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In April 2016, the Rural Community Assistance Corporation (RCAC) held a rally to highlight its achievements in bringing safe, clean and potable water to schools in the Eastern Coachella Valley via its Agua4All campaign, which installed 75 clean water-bottle-filling stations for student use.

For many of these local children, these stations offer the only consistent and free access to safe drinking water they have. (See “Potable Progress: Agua4All Meets Its Goal of Giving East Valley Students Access to Safe Drinking Water—but There’s Work Left to Do,” May 8, 2016.)

Since then, however, Agua4All’s progress has slowed significantly. Just those initial 75 stations are operating; no others have been installed.

“I wouldn’t necessarily say that the program has stalled,” said Olga Morales, the RCAC regional manager. “Originally, we had two pilot programs, in the Coachella Valley and Bakersfield. Most of our resources were utilized in those two communities. Then, we expanded our program into other counties throughout the state, and arguably, the available money didn’t go as far as it did when it was concentrated in one specific area.

“Our whole program thus far had been funded strictly by foundation and bank money. It takes a lot of effort to attract those kinds of dollars. … In the end, it doesn’t really go very far.

“We did succeed in expanding the program into other counties across the state,” Morales continued, “but there have not been sufficient resources to increase our outreach in Riverside County and the Coachella Valley. However, in the last two months, we were awarded what’s known as a ‘technical assistance (funding) program’ for our drinking-water-in-schools program, which is hosted under the State Water (Resources Control) Board. Under this new program, we’ve been directed to work with schools to identify the need either for access to, or treatment of, drinking water on their campuses. The program officially launches next month, and it has $9.5 million set aside for drinking water infrastructure to be installed at schools in primarily disadvantaged communities.”

Unfortunately, Morales said only school districts in cities with populations less than 20,000 can apply for that assistance for the first nine months—meaning most of the Coachella Valley schools in need will not qualify.

However, there is good news to report regarding infrastructure access in the Eastern Coachella Valley.

The Coachella Valley Water District (CVWD), in partnership with other governmental offices and community stakeholders, is poised to deliver some lasting improvements to East Valley communities. CVWD Board Vice President Castulo Estrada, who represents the East Valley, talked about the positive signs for valley residents who have struggled with a lack of access to potable water for decades.

“During discussions at the CVWD Disadvantaged Communities Infrastructure Task Force meetings (chaired by Estrada), we can put some focus on the water needs of the east side, which is due to a lack of infrastructure,” Estrada said. “… Over this last year, our group at the meetings has grown to include a lot of the people who need to be part of the conversation, and who are essential to ensuring that these projects get done. Our group now includes the assemblymember’s office (Eduardo Garcia), the congressman’s office (Dr. Raul Ruiz) and the county supervisor’s office (V. Manuel Perez). We have folks from the Riverside County Transportation and Land Management Agency, which is the department in charge of issuing permits. We have folks from the United States Department of Agriculture, folks from Building Healthy Communities (BHC), folks from the leadership council, and folks from the housing coalition. Now folks from the Desert Recreation District want to join us.

“Our meetings now provide a place where everybody can talk about the projects that they’re working on, and it allows everybody to have a sense of what’s happening, and that way, things can get done better.”

Estrada mentioned the San Antonio del Desierto sewer-extension project as an example of how the task force is making progress.

“The county was holding back a grading permit that was stopping progress with the project, and as a result, we had to request at least two extensions for a grant from the USDA,” Estrada said. “Then, when Supervisor Perez came in, I spoke to him about it, and there was a big meeting called. After that, things got done. So now that project is going out to bid (for construction contractors) this month after a whole year of hiccups and delays.”

Supervisor V. Manuel Perez agreed that the CVWD task force’s work is leading to much-needed solutions to the East Valley’s longstanding needs for potable water and sewer-system access.

“Castulo’s attempts to ensure that we have reliable water infrastructure on the east side deserve recognition, particularly when it involves safe drinking water, which I view as a social-justice right.” Perez said. “This has been an historical issue for us for a very long time.”

District 56 Assemblymember Eduardo Garcia was also optimistic about the progress being made in the East Valley—including possible forward progress for Agua4All.

“From my perspective, we’re going to continue to build off our efforts with the legislation AB 2124, which included dollars to ensure safe, clean drinking water for our schools and communities in and around our school grounds,” Garcia said. “That was part of the Agua4All campaign, which received approximately $10 million in support of their efforts.

“In this last budget approved by the governor, there is roughly $17 million budgeted toward these types of efforts. That’s specifically a result of our advocacy and the advocacy of other legislators who represent similar geographic districts that are primarily rural, agricultural economies, where you have remote housing circumstances, as we do here in the Coachella Valley, that are unable to centralize infrastructure. … My job, and the job of Castulo Estrada, and the job of RCAC is now to try to bring those dollars to our backyard.”

Published in Local Issues

So far this year in the Coachella Valley, water-rate increases have gone into effect in both the Mission Springs Water District (encompassing Desert Hot Springs and northern Palm Springs) and the Myoma Dunes Water Company territory of Bermuda Dunes.

In both cases, mandatory public meetings were held—and citizens came out to protest what they saw as unfair increases.

On Tuesday, June 14, the latest domino to fall was the Coachella Valley Water District (CVWD), which provides water to most of the valley from portions of Cathedral City eastward. Its board of directors was holding one final public meeting on whether to approve the controversial rate-increase plans it had been proposing for more than three months. Various local media and an overflow crowd of more than 300 customers showed up for the meeting, held under the watchful gaze of armed members of the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department.

As expected, the board approved the first step in a five-step rate increase plan … sort of: The members voted for a rate increase in volumetric charges, effective July 1, as well as a 44 percent increase in fixed-cost charges for customers effective from July through September, with a reduction to 22 percent beginning in October.

Or did they? Heather Engel, the CVWD director of conservation and communication, told the Independent after the vote that the increase would not be quite as steep.

“For our (single-family residential) customers, their fixed charge was going to go up (on July 1) from $7 to $11.30, but now, it will be $9.26 (a roughly 32 percent increase) as of Oct. 1” rather than July 1, she said.

She said it’s possible the board could further lessen that fixed-charge increase between now and October.

“It will be revisited (in September) to see if it can be adjusted down further,” she said.

As for the volumetric portion of the customer bills, the proposed increases were indeed adopted as proposed. (To review the final approved water rates, visit www.cvwd.org/ratechanges.)

With all of the local water districts, the rate-increase rationale begins with the revenue shortfall caused by successful conservation efforts. Another undeniable factor is the cost of maintaining and upgrading the existing water-management and delivery infrastructure.

But the wild card in each agency’s deck is the State Water Resources Control Board’s new Chromium 6 abatement regulations. After initially fighting the state-regulation terms that the agency viewed as onerous, the CVWD has now decided to move forward aggressively with plans to create and maintain a massive treatment infrastructure—at an estimated minimum development cost of $250 million, with ongoing annual maintenance costs of $8 million.

At least one local lawmaker thinks the CVWD should be pushing back against the state a little more.

“If I was in the CVWD’s shoes, I’d say let’s hold off a little bit,” said Assemblymember Eduardo Garcia. “Let’s maybe spend some money on doing some designing and some engineering, but let’s hold off a little bit to see if there’s any change (in the current regulations).”

Garcia said it’s indeed possible that those Chromium 6 regulations could be changed.

