Not a Drop to Drink

In the small Central Valley town of Alpaugh, five boys, each carrying a five-gallon water jug, spill from the back of a bright red pickup and crowd into a shed no larger than a walk-in closet. The boys hand their jugs over to a young man and woman waiting inside.

“It’s a family event,” quips volunteer Shane Nichols as he collects the jugs. The sky-blue shed, called the water hole, is connected to a 5,000-gallon mobile tank that stores mountain spring water hauled in from sixty miles away. Angelica Martinez—a high school senior who volunteers here with Nichols every Saturday—places the boys’ plastic jugs under a row of spigots and turns on the water. The shed’s thin metal walls reverberate with the sound of water falling into plastic.

The citizens of this farming community, tucked into emerald fields of irrigated alfalfa in the southwestern corner of Tulare County, live in a reverse oasis, dry and thirsty in the midst of green. Their groundwater has high concentrations of arsenic and nitrates, and of three town wells, one is permanently defunct, another has a broken pump, and the third is still under construction. The water hole is Alpaugh’s sole source of safe drinking water. Three times a week volunteers unlock the shed door and help residents fill jugs to take back to their homes.

Arsenic occurs naturally in the alluvial sediment throughout much of the San Joaquin Valley. Among the most toxic substances commonly found in drinking water, it can lead to lung, bladder, and other forms of cancer. The California Environmental Protection Agency recently reset the state’s arsenic standards to four parts per trillion, 2,500 times more stringent than the federal standard of 10 parts per billion—a change to take effect in 2006. But the town well, which residents use for showering and other non-drinking needs, has an arsenic level of 74 parts per million.

Two years ago the long-corroded casing collapsed in the town’s main well. From that time until the spring of 2004, residents survived on water from an irrigation well. When the pump broke on that well, the community had to turn to the well still being built. Luckily by that time they were already filling up their jugs at the water hole.

“Now we’re surviving on a half-constructed well,” says Sandra Meraz, who has been advocating up and down the state to get water to the town. The community of 760 depends on the new well for showers and toilets, but until the well is completed—sealed from contamination and dug deep enough to reduce arsenic levels to state-mandated limits—residents are not supposed to drink its water. “If it stops we’re completely waterless,” Meraz says. “We’ve let school out at noon two days in a row because there was no water.”

“We use bottled water to brush our teeth,” Martinez adds, “but we shower with the tap water. Your skin gets dry, but you get used to it.” Still, when it gets desperately hot, as it does often in Alpaugh, some do drink the tap water.

Alpaugh’s situation is complicated by the bureaucratic structure that governs its water: the community operates within a bureaucratic tangle of three different water agencies. Meraz sits on the board of the Joint Powers Authority, the agency responsible for overseeing the town’s drinking water. The authority advises stubborn or desperate residents to boil their tap water or add 8 drops per gallon of “fresh liquid household bleach.”

“The boiled water order is a coliform bacteria order, but people don’t understand about the arsenic,” Meraz says. “If they boil the water for soup, coffee, or tea they’ll kill the bacteria, but they don’t know they’ll just concentrate the arsenic.”

Land of plenty

“Just don’t mind my truck,” Meraz tells me as I climb in the passenger seat. “It’s my home office.” Meraz, who moved from the Cabezon Reservation to Alpaugh 45 years ago, won the small white pickup in a bingo tournament in 1996 and uses it for a host of community activities such as delivering food donations and taking senior citizens to buy water in Delano. The dash and seat are covered with papers, files, pens and pencils, several inches thick in all directions. We drive through paved and unpaved streets, passing dilapidated trailers and the skeletal remains of mobile homes that eerily resemble jagged ribcages, pale and cracking under the sun.

Ironies abound in this land—although Alpaugh’s Tulare County is the number two ag-producing county in the country, its citizens face such levels of poverty that international famine relief charities like Feed the Children are choosing to start new projects here.

