pipes contaminate the tap water with soil and bacteria. The school depends on grant money to pay for bottled water for students.

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.

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 from a bond proposition passed last year.

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 percent of water distributed in the state — has spoken out against the governor’s 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 Senator 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, in favor of recommending funding from the state’s general fund. The Legislature is expected to work out the details as part of broader budget negotiations, which will come for a vote in June.