“Last year, we were successful in passing Senate Bill 385, which I co-authored. … The bill gave (affected) agencies a five-year variance to comply with the new standard,” Garcia said. “That meant three things from our perspective: (We can) continue to gather scientific information that would either support or invalidate the (Chromium 6) standard … and possibly challenge that standard; give agencies the time needed to plan, design and build the infrastructure needed to meet the standards; and allow time for specific legal challenges already under way to proceed and potentially change the direction or outcome of the new standards. … But (the CVWD is) moving steadfast, perhaps because they feel there might not be any changes, and I respect that outlook and the direction they are going in.”

Garcia said it’s also possible the CVWD could get financial help from the state.

“Another area we’re looking at is money made available in the water bond, Proposition 1. Specifically, it allocated $260 million for water grants and loans for public utilities, and for addressing infrastructure needs and what have you. These dollars were originally meant for smaller utilities, but we’re trying to see if utilities with a larger footprint could potentially be eligible.”

On a related front, during the June 14 meeting, board member Peter Nelson expressed a desire for the CVWD to join a lawsuit against the California State Water Resources Control Board, being led by the California Manufacturers and Technology Association, and the Solano County Taxpayers Association. It questions the need for the stringent drinking-water regulation of Chromium 6. The CVWD board has scheduled a closed-session discussion of this possibility for July.

Ashley Metzger, the manager of conservation and outreach at the Desert Water Agency, which serves much of Palm Springs and Cathedral City, defended the CVWD’s efforts.

“CVWD fought this (Chromium 6 regulation) tooth and nail,” she said. “They really put up a strong campaign against this standard being set so low.”

Metzger also offered a reminder for all local water-agency customers: “One thing that people often forget is we’re all public agencies. We represent them. We’re not for-profit. We’re different from Edison and SoCalGas, which are private companies. Everything we do is with our customers in mind.”

Is a water-rate increase coming to the DWA?

“We are doing a rate study right now,” Metzger said. “A whole host of factors will be evaluated. It’s a very comprehensive process. We expect to see the results sometime in late summer 2016.”

Published in Local Issues

"It never failed that during the dry years the people forgot about the rich years, and during the wet years they lost all memory of the dry years. It was always that way." —John Steinbeck, East of Eden

California’s State Water Resources Control Board recently indicated that mandatory water restrictions could be lowered in some parts of the state later this spring. Such a move would come just one year after the wise decision that encouraged residents to save water in the midst of a severe, multi-year drought.

Regardless of the board’s decision, Californians need to shift permanently toward water conservation and efficiency. In fact, that’s not a bad idea for all Americans.

There’s no denying it: There was a lot more rain and snowfall in California this past winter than we’ve seen in recent years, especially the last five. Unfortunately, when it comes to the drought, a closer look at recent rain and snow trends makes it clear that saying “things are better” is a long way from knowing that “the drought is over.”

As of this writing. statewide snowpack is now at 87 percent of average—a big improvement over last year’s abysmal 5 percent, but, still, not even average. As for rainfall, El Niño took good care of parts of Northern California by filling some important reservoirs to their historical average levels. Southern California, however, has not been so lucky, with well-below-average rainfall this winter, despite a handful of storms.

The Central Valley’s agricultural lands remain locked in a drought, and farmers continue to pump the region’s dwindling groundwater resources, because there isn’t enough surface water from which to draw. Farms and other customers in the southern part of the state, which depend on water distributed through the Central Valley Project, just learned that they will get far less water than they requested.

In short, the drought is not yet over. The near-average precipitation received this winter has dented it, but not crushed it. In fact, the U.S. Drought Monitor still classifies much of the state as being in an “exceptional” drought.

It is foolhardy to expect that one near-average season of precipitation will keep drought conditions at bay, particularly as El Niño weakens. We need to fully embrace strategies like drought-tolerant yards, efficient fixtures and appliances, water-smart agriculture, and additional protections for groundwater. If we focus on what residents can do, then rethinking lawns, installing water-efficient toilets, and fixing leaks are effective ways to cut back on direct water use and keep gallons in reservoirs. In addition, we have to expand our notion of water use to include the water that goes into producing the food we eat, the energy we use and the products we buy. This requires becoming more energy efficient, reusing and recycling more, and wasting less food. Tools like the Water Footprint Calculator can also help consumers track and reduce how much actual and virtual water they’re using. 

These actions may not always mean that there’s more water available in the local reservoir or aquifer, but an increasingly water-aware lifestyle requires us to look at the impact on our shared resources beyond city, water district and state borders. Californians can do it, and in fact, they already have, by nearly meeting the 25 percent reduction target on residential water use set by the governor last year. Importantly, they did so without dramatically affecting their way of life. California farmers have also become more water-efficient over the past decades, and many are now going even further by using sustainable techniques to protect the quality of water supplies. By building upon these efforts, even larger reductions in water use can provide stability, regardless of yearly fluctuations in rain and snowfall.

Local water utilities may be nervous, because reduced water use usually means less revenue, and ultimately, higher customer bills. But options exist that encourage conservation, including those already adopted in parts of California. One way is decoupling water sales from overall revenues, or tiered pricing, which provides enough water to meet basic needs for cheap or even free, and then adds increasing rates as customers use more.

Now is not the time to go back to the old ways of doing things. No harm can come from water conservation, no matter what part of the country you call home. In California and other Western states still enduring or recovering from the most recent drought, now is the time to stay efficient. Around the world, people are beginning to embrace the new normal—because it’s here, and it requires all of us to make changes that last a lot longer than just one year.

Peter Hanlon is a contributor to Writers on the Range, an opinion service of High Country News. He is the deputy director of programs at GRACE Communications Foundation, a nonprofit that promotes sustainable food production and water use.

Published in Community Voices

As the calendar turns from 2015 to 2016, Gov. Jerry Brown and his Sacramento conservation team are pleased with the results of California’s statewide drought-emergency restrictions.

However, they’re not happy with the efforts of Coachella Valley’s largest water agencies—despite significant cuts in local water usage.

“Californians have reduced water use by 27.1 percent in the five months since emergency conservation regulations took effect in June,” wrote Felicia Marcus, chair of the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB), in her Dec. 1 monthly press release. “In October, when outdoor water use—and the opportunity for significant savings—typically drops off from the hot summer months, the statewide conservation rate was 22.2 percent, down from 26.4 percent in September. Adding to the challenge, October brought temperatures that were well above normal for most of the state. Nonetheless, average statewide water use declined from 97 gallons per person per day in September to 87 in October.”

Meanwhile, representatives of the Coachella Valley’s two major water agencies expressed pride over their customers’ conservation achievements—and frustration with SWRCB delays in addressing multiple requests for reductions in their state-high 36 percent reduction targets, and the lack of transparency in the state’s process to levy onerous fines against them.

“I think our customers have done a really good job,” said Heather Engel, the director of communication and conservation for the Coachella Valley Water District (CVWD), which provides water to most of the eastern valley. “We’re averaging 27 percent savings over 2013, and honestly, that’s pretty impressive. But—and unfortunately, there is a ‘but’—that 27 percent is not enough to make the state happy.

“We were fined $61,000 by the state, because they don’t think our customers are doing enough. It was very disappointing to receive that fine, because I think we’re doing a good job. But we’ve got to move on.”

How often may fines be levied? “They haven’t made that clear. In fact, when they released the October numbers at the beginning of this month, they did not announce any new fines. I don’t think anyone knows when to expect another announcement of fines.”

On the western end of the valley, Ashley Hudgens, the Desert Water Agency (DWA) public information officer, expressed concern over the CVWD fine and a similar fine levied against the Indio Water Authority (IWA). So far, the DWA has avoided a penalty.

