Carlos Velasquez drinks well water that contains unsafe levels of uranium (2015). Photo: John Locher, AP

The NY Times published a blistering exposé yesterday, in which it reported that “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” with “more than one million Californians exposed to unsafe water each year, according to public health officials.”   The problem is most acute California’s agricultural center — in small towns and unincorporated communities in the Central and Salinas Valleys, where the orchards are well irrigated, but the water falling from faucets in homes and schools is tainted by arsenic and fertilizer chemicals.

  • Stone Corral Elementary in the town of Seville is typical —  pipes that are a hundred years old have so contaminated the tap water with soil and bacteria that the school relies on grants to pay for bottled water for students.
  • The State has $168 million to spend to upgrade these water systems but the Governor has also proposed a tax of about $140 million on urban water districts and the agriculture industry to correct the problem.
  • The Governor’s tax proposal is proving to be a tough sell because taxes are already high in the state and the state is sitting on a budget surplus of more than $21 billion.
  • The state is also trying to consolidate small community water systems into larger ones, but the larger ones are fighting this because they can’t afford to absorb the costs that come with overhauling the small systems’ antiquated infrastructure.

In fact, the problem could be much worse than is known — the state does not regulate private wells and does not monitor systems with fewer than 15 connections and many of these private wells and small systems are also contaminated Low-income farm workers and their families are the hardest hit.

  • The Sanchez family told The Times they must spend at least $60 a month for tap water they can’t use for cooking or drinking, but the family showers using the water from the pipes, which they say makes their skin itch.
  • The family receives five free five-gallon jugs of water every two weeks, funded by a grant from the State Water Resources Control Board, but that is not enough and they must buy additional water.

Why This Matters: Clean water is a basic human right. The problem in California is hauntingly familiar — we have written similar stories about Flint’s water crisis, and also about the water problems in Kentucky coal country and in Midwestern farm communities and in impoverished rural Alabama and in communities near large hog and poultry farms in Delaware and North Carolina and in communities spread across the country that are near military and industrial facilities.  The clean water problem in the United States today is of epidemic proportions. It is high time to repair our aging water infrastructure.  

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