And in the oven-like heat of the San Joaquin Valley, no disparity is more immediate than between those who have water and those who do not. California sends eighty percent of its captured water to agriculture through a daunting collection of dams, canals, pipes, and pumps built to interrupt, hold, and redirect the flow of entire rivers. Yet a few miles from valley aqueducts that carry Sierra snowmelt to irrigate desert fields, small towns and unincorporated communities cannot drink their own water.

Two hundred years ago—a mere blink—the San Joaquin Valley was an expansive seasonal wetland that housed the largest inland body of fresh water in the western United States. Tulare Lake, once fed by the rivers running down from the central Sierra Nevada and covering nearly 800 square miles, now exists only in the ink of history texts. The herds of elk and antelope that once darkened the horizon have long been replaced by tractors and mechanical harvesters.

The valley’s metamorphosis from wetlands to agricultural semi-desert owes its transformation to the politics of profit. From the US takeover of the Spanish land grants in 1848 to the endemic abuse of federal flood policy, to the special grants to railroad corporations, land speculation fueled California’s carving up of millions of its best acres into vast private estates. With a firm control over land, speculators developed irrigation systems and policies explicitly designed to protect their land holdings and to thwart small family farms.

The creation of irrigation districts and later, water agencies as quasi-public authorities, cemented a system of landowner favoritism. These districts and agencies can issue bonds and levy taxes to fund irrigation projects. In most cases, only landowners can sit on the boards of directors and vote on policy issues affecting the district. Landowners benefited themselves while billing a broad base of taxpayers for the costs.

Early irrigation projects used pumps to pull water from the underlying aquifers. The pace of agricultural expansion in the first decades of the 20th century over-drafted these aquifers, causing the valley floor to sink as much as thirty feet in some areas. Aware that the groundwater resources would not fuel the dizzying rate of growth they desired, the area’s largest landowners—such as Southern Pacific Railroad and the Kern County Land Company—lobbied state and federal officials to fund projects to dam rivers deep within the northern and central Sierra Nevada and deliver water to their lands. The two projects that sprouted from these efforts—the federal Central Valley Project and the California State Water Project—now comprise nearly forty dams and about a thousand miles of aqueducts costing billions of dollars to taxpayers across the state and the country.

With funding secured and projects built, landowners sitting on the regional governing bodies were able to permit themselves exemptions to size restrictions to receive federally subsidized water. One hundred years of law-breaking, typically referred to as “noncompliance,” lies at the core of California’s gargantuan and vastly wealthy agricultural economy.

The projects were planned to serve agriculture—acres of lettuce and cotton, dairies, orchards—not the small rural communities that sprang up to provide labor for those fields and dairies. Residents in small towns like Alpaugh struggle for clean water amidst the pipes and canals of the largest and most expensive public water system in the world.

Heavy lifting

Shane Nichols has worked at the water hole in Alpaugh since November 2003. He is jovial and talkative, providing nonstop comic relief under the oppressive valley heat. He periodically takes up the hose connected to the well under construction to spray down the floor of the shed and the outside walls of the tank itself, cooling off the hot air in the shed.

“All the water’s bad,” he says. “All the water has arsenic, all over the county. But Alpaugh is the worst hit right now in terms of not having drinking water. That’s why we got the grants.” In 2002, United Farm Workers representative Martha Guzman brought Alpaugh’s plight to the attention of its state Assemblymember, Nicole Parra. Parra secured donations that resulted in the 5,000-gallon tank and water to fill it; she also managed to nail down long-sought-after grants from the California Department of Water Resources and the United States Department of Agriculture to begin construction on the new well.

Nichols does the heavy lifting for children and seniors. “A five-gallon jug weighs 38.7 pounds when full,” he says, adding, “I weighed it one day.”

By two o’clock twenty families had come to collect water. “Most people are still working at this time, even on Saturday,” says Angelica Martinez, who was born and raised in Alpaugh. Both of her parents are migrant farm workers from Michoacan, Mexico, who follow work in the fields, commuting up and down the valley. Before the water tank was parked a few blocks from her house, her family bought vended water from reverse osmosis machines twenty miles away: “On Sundays we’d drive to Delano and buy water at the store. We’d fill up about eight five-gallon jugs.”