“The hard thing about this is that the state’s action here is kind of arbitrary,” Hudgens said. “If you look at Indio, and you look at CVWD, there are very different circumstances there. Each of them had very different levels of contact with the state before the fine, and there wasn’t a real pattern (of which agencies the state fined). We crunched the numbers a dozen ways: Was it suppliers who missed their targets by volume, or was it those who missed by gallons per capita, or was it those who missed their target by percentage? There was no rhyme or reason necessarily to link the people the state chose to fine in any of the calculations that we did. So we don’t know if we’re in peril of a fine.”

Repeated attempts to contact Brian Macy, general manager of the IWA, for comment were unsuccessful.

Hudgens reiterated the DWA’s disagreement with the 36 percent reduction target assigned to the agency.

“The 36 percent target in our minds is arbitrary, and it’s disproportionate to the circumstances here (high average temperature and lack of rainfall) and our (existing) water supply,” she said.

Hudgens also praised her agency’s customer base for achieving a cumulative savings through October of 29.2 percent—above the state average, but below the state’s mandate to the DWA.

“I’m incredibly proud of our customers for doing that, but there is still more to do,” she said. “Everybody needs to do their part. I think the city of Palm Springs has set an incredible example. They’ve done a really good job of conserving—and since they’re our biggest customer, that’s been huge for us.”

In response to the state fine, the CVWD implemented heightened restrictions as of Dec. 1. All residential and commercial customers are now prohibited from any outdoor irrigation on Mondays and Thursdays. Also, penalty fees for exceeding water-usage allotments have increased close to 100 percent.

“In the cooler months that we’re entering now, your landscaping doesn’t need water seven days a week,” Engel said. “The plan is for people who don’t normally cut back to do so for these two out of seven days. If they do, then they are reducing their water use by about 28 percent. If we have a large segment of customers who do that, it could have a significant impact on our overall savings. We don’t know for sure if that will generate enough savings to allow us to reach our 36 percent target, but we’ll see what the results are.”

We’ve all heard forecasts predicting heavy precipitation due to a strong El Nino condition in the Pacific Ocean. Could that break the drought and relieve the pressure on valley residents to limit every drop of water they use?

“We’re waiting to see what happens and how it impacts our reality,” CVWD’s Engel said. “If the state gets a lot of rain, and if the lakes get full, and there’s snow in the Sierras, then the state might lift the drought emergency. But it would require a lot of rain and snow for that to happen.”

They’re also in wait-and-see mode at the DWA.

“We are trying to be cautiously optimistic and remind people that even if we do have a wet winter, it’s going to take a lot to get us into a sustainable level in terms of the state’s aquifers,” Hudgens said.

Speaking of sustainable levels: How are the two largest valley agencies coping with the revenue shortfalls caused by the reduction in water usage by their customers?

“We are still experiencing a large drop in revenue because of the conservation, and it is mostly being made up with penalties revenue each month,” the CVWD’s Engel said. “So that has allowed us to only dip into our reserves a little bit each month. As a result, we’re in really good shape financially, because we have those healthy reserves.”

But at the DWA, there are no penalty fees, nor is there a tiered rate structure as part of a conservation strategy.

“We are in a revenue shortfall situation,” Hudgens said. “Before this year began, we adjusted the budget downward since we assumed this is where we would be—so we’re coping with it. We are going to have to look at rates, and I think that’s on everyone’s mind out here. I think all the local water agencies are going to be looking at rates. I would guess probably sometime in 2016 we will see a rate study. Of course, that’s up to our board of directors.”

Published in Environment

On July 30, the State Water Resources Control Board issued a press release highlighting the quick success of statewide water-conservation efforts.

“With record-breaking heat throughout much of the state in June, Californians continued to conserve water, reducing water use by 27.3 percent and exceeding Governor Edmund G. Brown Jr.’s 25 percent mandate in the first month that the new emergency conservation regulation was in effect,” the release said.

However, most of the Coachella Valley’s water agencies didn’t conserve as much water as the state wanted.

Among Coachella Valley’s five water districts, the Mission Springs Water District had the least success in June, reporting only a 10 percent decline in usage—missing its 28 percent target by 18.4 percent. The Coachella Valley Water District (CVWD) reported a 21 percent decrease in usage—but missed the state’s huge, harsh 36 percent target reduction by 15 percent.

A bit more conservation success was realized by the Indio Water Authority; the agency reported a 26 percent usage decline, but that still fell 5.6 percent short of the targeted 32 percent. The Coachella Water Authority reported a 20 percent decline, 4 percent below the 24 percent target.

By far, the best local June conservation results came from the Desert Water Agency, which exceeded its 36 percent target with a 40 percent decline in usage.

Representatives of the agencies put a positive spin on the numbers.

“We were pretty satisfied with our June number of 21 percent,” said Heather Engel, the Coachella Valley Water District’s director of communications and conservation, “although the state water board criticized us because it was 15 percent away from our goal number of 36 percent. We got some feedback from the state that we might have to do something differently, but we felt that 21 percent was pretty impressive for summer in the Coachella Valley.”

Even more impressive are the CVWD’s July numbers: The district saw a 41 percent decrease, when compared to the same month two years ago. However, the Desert Water Authority’s reduction fell from 40 percent in June to 30 percent in July.

As of our press deadline, July reports were unavailable for the Indio Water Authority, the Coachella Water Authority and the Mission Springs Water District.

Katie Ruark, the DWA public information officer, said her agency wasn’t sure why the 40 percent reduction in June slipped to 30 percent in July.

“We haven’t been able to determine any factual evidence to demonstrate what made the difference between the conservation results in June and July of this year, since it’s only been two days since we reported that information,” she explained. “But we will continue to implement our restrictions and conservation programs to keep the momentum going.”

Ruark did offer some preliminary theories on the difference between the two months: “July was a hotter month in terms of temperatures than June, so that could have been a factor in increased use. Also, it occurs to me that we should look at an increase in tourism rates throughout July, because that could impact the level of usage as well.”

Over at the CVWD, the marked improvement in conservation results obviously pleased Engel. She credited the agency’s public outreach, education programs and rebate programs. “We’ve had this jump in July, and I think that can primarily be attributed to not only the ongoing efforts just mentioned, but that’s when the drought penalties went into effect. That was an additional financial incentive for people to cut back their water use.”

However, the water agencies now find themselves in a curious quandary: As their conservation successes increase, they’re bringing in less money. Does this forebode a rate increase for water customers?

“In July alone, our regular billed water consumption revenue was down by more than $2 million, but we received $1.9 million in new penalty revenue,” CVWD’s Engel said. “We’re hoping to use some of that (penalty) money to further fund our conservation programs, like the turf-buyback program, but I’m not sure if that’s the way it will work, honestly, because our overall revenue is down due to the conservation of water. That penalty funding may be needed to recoup some of that lost revenue.”

Ruark said the Palm Springs-area Desert Water Agency readied itself for the loss in income.

“The DWA, in the preparation of the 2015-2016 fiscal year budget … did prepare for a revenue hit that we knew would result from decreased water use,” she said. “We compensated for that by projecting a $10 million hit, and we deferred capital-improvement projects, and we’ll be taking some money out of our operating reserves to fill that gap. In 2016, we were already scheduled to be doing a rate study, so we’ll be taking a really hard look at both our costs and our rates to determine if our customer rates do need to be adjusted.”

