Clean Water - A Privilege Or A Right? - Women's Foundation California

By Ellen Sloan, Board Member of the Women’s Foundation of California

Water is a huge issue in the Central Valley.  You don’t have to go to India or Africa to find families drinking unsafe water.  It is right here in California, 100 miles from my home.

Our water education came from the folks from Community Water Center* that we met in Seville, about 45 minutes from Visalia.  The town (calling it a town is generous) is a few streets of homes, a nice new K – 8 school and not much else.

The water coming out of the faucets in so many of the homes of the communities we visited throughout the Central Valley is unsafe and dangerous to drink.

There is a very high level of nitrates in the water in addition to bacteria and other contaminants.  We were shown several bottles of water that came from Seville and some of the surrounding communities.  Some were murky and had sediment that had settled to the bottom.  Some were clear and looked perfectly drinkable.  Looks are deceptive.  It turns out the clear water is more dangerous than the murky, brownish water because of the nitrates that had seeped into the town’s well from pesticides and fertilizers.  Nitrates are colorless, odorless and can be lethal, especially for babies and young children.

The Seville residents cannot boil the water to make it safer because it just concentrates the nitrates.  The only way to get clean safe drinking water is to buy a reverse osmosis system for several hundred dollars per faucet or buy your drinking water.  Throughout the Valley there are water vending machines.  Residents of Seville, many of them low income, drive tens of miles away to buy drinking water and end up spending about $60 a month on top of what they pay the county for the water coming out of their faucets.  Some mothers are so concerned about the water that they bathe their babies in bottled water for fear of the babies ingesting water while they bathe.  So the residents have the privilege of paying twice for their water.

Seville gets its water from an underground well.  We saw the water pump, which looks like a large generator, behind a chain link fence just off the road.  One of the residents pointed to a new flimsy looking gizmo that her brother said was most likely a pump attached to inject chlorine bleach into the water to sanitize it.   Previously someone would come every so often to pour in bottles of bleach.  The pump runs almost continuously now because Seville’s well is running dry.  Once the well runs dry it may be years before Tulare County will be able to afford the estimated million dollars to dig a new well for the town of Seville.  And what are the residents of Seville suppose to do in the interim?

We next walked over to the irrigation canal that crosses through a vacant field.  The irrigation canal is where the farmers get the water for their fields.  It is 4 to 5 feet across with mud banks.  In parts of the canal the water pipes actually run through the canal.  Because the canal was running low we could clearly see the pipes in several places.  We saw two kinds of pipes.  One was newer PVC pipe; the other was an ancient corroded metal pipe.  The pipes are exposed to the elements and exuberant kids playing in the irrigation canals jumping and splashing around.  Reconnecting the pipes is not uncommon when they come undone; after, of course, water from the irrigation canal has seeped into the water pipe.  Sometimes officials will spray Roundup along the irrigation canal to kill the weeds.  Nothing like a little Roundup and nitrates in your iced tea!

Our last stop was the school.  They have about 140 students in this K – 8th grade school.  The school’s water faucets are disconnected because of the contaminated water.  The school spends about $400 – 500/per month on water for the students to drink.  This is on top of all the budget cutbacks the schools have experienced.  To put that in perspective, my younger daughter goes to a large middle school (2,300 kids) so an equivalent amount her school would have to spend would be $8,200/month on bottled water.

Every living thing needs water.  We live in the 21st century in the 8th largest economy in the world and so many of Californians cannot drink the water out of their kitchen faucet and have to pay twice for their water.  What is wrong with this picture?  If you are buying water from the city or county you should have the right to clean, safe water.

*Community Water Center helps to educate, organize and provide legal assistance to 22 communities in the southern part of the Central Valley. The Women’s Foundation provided CWC with its first grant.

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