Residents in small towns like Alpaugh and Earlimart, Lindsay and Tonyville purchase either bottled or vended water for drinking and cooking needs. Julio Villa, from the Peruvian Andes, has been in Alpaugh for about a year, working sixty hours for only $200 at a dairy. He used to spend $35 a month filling his water jugs in stores in Corcoran before the water hole was up and running. “Sometimes we didn’t have time to drive and pick up water for the week, so we’d drink from the tap after boiling it,” he says. At work they still sometimes drink the tap water: “When our bottled water runs out, we can’t take the heat.” As debates rage in cities like Stockton over municipal water privatization, the water supply for most residents in Tulare County has already effectively been privatized.

Yet the vended water from machines is often not tested by health officials. “It is appalling that tens of thousands of Latinos working in California’s agricultural industry have no choice but to buy bottled and vended water to drink at home and at work,” says Paola Ramos, a policy analyst with the Environmental Justice Coalition for Water in Oakland. “But it is totally unacceptable for the main source of drinking water for these communities to go without health inspections. It seems like discrimination to me when Latinos and other communities of color don’t receive the same quality water. It goes beyond discrimination, when cotton and alfalfa get better quality water than people.”

Blue Christmas

Several months later, the valley’s winter sky is thick with fog. Sandra Meraz steps from her truck at one o’clock sharp and walks through the mist to struggle with the bolt on the blue metal door for the last time. “We can’t do it any more,” she says as she enters the shed. “I’m proud of all I’ve done, but I’m exhausted. Seniors cannot carry their own food, much less five-gallon water jugs.”

A little more than a year after the opening of the water hole, Alpaugh residents face a New Year’s with no blue shed—and no new well, either. The money donated to pay for the spring water ran out in early November, and the new well, which should have been up and running, was improperly installed. George Anderson of the Mountain Springs Water Company personally donated 5,000 gallons to fill up the tank in mid-November so the community would have water for Thanksgiving. But December 15 was the last day for Alpaugh’s water hole.

Alpaugh was supposed to be a success story: community advocates hoped the attention to the town’s troubles would influence state lawmakers and water agencies to direct much-needed funding to other valley communities facing similar problems. Now it appears as if Alpaugh’s emergency grants may have gone to waste.

The irrigation district charged with building the well chose a local engineering firm—Whitten Pumps—that filed for bankruptcy only a few months after the contract was signed; the company is over a million dollars in debt. Whitten left the top of the Alpaugh well unsealed, vulnerable to tampering and contamination from animals. As a result, the state health department refuses to lift a boiled water order.

The irrigation district claimed that it would cost $4,600 to seal the well and pass state safety requirements. That was money the community didn’t have, at least until a Los Angeles Times reporter started calling around to find out why the well was not yet operable. Within days of the reporter’s calls, Steve Martin, irrigation district board member and owner of the land on which the wells are located, said that they found the money and that “No matter what, we’re going to go ahead and seal it.”

Caroline Farrell, an attorney with the Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment in Delano, says that incompetence is a major problem in rural water management. “People have not been trained for the positions they hold and they make decisions without knowing the consequences of those decisions.”

On the water hole’s last day, the residents begin to arrive a few minutes after one. Former US Marine and mechanic Asa Massey rolls in on an electric motor chair with two empty gallon jugs in the front basket. He has come to get water at the tanker “ever since they put it up.” Before, he would travel seventeen miles to Corcoran to buy bottled water. Jerry Calvert drives up on a flat-bed three-wheeler to fill up three five-gallon jugs to take home. Families arrive in pickups and dispatch their teenagers and older children to fill the jugs. Meraz and volunteers help cart the heavy containers while informing residents that after today, they’ll have to drive out of town to get drinking water.

At the end of the afternoon, Meraz takes down the “Open” sign and carries it to her truck to add to the stacks of papers and pens on the passenger seat. “Rural America is endangered,” she says. “We are the forgotten people.”

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