March 14 2016

The health of our waters is the principal measure of how we live on the land. – Luna Leopold, U.S. geomorphologist and hydrologist

Do you know what’s in your water? Chances are you don’t. Many don’t know how tap water is treated and processed. We take water for granted, assuming it’s safe and readily accessible at our finger tips. Chances are, if you knew what was in your water, you’d choose not to drink it.

In 1989, my family stopped drinking tap water. We were living in Simi Valley, California and substituted bottled water for tap water. Why? Residents were concerned about a nuclear plant, Rocketdyne, which operated in the area. There were rumors of leakage into the ground water and people started buying bottled drinking water out of fear.

Aerial view of the Santa Susana Field Laboratory in the Simi Hills, with the San Fernando Valley and San Gabriel Mountains beyond to the east. The Energy Technology Engineering Center site is in the flat Area IV at the lower left, with the Rocket Test Field Laboratory sites in the hills at the center.
Aerial view of the Santa Susana Field Laboratory in the Simi Hills, with the San Fernando Valley and San Gabriel Mountains beyond to the east. The Energy Technology Engineering Center site is in the flat Area IV at the lower left, with the Rocket Test Field Laboratory sites in the hills at the center.

In many communities, tap water also suffers from stigma. Water, like meat and dairy, is chemically treated. The difference is in its common practice to add residual disinfectants in order to kill any bacteriological contamination during distribution. These additives often produce an off smell you can also taste, leading the user to believe tap water’s no good. Should you be able to smell and taste drinking water?

Bottled water has been my family’s number one household commodity since 1990 when major corporations began bottling “spring water at its source.” Since then, bottled water has been the trend – the industry offering a variety of manufactured spring, purified, filtered and distilled options to make water more attractive.

Twenty-seven years later, we still don’t drink tap water. Do you? I’ve lived in cities throughout California: Santa Cruz, Aptos, San Francisco, Oakland, San Anselmo and now Fresno. In no particular place, is tap water more or less attractive to drink. Today, no matter what city, state or country I travel to, I question the quality of tap water. Truth is, I don’t trust it as the healthiest drinking source and I’m privileged to have the right to choose not to drink it.

Throughout California, but mainly communities concentrated in the state’s Central Valley and Eastern Coachella Valley, people don’t have the right to choose whether or not to drink tap water because they’re concerned about the smell of chlorine treatments. When you don’t have enough water for basic sanitation because your well has run dry or your public drinking water system delivers unsafe levels of contaminants (from agricultural run-off into ground water), there’s no choice.

Did you know that today more than 1 million people in California lack access to clean, safe and affordable drinking water? For decades, residents have lived in communities that lack basic urban infrastructure and the water is so toxic it’s not safe to drink, cook, bathe, brush your teeth, wash dishes or clothes – it’s not even safe enough to feed your dog.

Arsenic and nitrates are consistently among the most frequent contaminants faced by communities with unsafe drinking water, and these contaminants have been shown to disproportionately impact communities that are predominately low-income and/or Latino.

(Photo by Matt Black, Magnum Photos)                                                                                                                                                                               Fresno, CA. Homeless camp. Fresno has a population of 494, 665 and 24.8% live below the poverty level. The City forced the closure of several encampments in 2013. Sinamon and Aaron live in a makeshift home in a vacant lot just feet beyond city limits.
(Photo by Matt Black, Magnum Photos) Fresno, CA. Homeless camp. Fresno has a population of 494, 665 and 24.8% live below the poverty level. The City forced the closure of several encampments in 2013. Sinamon and Aaron live in a makeshift home in a vacant lot just feet beyond city limits.

Can you imagine what it would be like to perform daily tasks without running water? To have to rely on donated deliveries of bottled water, or connecting a hose to a working well of a generous neighbor? Take showers from a bucket or a portable shower in a church parking lot? Use paper plates to avoid washing dishes and collect water used for cooking and showers to pour in the toilet or on the trees outside?

There are 183 small communities throughout California with publicly regulated water systems that are unable to regularly provide safe drinking water. The number continues to grow and change as the state Drinking Water Program finds new small community water systems with on-going drinking water violations. This number is from 2012. The list only includes communities with fewer than 1000 connections and it does not include schools or other non-community systems.

The California Endowment recently hosted a community town hall held at The California Museum in Sacramento in support of the #Agua4All campaign, an important initiative that raises awareness and education to increase access to and the consumption of safe drinking water. Water experts, advocates and activists joined in the discussion to address immediate and long-term solutions to California’s water system. We learned from residents in disadvantaged communities, like East Porterville, that we don’t have five years to fix this problem. Moved by personal stories of survival, their voices gave new shame to the saying, “It’s not your problem until it happens to you.”

In 2003, we moved to a new construction home in Clovis, CA. As a welcome, we received a standard issue form from the city warning that the water may not be suitable to drink, especially for pregnant women, due to nitrates in the water – a casual WARNING NOTICE: that might as well have read, Oh, by the way, as you settle into your new home, you should know the water here is bad. You may not want to drink it. The water we drink should be a concern for everyone.

“It’s time for those impacted to take power, raise their voices and make this issue more visible. It’s time to shift the conversation from providing water for just agricultural purposes to actually providing the most basic of human necessities,” said Laurel Firestone, Co-Founder and Co-Executive Director of the Community Water Center.

From the audience of the town hall, my family sat uncomfortably with our thoughts: Not in my backyard? Do you think this isn’t already here? People assume it’s not. This is not an issue of third world countries, and it’s not just in your neighbor’s backyard. It’s in your backyard! Lisa Cope-Rodriguez, Fresno County resident, raised her hand and stood to ask the panel of community residents, “What can we do to help?”

Community Water Center empowers California residents to know what’s in your water and be part of the movement for water justice. They formed the AGUA Coalition in 2006 in response to widespread contamination of valley drinking water sources. They meet monthly, aiming to mobilize residents to participate in critical actions, events, and opportunities to address the drinking water crisis in California’s Central Valley.

It’s not too far a reach to take action. It’s not too late to raise all our voices and fight for what’s right, not only for those currently impacted, but for all of us who will share the same experience in the near future. Perhaps we already are and aren’t even aware of it?

Luna Leopold argued that the management of water resources cannot be successful as long as it is naïvely perceived from an economic and political standpoint, as it is in the status quo.

If you’d like to learn more and join the fight for clean, safe and affordable drinking water, become a member of the AGUA Coalition today and pledge your support: AGUA Pledge (English / Spanish)

To learn more, please contact Susana De Anda, acting Coordinator for AGUA.

See peer related publications by Carolina Balazs, available at http://d3n8a8pro7vhmx.cloudfront.net/communitywatercenter/pages/52/attachments/original/1394398304/3Rs_BalazsandMorelloFrosch_2013.pdf?1394398304 and http://d3n8a8pro7vhmx.cloudfront.net/communitywatercenter/pages/52/attachments/original/1394398105/Balazsetal_Arsenic.pdf?1394398105

Addressing Nitrate in California’s Drinking Water at http://groundwaternitrate.ucdavis.edu

Click here to learn about what The California Endowment is doing to improve access to safe, clean drinking water in California’s communities and schools.

Click here and take our poll on water access and share it on twitter and Facebook.

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