At the east end of the valley, the CVWD’s Engel described the challenge this way. “We do have reserve funds that are specifically designated for use as a rate-stabilization resource. So, when and if we do have a large drop in revenue, we can rely on those funds to be a short term solution. As a result, we are not seriously concerned about the near future.”

There will be no relief forthcoming from the State Water Resources Control Board, which declined to accept appeals and population-data submissions by the DWA and CVWD, which felt the absence of seasonal residents in population statistics skewed the agencies’ per-capita water usage—and resulted in the harsh decrease mandates from the state.

“We did submit our data to them in a memo with backup documentation of our methods,” Ruark said. “They would not accept our conclusions because they felt that we should only include seasonal residents in our winter months’ usage calculations. We explained that those homes are still using water even when the residents themselves are absent, because most of the water usage is on landscaping needs outdoors, and continue regardless. But they declined to accept that premise.”

Published in Environment

The board of directors of the Coachella Valley Water District—the agency that provides water to much of the east end of the Coachella Valley—met on Tuesday, May 12, to issue a final set of emergency water usage restrictions.

When it was all over, CVWD customers were facing a much less onerous set of restrictions than residents elsewhere in the valley.

After more than an hour of public comments from an audience of roughly 120 residents and business owners, the CVWD issued mandates including:

  • The watering of outdoor landscapes within 48 hours of measurable rainfall is prohibited.
  • The irrigation of ornamental turf on public street medians is no longer allowed.
  • The use of water in decorative fountains is prohibited unless there is a recirculation system.
  • Restaurants must serve water only on request.
  • Runoff flows from outdoor watering are now a no-no.

However, the CVWD did not follow the lead of the west-side Desert Water Agency (DWA) or the Indio Water Authority (IWA) and place mandatory restrictions on the watering of ornamental landscapes.

Rather, it was “recommended” that CVWD customers continue to water only between sunset and 10 a.m., any day, if they so choose. That’s quite a contrast to the restrictions issued by the other water agencies. The IWA limits landscape irrigation to the hours between 6 p.m., and 6 a.m., on Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays. The DWA mandated that residential customers can only water Monday, Wednesday and Friday, between 7 p.m. and 7 a.m., while commercial, industrial and institutional customers can water on alternate days—but only after they submit a plan approved by agency personnel.

Katie Ruark, the DWA’s public information officer, explained how the DWA board of directors came to the three-days-per-week, mandatory restriction.

“Math,” Ruark said. “We ran some calculations internally to see what we would have to do to reduce overall usage by 36 percent, and knowing that landscape watering accounts for the majority of water use … we knew that we had to cut down to that many days to get where we needed.”

Almost all of the CVWD board’s “restrictions” aren’t restrictions at all, but “recommended activities” in which actions are either “strongly encouraged” or “strongly discouraged.”

“I think the board decided that people need to have flexibility in determining what works best for them,” said CVWD spokeswoman Heather Engel after the meeting. “They set a goal at 36 percent below your budgeted water use amount, and you know we’re not asking every single person or customer to reduce. Some people have already done their part, and they don’t need to do any more. But for the people who are above that threshold, they are saying, ‘You do what you need to do to get your number down.’ So if that means you need to limit your watering, then fine, but maybe there’s somebody else who can get to their number without reducing their watering.”

That flexibility was not offered to DWA and IWA customers.

“Our strategy has been to achieve a community-wide reduction,” said Ruark of the DWA. “And the reason for that is that we know there are people in our community who have put in desertscapes; they’ve taken out their old washer and dryer and put in water-efficient ones; they’ve redone their irrigation systems, and they don’t have a lot of room left to save. We also know that there are people who do have a lot of room to save. So we implemented 13 water-use restrictions, and we’re essentially controlling the way you use water, and not necessarily how much you use.”

There is some hope for all valley residents: The onerous 36 percent total reduction mandated by the state may be rolled back to some lesser amount, thanks to the efforts of the DWA.

As reported previously, the DWA was the only one of the Coachella Valley’s three major water agencies that put in the time and effort to argue for the reduction of the valley’s per-capita water-usage calculation as adopted by the State Water Resources Control Board. Partly as a result of the agency’s explanation as to how the valley’s seasonal and tourist population inflates the water usage that is attributed to the smaller full-time residential community, the state board decided to allow agencies statewide to present revised estimates and supporting data on actual per-capita population totals.

“We’ve been making the comment since 2010, when we did our urban water-management plans, that it was just not accurate for us to use (federal) Census data,” Ruark said. “Other population projections have to be incorporated in this area, because our seasonal population is so significant.”

If the revised and lower per capita numbers are accepted by the State Water Board, that could lessen the target water-usage reduction total.

“This is huge for all the agencies in the Coachella Valley, and we’re very excited that we’ll be able to do that,” Engel said. “Right now, we’re trying to figure out and back up a population number which we think is more accurate. But we’re still confirming our data with as many experts as we can to make sure we can defend it.”

If the state does decrease the target from 36 percent, would usage reduction targets be moved to that lower number?

“I think we would have to go back to the board and see how they want to respond,” Engel said.

As for the DWA, “That is hard to say,” Ruark said. “Our board is open to effectiveness always, but specifically to say would they change the restrictions halfway through the game, I don’t know.”

No matter which Coachella Valley water agency provides you with the valuable natural resource, you should visit the appropriate website and study up on the restrictions from and behaviors allowed by your agency. If you hope to avoid financial repercussions, such as higher-tier rates and/or potential fines—the CVWD has had fines in place for a year now, and the DWA is looking into them—you need to be proactive in observing and managing your water usage.

“We’re not a policing agency,” Engel said. “We’re not going to go crazy with these restrictions and fines. Our goal is to educate people and to assist people.”

For more information, visit www.cvwd.org, www.dwa.org or www.indiowater.org.

Below: The Coachella Valley Water District mandated that customers can’t water within 48 hours of measurable rain. That was one of the few actual restrictions issued by the agency, which instead focused on recommendations. Photo by Kevin Fitzgerald.

Published in Environment

On March 17, the California State Water Resources Control Board made it clear: Californians need to escalate the battle against the continuing, disastrous drought that’s plaguing our state.

Gov. Jerry Brown first held a press conference to reiterate the need for increased voluntary water conservation. Soon after, though, he went on the offensive: In an executive order issued April 1, he delivered the first list of state-mandated water-use restrictions in California’s history—mandates which will remain in effect until at least Feb. 28, 2016, although most people believe they’ll remain in effect well beyond that date.

The order means the two main water-management agencies in the Coachella Valley—the Desert Water Agency (DWA) on the west end, and the Coachella Valley Water District (CVWD) on the east end—have been charged with creating, implementing and following local water-usage-reduction programs.

The CVWD held a board meeting to solicit public input on April 14.

“I’d estimate that we had nearly 100 people there—and we don’t get any people at our meetings very often,” said Heather Engel, the agency’s director of communication and conservation. “I think the board really appreciated the outpouring from the community and the sharing in the discussion. Here’s the thing: We need to hear from them which restrictions are feasible and are going to be accepted by them.”

The CVWD’s new strategies and restrictions will be announced at the board meeting on Tuesday, April 28.

Over at the DWA, on Tuesday, April 21, the board of directors held a public meeting—and an estimated 200-plus citizens packed into the small meeting room, overflowing into the lobby. The size of the crowd required that Katie Ruark, the DWA public information officer, deliver her multimedia presentation on water-conservation efforts twice—first in the meeting room, and then to the disgruntled citizens forced to stand outside the meeting room’s doors.

