Despite boom times in Silicon Valley and a surplus in Sacramento, people still survive on bottled water and big blue jugs in the primarily agricultural San Joaquin Valley.
It’s a common refrain among extremely online activists to point out that that “Flint still doesn’t have clean water,” and indeed, that Michigan town may still be dealing with unsafe drinking water several years on. But the water problem in California’s Central Valley is many magnitudes larger, and today’s New York Times picks up the story of how more than a million Californians there don’t have clean water either. Some estimates say as many as 1.5 million people have tap water contaminated with arsenic, mercury, and other toxins, thanks to agricultural pesticides and poorly maintained pipe infrastructure in very small California towns.
A separate and more detailed Times report travels to East Orosi, a Tulare County town of 500 where residents rely on those giant plastics jugs of water to survive. The report details how “residents complain of conditions that resemble the developing world, not the richest state in the nation. Fears of nitrate exposure in the tap water — which numerous studies have linked to an increased risk of infant death, and at high levels, an elevated risk of cancer in adults — compound other difficult realities like faraway grocery stores and doctors, grueling work conditions, and a lack of political clout.”
Gov. Gavin Newsom has proposed a fix with a $140 million annual tax on large California cities’ water districts and the agriculture industry. But that plan is largely opposed by water agencies, and last week a State Senate budget subcommittee voted against it.
Some have other ideas. A couple of Republican congressmen who’ve always hated the California high-speed rail project see this as an opportunity to siphon some of those funds for rural water infrastructure. The Visalia Times Delta reports that Reps. Kevin McCarthy and Devin Nunes (yes, the one who’s suing Twitter over a cow parody account) have introduced a bill to divert $3.5 billion in federal high-speed rail funds to adding water storage. The Tulare County Supervisors will vote on supporting that measure tonight, though their vote is largely symbolic.
But at least Tulare County has supervisors. Valley Public Radio details how some really small rural communities have all-volunteer boards and governance committees, making change especially difficult in those areas. In unincorporated Armona, CA, volunteer board member Jim Maciel compares his little community to Bakersfield and Fresno, saying, “They have paid staff [that] goes to their meetings, but in communities like Armona and Home Gardens and hundreds of us, we're volunteers,” and “I'm lucky enough to be retired and I can go to a lot of these meetings, but the people out there that’re working, you have to just keep your jobs.”
It’s really striking that just 300 miles from the Silicon Valley tech boom, and while California is running a surplus that could be as large as $30 billion, more than a million people are living in bottled water and water jug squalor. These regions don’t have a lot of political clout, but they do grow a whole lot of our food, and they’re quietly having a water crisis more than 100 times worse than Flint, Michigan.