While the CVWD put two weeks between the public-input meeting and an announcement of new restrictions, the DWA issued revised policies just hours after public input was received on April 21. Given that tight turnaround, it’s difficult to understand how the public comments could have influenced the final policy announcement.

The DWA restrictions, which took effect immediately, declare that “the following uses of water are now prohibited (or continue to be prohibited): washing of hardscapes; running water to wash vehicles (buckets and stop nozzles on hoses are permitted); (and) the use of potable water in fountains or other decorative water features (unless necessary for aquatic pets).”

The decree continues, “Irrigation restrictions include: using potable water outside of newly constructed homes and buildings that is not delivered by drip or micro-spray systems; outdoor residential irrigation shall be restricted to Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, after 7 p.m. and before 7 a.m.; a commercial, industrial or institutional customer may implement an alternative water use reduction plan that achieves reductions in water use equivalent to those expected from the restrictions prescribed herein, if approved …; runoff such that water flows onto adjacent property, non-irrigated areas, private and public walkways, roadways, parking lots, or structures is prohibited; irrigating up to 48 hours after measurable rainfall is prohibited; the use of potable water to irrigate turf within street medians, and turf within the dedicated right of way on either side of a public street, is prohibited.”

The restrictions end with: “Additional restrictions for hotels and restaurants include: Restaurants may provide water to customers only upon request; (and) operators of hotels and motels shall provide guests with the option of choosing not to have towels and linens laundered daily.”

The DWA also asked customers to refrain from emptying and refilling swimming pools from June 1 through Oct. 31, unless absolutely necessary.

Per State Water Resources Control Board policy, no restrictions are being placed on the agricultural industry. In CVWD territory, agriculture accounts for 50 percent of total water usage, as compared to 17 percent by golf courses, and 33 percent for domestic use—public and private, commercial and residential.

Both of the valley’s agencies have been told to reduce their customers’ total usage by 36 percent as computed against 2013 usage numbers. By comparison, some water districts in the state have been asked to reduce usage by as little as 6 to 10 percent. The percentage target for each district was based on per-capita usage numbers, so this high target for valley residents was predicated on consistently high per-capita average-usage totals.

In a letter to the State Water Resources Control Board by DWA general manager David Luker, he blamed seasonal residents for much of the high water usage.

“During the warmer season, approximately 30 percent of water bills are sent out of the state of California,” Luker wrote. “Seasonal residents have homes that use water whether they are here or not, but they are not counted as population. The water use of seasonal residents is placed on the backs of year-round residents, as seasonal residents are not included in population data.”

Unlike the DWA, the CVWD declined to make a comment to the SWRCB.

“A 36 percent reduction is not going to be easy as a whole water district,” said Engel. “We still think that the state’s per-capita number for us is not a fair representation, but we have decided that, no, we’re not going to push back. We’ve decided that if the state wants us to reduce by 36 percent, then we’re going to do what we can to reduce by 36 percent.”

At the DWA’s public meeting, numerous community speakers urged the board to adopt and implement a tiered-billing policy soon—even though a state appeals court had just ruled that a four-tiered pricing plan adopted by San Juan Capistrano was in violation of Proposition 218, a 1996 initiative passed by voters that prohibits government agencies from charging more for services than their actual cost.

However, the CVWD, which has had a tiered-billing system since 2009, is confident the agency’s system could withstand any legal challenge.

“We don’t think it will have an effect,” Engel said about the ruling. “Our understanding is that the court’s problem was not with budget-based tiered rates in general, but with rate structures that arbitrarily set the pricing. Our rate structure is based on our cost to provide service.”

Published in Environment

At night, in the parched pasturelands in the southern reaches of California’s Central Valley, strange constellations glow on the horizon: beacons atop rigs that are drilling for water.

Applications to drill new wells skyrocketed after state officials announced in February that, after the third year of pitiful precipitation, no water would be delivered via the concrete rivers of the massive State and Central Valley water projects. In Fresno County between January and April, 226 well-drilling permits were issued, compared to just 69 during the same period last year—prompting some to fear irreparable damage to aquifers.

In the daytime, signs planted in desiccated orchards come into view, declaring: “Congress created Dust Bowl” and “Man-made Drought,” expressing the widely believed myth that regulations to protect endangered fish in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta are responsible for water shortages on Central Valley farms.

In February, House Republican David Valadao proposed lifting endangered-species protections and invalidating the federal mandate to restore the San Joaquin River, so that pumping from the Delta to the Central Valley could be increased. In March, Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer sought more “flexibility” to transfer water from wetter northern regions to the south’s water-starved farms and cities, and to expand Shasta Lake, California’s largest reservoir, for storing more water. Just last week, five Central Valley water agencies announced their own audacious plan to overcome the drought: Fill the California Aqueduct with groundwater, and reverse its normal flow along one roughly 50-mile section in order to deliver moisture to the valley’s bone-dry western edge.

In California, the worst political sin during times of extreme aridness is the appearance of idleness. However, while politicians maneuver for temporary engineering fixes and regulatory rollbacks, other Westerners argue that the old solutions to water scarcity won’t end the current crisis, or protect us from future ones.

Water expert Peter Gleick says California and the West have reached “peak water,” with more water promised to farms and cities than mountains and rivers can provide. Worse, the region could fall into a “megadrought,” lasting decades or centuries. Bigger reservoirs and new wells will bring no relief without an adequate water supply. This raises the question: Will California take realistic measures to deal with its water crisis, or succumb to political inertia and lack of rain?

The last decade’s unrelenting droughts have forced Westerners to re-evaluate the definition of a “normal” water supply. B. Lynn Ingram, a University of California earth-science professor and author of The West Without Water, didn’t have to look far to find major periods of aridity in the past. There was the 1930s Dust Bowl, and the 1976 to ’77 drought, known in California as the “year of no rain.” And yet, as economically and socially damaging as these events were, we have not witnessed the worst possible extremes—not by a long shot, says Ingram. The mid-Holocene drought, for example, persisted for 1,500 years, forcing vast migrations of Native peoples.

Add climate change to the risk of natural megadrought, and the future looks even bleaker. “The data shows that there are certainly periods of dryness that were longer and more intense than what we have in our 100 years of records,” says Elissa Lynn, program manager of the Climate Change Program at California’s Department of Water Resources. “The problem is that today, it’s hotter than it was in those periods—and that will exacerbate any drought problems we have.”

Lynn points out that the state’s snowpack, the source of about one-third of its water, is expected to decline by 48 to 65 percent this century. It has already dropped by 10 percent over 20 years. In early May, the water stored in remaining snowpack was just 18 percent of average. “We have to start making plans for its loss,” Lynn says.

The White House’s National Climate Assessment, released in May, reinforces that mandate. According to the report, temperature increases resulting from carbon pollution have played a large role in the snowline’s rapid retreat. Rising temperatures and shrinking water supplies are a double blow for farms: “The combination of a longer frost-free season, less frequent cold air outbreaks, and more frequent heat waves … increases agricultural water consumption,” the report says. “This combination of climate changes is projected to continue and intensify.”

Ingram says California and most of the West have entered an era in which water shortages can’t be solved through brute-force engineering. “We need to acknowledge how unreliable and uncertain our water supply is. It looks variable over a century. But if you go back in time, it’s even more variable. And that’s a little scary,” she says. “You can build bigger reservoirs, but if we’re heading into a drier period, you’re not going to have the water to fill them.”

She has some practical advice: “We need to be thinking about local efficiency—the use of wastewater-recycling and rainwater-harvesting,” she says. And in agricultural regions where the bulk of the state’s water is consumed, efficiency- and groundwater-monitoring must be priorities. (California doesn’t regulate groundwater-pumping, and the more aquifers are depleted, the less they can be leaned on during future droughts.)

Lynn of the Department of Water Resources agrees, pointing out that reduced snowpack and earlier snowmelt will force water managers to take a “portfolio” approach—diversifying water supplies, increasing water conservation and recycling, and devising new storage methods, like banking water in aquifers in wet years, rather than in reservoirs.

The drought currently ravaging California is, indeed, partly “man-made.” But those responsible for “making” the drought are not politicians or regulators with soft spots for endangered fish. This drought, while natural in some sense, has likely been intensified by anyone who puts gasoline in a car, flips a light switch powered by coal- or gas-burning power plants—or turns on a faucet.

In California, an estimated one-fifth of overall energy is expended moving water to places it doesn’t naturally flow. To a greater or lesser extent, we are all to blame.

This story originally appeared in High Country News.

Published in Environment

Becky Quintana walks along the gravel shoulder of a rural two-lane road through the sprawling orange groves of California’s Central Valley, the snow-white jags of the Sierra Nevada at her back.

“On a clear day, it’s like you can almost touch the mountains,” says the 57-year-old school bus driver, who has lived all her life in Seville, 35 miles south of Fresno. The vast majority of the town’s 500 residents are Latinos, and most toil for meager wages in Tulare County’s vast nut, olive and citrus orchards.

The nearby Kaweah River, which flows from headwaters in the high peaks of the Sierra, is cool and clean. But most of its flow is diverted into irrigation canals and delivered to a faraway mosaic of farms and cities. In spite of Seville’s proximity to the Kaweah, the tiny town’s drinking water doesn’t come from the river, but from wells punched into the intensively cultivated land around town. Quintana points out the array of white tanks and a U-shaped pipe plunging earthward: This, she explains, is where the town’s water comes from. As a groundwater activist and founder of a local group called the Committee for a Better Seville, Quintana has worked for several years to improve Seville’s primitive water system.

A white PVC pipe runs down the middle of an irrigation canal, which carries three or four inches of water. The pipe—actually many pipes, loosely connected by plastic couplings—is the town’s water main. Quintana pushes on the rickety assemblage, which creaks and dips below the surface of the canal. She explains that when the canal is full, the pipe is submerged, and when pressure is low (usually in the summer, when people use lots of water), canal water can seep in through loose connections, carrying sand and other debris. A neighbor says a small tadpole once wriggled out of her kitchen tap.

In the canal’s shallow water, beside the main, the carcass of a dog slumps in a grisly state of putrefaction. “Lots of tourists come through here on their way to Sequoia National Park,” Quintana laughs. “They stop to eat in the café. I bet they wouldn’t if they knew what was in the water.”

The most harmful ingredients can’t be seen. The groundwater underlying Seville, like that beneath dozens of small towns throughout the Central Valley—the 50-by-400-mile agricultural basin, home to 4 million people, that effectively separates coastal California from the Sierra Nevada—has long borne the brunt of the region’s industrial-scale agriculture and the industrial-scale pollution that comes with it.

(A similar story can be told about portions of the eastern Coachella Valley, a recent study shows.)

While dozens of contaminants, both manmade and natural, have been detected in the region’s groundwater, nitrates are the pollutant of greatest concern. Derived from hundreds of thousands of tons of synthetic fertilizer and animal wastes applied to crops each year, nitrates pose an especially acute risk to infants; long-term exposure has also been implicated in various forms of cancer, including gastric, esophageal, ovarian and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. According to a recent University of California at Berkeley report, nitrate exposure’s health impacts fall disproportionately on the poor Latino communities of the Central Valley—the same people who make up most of the low-wage workforce of the agriculture industry.

Nitrates and other contaminants are less of an issue in larger, wealthier communities, since treatment or blending with cleaner water can often reduce concentrations to meet health standards. By contrast, the small Latino communities of the Central Valley—where median household incomes are less than $15,000 per year—simply do not have the tax base to support the construction and operation of treatment plants, or to secure alternative sources of water.

The struggles of these poor communities hint at much larger problems. Unlike every other state in the Western U.S., California does not regulate the quantity of groundwater pumped, although more than eight in 10 of the state’s residents rely on groundwater for at least a portion of their water supply. A report released in February by the State Water Resources Control Board identified 31 principal contaminants, including arsenic, uranium, perchlorate and pesticide residues, in the groundwater serving 21 million Californians.

As the state’s population grows, and its complex water systems are further racked by climate change—with Sierra snowpack expected to dwindle by as much as a quarter by mid-century—residents across all income levels will become more and more dependent on increasingly scarce and polluted groundwater. And many already drink water that’s less than clean.

“As many as 8.5 million Californians rely on supplies that experienced more than five incidences of excessive levels of contaminants in the drinking water in a single year,” former Assemblyman Mike Eng, from Los Angeles, testified before the California Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Water.

In response, last October, Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law AB 685, the “Human Right to Water” bill. The 250-plus-word addendum to the state water code is ambitiously phrased, declaring, “Every human being has the right to safe, clean, affordable, and accessible water adequate for human consumption, cooking and sanitary purposes.”

The bill, which reaffirms the larger goals of the federal 1974 Safe Drinking Water Act, is one of the first clear victories in acknowledging the unequal burden of water contamination in California. It’s the product of an aggressive seven-year-long grassroots-inspired legal campaign focused on the Central Valley. But successfully turning the bill’s fine words into reality won’t be easy: The effort to secure clean drinking water in the Central Valley requires reversing a century’s worth of pollution, and it will be a slow, expensive process—entailing reform of one of California’s most powerful industries, which has transformed the valley into one of the planet’s most heavily engineered and industrialized landscapes.

In the meantime, says Laurel Firestone of the Community Water Center, the effort to bring clean water to places like Seville will require determination, creativity—and a recognition of the problem’s multiple facets.

“On one hand, the solution is complicated, and on the other, it’s not,” Firestone says. “We need to look at what our priorities are as a state and what we are using our resources on. It’s pretty obvious it hasn’t been on bringing safe drinking water to places like Seville. … All of us have to play a part in creating that solution.”

 

Along with providing around half of the nation’s fruits and vegetables, Central Valley farms generate tens of billions of dollars in revenue annually. The Environmental Working Group estimates that California farmers have received more than $10 billion in subsidies since 1995. Indeed, California farmers achieved their regional economic and political dominance largely through government largesse and publicly financed, gargantuan water projects, such as the State and Central Valley Water Projects, which funnel huge quantities of water (as much as 80 percent of the state’s overall supply, by some estimates) to the area.

And yet, the industry has spent millions on lobbying, as well as a public relations campaign that portrays itself as the victim of over-regulation and water policies aimed at its destruction. For years, local farmers have protested reductions in water deliveries to the area from the San Francisco Bay Delta—posting signs along the roadside with messages such as CONGRESS CREATED DUSTBOWL and FOOD GROWS WHERE WATER FLOWS.

Similarly, a pack of pro-agriculture groups railed against AB 685. Opponents, including the Western Growers Association—a trade group that represents California farmers—and the state’s Chamber of Commerce, offered up a litany of criticism, warning that the law could, among other things, prevent local districts from shutting off water to non-paying customers, create subsidies for poor residents, and expose farmers and water districts to lawsuits.

“A new ‘right to water’ in California law could potentially upset decades of legal precedent and could cost the state of California untold amounts of money,” the Association of California Water Agencies wrote Gov. Brown, strongly urging a veto.

Supporters of AB 685 included numerous environmental groups, such as the Sierra Club and the California League of Conservation Voters, but the on-the-ground effort was headed by the Visalia-based Community Water Center and la Asociación de Gente Unida por el Agua, or AGUA, a group made up of local representatives from towns with contaminated water.

“Part of the reason we’re in the situation we’re in is because communities have been segregated and isolated,” says Firestone, whose Community Water Center helped organize the AGUA coalition, many of whose members work in the very farm fields generating the pollution. “They’re now speaking with a unified voice.”

AGUA’s efforts are in many ways reminiscent—even an extension—of the grassroots organizing of Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers union. That group’s famous rallying cry, “Sí, se puede” (“Yes, we can”), galvanized the movement that drew national attention to the often-terrible working conditions faced by California farmworkers.

 

On a March evening, just off Visalia’s main drag, around 40 people crammed into the living room of the small bungalow that serves as AGUA’s main offices, discussing strategies for an upcoming rally and meeting with legislators in Sacramento.

One AGUA representative, Sandra Garcia, 48, who picks fruit and vegetables near her hometown of Poplar, shook her head when I asked if she worried her activism might land her in trouble with her employer. “We have no choice,” she says. “A few years ago, my boss said, ‘I don’t want you out stirring everyone up.’ I told him, ‘I’m trying to keep you from getting sued.’“

In rapid and impassioned Spanish, the group discussed the need to press state representatives about securing grant money to improve the water supplies of disadvantaged communities. Applying for the funds—available through Proposition 84, a 2006 bond act funding safe drinking water initiatives—is a complex process, requiring input from engineers and technical experts that the towns most in need often lack the funds to hire.

Such are the problems with the new law. In spite of AB 685’s bold rhetoric, it does not actually require state agencies to do anything new. Though it mandates that state agencies take a “multi-agency” approach and consider the policy when they adopt or revise regulations, it does not require California to provide clean water or to allocate “additional resources” to fix ailing water systems. Nor does it require the agencies that oversee public water systems—the Department of Water Resources, the State Water Resources Control Board and Department of Public Health—to increase enforcement.

Nonetheless, local activists call AB 685 an important, if largely symbolic, first step toward greater recognition of the connection between clean water and human health. Firestone says AB 685 makes “a problem that was invisible into a priority. People have to pick up that rock and see the disparities around water in our state,” she says.

Debbie Davis, community and rural affairs adviser for the governor’s office, agrees. “The bottom line is that the legislation spells out our intent, which is that everyone in the state should have access to safe water for basic human needs,” says Davis, who worked as a community water activist before joining the governor’s office. “In California, that should be a reasonable, minimum expectation.”

 

In the Central Valley, however, what is “reasonable” often clashes starkly with what is. According to the Community Water Center, one in five Tulare County communities is unable to provide clean drinking water on a daily basis.

To see the conditions facing those communities and their tens of thousands of inhabitants, I traveled to several small agricultural towns in the county, outside of Visalia. In East Orosi, a tiny hamlet of 500 people, residents live in small wood-frame and stucco bungalows, many painted in bright pastel colors reminiscent of a rural Mexican village. My guide, 19-year-old Jessica Sanchez, shows me a recent warning from the East Orosi water district, citing nitrate levels that exceed the state maximum of 45 milligrams per liter. The notices that frequently come in the mail are often obvious facsimiles of previous warnings. “A lot of times, you can see tape marks around the date,” says Sanchez.

Sanchez has been active in local water issues since high school, but these days, she has a new reason to be concerned: her 11-month-old son, Jordan, whose stroller she pushes along a trash-strewn gravel shoulder. Sanchez points out an abandoned-looking trailer tagged with graffiti—the main office of the East Orosi Community Services District.

“There’s no one there,” she says with a laugh. “They hardly ever are.”

As in Seville, the East Orosi’s Community Services District delivers water to homes with “no method of treatment such as coagulation and flocculation, sedimentation, filtration or disinfection,” according to a 2011 Tulare County report on the area’s small community water systems. Moreover, its groundwater pumps sit a few yards from an orange orchard—meaning whatever is applied at the surface can potentially percolate into the shallow groundwater below and into drinking supplies.

Local municipal groundwater pumps are often located beside orchards, alongside agricultural canals, and beside sprawling dairies and their huge sewage lagoons. “The Third World conditions of these systems are truly shocking, particularly for a state that is a leader in so many areas of environmental governance,” says Richard Frank, an environmental law professor at the University of California at Davis. “It’s a striking anomaly.”

Farms and dairies are responsible for 96 percent of the nitrates entering groundwater in the Central and Salinas valleys, according to a 2012 UC Davis study. Some 220,000 tons leach into that groundwater every year—more than four times the “benchmark” level at which nitrogen will not further degrade the region’s groundwater. However, since the bulk of it comes not from single point sources, but from application of fertilizers over vast areas, farms are not required to have discharge permits for the large quantities of nitrogen pollution they generate. California’s dairies are now required to submit waste and nutrient management plans if they are located in “high risk” areas—over shallow groundwater, say, or near municipal water supplies. But much of the manure and sewage sludge generated by these dairies is destined for fields, potentially jeopardizing the groundwater beneath.

There is mounting evidence that the nitrogen in the groundwater today originated decades ago—which is to say, the Central Valley’s problems stand to get significantly worse.

“Even if we got rid of all of the sources tomorrow, it’s going to be decades before this mess is cleaned up,” says Thomas Harter, a co-author of the UC Davis nitrate report. “To think that this is a problem that we’re simply going to be able to remediate away is the wrong path.”

In the meantime, Latinos living in the Central Valley are suffering disproportionately from nitrogen contamination, according to a study published in 2011 in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives. That study’s lead author, Carolina Balazs, a UC Berkeley researcher, says that previous research on water contamination overlooked socioeconomic and ethnic disparities, assuming that all communities served by small water systems faced similar risk of nitrate contamination.

“We found that, yes, small systems do tend to have higher nitrate levels. But it’s small systems (serving) high percentages of Latinos that have the highest levels of nitrates,” says Balazs.

Both economic and social factors may play a role in exposure risk. Data from the 2000 Census show that more than one in four Spanish-speaking families in the Central Valley are “linguistically isolated,” meaning that all adults in a household speak a language other than English, and none speaks English very well. Because of this, these families are less able to advocate for themselves and successfully use civic channels available to effect change.

For mothers like Sanchez, nitrates are particularly worrisome since they can cause methemoglobinemia, or “blue baby syndrome,” a sometimes-fatal condition in which an infant’s red blood cells cannot carry enough oxygen.

“I definitely won’t use this water to make formula,” says Sanchez, looking down at Jordan in his stroller. “But should I even give it to my dogs?”

 

The 300 people in Tonyville, tucked between the beige Sierra foothills and the boundless green of surrounding orchards, also face severe water problems. Senaida Aguilar, a vigorous 71-year-old farmworker, raised three children here after moving in the mid-1980s from her hometown of Morelia, in southern Mexico. Her skin is tanned and creased after nearly 30 years of laboring in the olive and orange orchards.

Thick gloves protect her forearms from thorns, and she wears a heavy canvas fruit-picking apron, with a large, kangaroo-like pouch in front. It takes 18 filled aprons—more than 1,600 pounds of citrus altogether—to fill a single bin, she explains; she earns $14.50 for each bin.

She is still strong, and though she no longer climbs the ladders, Aguilar says she can keep up with most of the younger pickers by working the lower limbs, filling a bin an hour. But the contract work that has become standard today makes her wages unpredictable.

“Now they tell you they need a certain number of bins, and they send you home once they are filled.” That means that, on many days, it is simply not possible for Aguilar to fill her eight bins.

This strains her budget, which includes $650 a month in rent. She also pays around $50 a month to the Lindsay-Strathmore Irrigation District for water that’s undrinkable. So she spends another $50 to $100 a month for five-gallon bottles at water vending machines for drinking and cooking.

Aguilar’s situation is not unique; seven out of 10 Tulare County households surveyed in 2011 by the Oakland-based Pacific Institute spent close to 5 percent of their annual income on water—three times the “affordability threshold” set by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Aguilar shows me several recent warnings from the irrigation district, one mentioning “disinfection byproducts”—trihalomethanes and haloacetic acids—found at concentrations nearly twice the state limit. The warning that follows is confusing at best. One sentence reads, “You DO NOT need to use an alternative (e.g., bottled) water supply.” But the following line is hardly reassuring: “Some people who use water containing trihalomethanes in excess of the (maximum contaminant level) over many years may experience liver, kidney, or central nervous system problems and may have an increased risk of getting cancer.”

The most ominous warning, however, arrived with Aguilar’s February bill. It reads, TONYVILLE WATER HAS HIGH LEVELS OF PERCHLORATE. DO NOT DRINK THE WATER OR USE IT TO MAKE INFANT FORMULA. Perchlorate, a potent thyroid inhibitor, is often used in munitions manufacturing but can also be derived from fertilizers.

Aguilar runs a glass from her bathroom tap and brings it into the light. The water has a slightly yellowish tinge, and it looks cloudy on some days, she says, “the color of pond water.” It has a faint acrid smell, reminiscent of wet animal fur tinged with lighter fluid.

No one knows the actual toll bad water is taking on human health around here. But residents all share stories of illness or death. Aguilar mentions people who developed strange rashes and sores after using the water for bathing. Another Tonyville resident, Guadalupe Nunez, tells me she knows 11 people who have died of liver, stomach and kidney cancers in Tonyville in less than 10 years.

Public health statistics show the death rates from infant health issues (including birth defects, miscarriage and sudden infant death syndrome), digestive system cancers and other illnesses associated with nitrate exposure in Tulare County have been above statewide averages at one time or another since 2001. California public health workers found a cluster of childhood cancers in the Tulare County town of Earlimart between 1986 and 1989—and all the victims were children of farmworkers. Of course, proving a definitive link between water contaminants and disease requires long-term, longitudinal studies—the sorts of public-health inquiries that are rarely made in these virtually invisible communities.

To learn more about what water managers are doing to fix Tonyville’s problems, I call Scott Edwards, Lindsay-Strathmore’s district manager, whose name and number are listed on the warning notice. Edwards explains that most of the time, Tonyville’s water comes through surface canals, but that the perchlorate spikes occur every year or two when the canal is “dewatered,” and the town switches from canal water to groundwater.

According to Edwards, Tonyville’s filtration plant is simply incapable of removing the perchlorate from its groundwater. (He admits he doesn’t know where the perchlorate is coming from.) “State and federal regulations say we must deliver clean drinking water, even though we can’t afford to do that,” he says, explaining that treatment costs already run from $1,500 to $2,000 an acre-foot, while residents are paying only $250 per acre-foot. “Tonyville residents would be paying $450 a month to operate that plant. What am I supposed to do, raise the rates? They can’t afford that.”

But clean drinking water is a human right in California, I point out, referring to the new bill’s wording. “Drinking water is not a human right. Get that off your head right now,” says Edwards. “If it costs somebody else money to provide it to you, it’s not your right.”

He quickly shifts to a more sympathetic tone, though, noting that he lives in an unincorporated part of Tulare County, and his water, too, is unfiltered and undrinkable. “We have bottled water in our house at all times.”

As a manager tasked with delivering high-quality water across the county, does he find this fact troubling or, at the very least, somewhat ironic?

“It is what it is,” he replies.

 

Overwhelming costs and technical complexity compound this kind of institutional apathy. Since large-scale groundwater cleanup is, by most measures, not feasible, a different approach called “pump-and-fertilize” has been proposed. In essence, farmers would use nutrient-loaded groundwater for both irrigating and fertilizing, a practice that, over time, could gradually reduce nitrate levels in aquifers. Another idea is a tax on nitrate-rich fertilizers, meant to dissuade farmers from overusing them. The tax funds would be used to tackle nitrate contamination in towns served by small community water systems. (The UC Davis report estimates it will cost $36 million annually to bring clean water to the two regions examined in the study—either through new infrastructure or securing new sources of water.) Not surprisingly, agricultural groups are strongly opposed.

“It’s going to take action, not only from the water board, but the Legislature and other state agencies to move forward,” says John Borkovich, program manager for the state water board’s groundwater monitoring program.

The most promising technical fix may, in fact, be rooted in the ties forged by the AGUA coalition itself. The hope is that these small towns can pool their resources to create larger districts with economies of a scale capable of reducing the high costs of treatment. “If you take seven communities and combine them into one district,” says Abigail Solis of the Community Water Center, “you eliminate the costs of seven secretaries, seven attorneys, seven engineers, seven everything. You’re also much stronger politically.”

Steve Worthley, a member of the Tulare County board of supervisors, is exploring just such a possibility. The county, which took over operation of Seville’s water system by court order a few years back, is considering linking it up with the water system of the nearby town of Yettem. He notes that the greatest impediments to consolidation are political. “There would have to be an election to create a district and form its boundaries and determine its governance structure. But it can be done.”

He adds that another nearby district is considering delivering clean water to these towns via water “swaps,” which entail exchanging cleaner surface waters for groundwater stored in large underground reservoirs.

While the concept of swapping tainted groundwater for cleaner surface water seems like a no-brainer, it’s not as simple as it sounds, explains Worthley—particularly in years like this, in which, as of May 1, the state’s snowpack stood at a meager 17 percent of average. Communities across the region have no choice but to turn to groundwater to augment supply.

Given the myriad threats to the Central Valley’s groundwater, I ask if the state might have a larger role to play, helping the county to more carefully manage the pumping of groundwater and more rigorously regulate sources of pollution. “I’m totally opposed to it,” says Worthley. “We can manage our own groundwater.”

Like most places in California and across the country, already-strapped Tulare County was decimated by loss of tax revenues during the financial downturn. “We know we have a problem, and we’re trying to fix it,” says Worthley. “We don’t have the money to fix it. The community services districts don’t have the money to fix it.”

So where will Tulare County get the money? I ask. “We’re looking for some assistance from the state,” he says.

Back in Seville, as we walk toward Becky Quintana’s house and the snowcapped peaks beyond, Quintana reflects on what’s been accomplished. Still, she acknowledges that the struggle to secure clean water for her community never ends.

“People always ask me, ‘How come you don’t just move?’ Is that going to solve my problem—just taking off? My parents built their house here 60 years ago. Should I just say, ‘OK, I’m leaving; the water will take care of itself?’”

She shakes her head emphatically, her large earrings swinging defiantly in the cool spring air. “It’s not just about me. It’s about the next generation. It’s about the next human being that’s going to want to come make a home here. Why not make a difference?”

Jeremy Miller is a contributing editor for High Country News, where this story was originally published. He writes from his home in Richmond, Calif. This story was made possible with support from the Kenney Brothers Foundation and with reader donations to the High Country News Research Fund.

Published in Environment