For years, Rebecca Quintana had been a highly visible activist in the fight for safe drinking water, speaking regularly with reporters, rallying residents and helping to spark an unprecedented United Nations inspection in northern Tulare County.
But, strolling past the town’s old contaminated well now, she talks about her more personal battle. Her 34-year-old daughter, Regina Lujan, died in 2015 from cancer. Pregnant with her second son, Lujan had asked a haunting question about her stage 4 breast cancer.
Did the contamination nightmare in Seville cause it?
Quintana had simply told her daughter that the illness was a mystery, saying there was no history of breast cancer in her family.
Lujan hadn’t grown up in Seville, but she spent summers there at her grandparents’ home where Quintana had been raised. Lujan drank the tap water in Seville each summer and during many visits.
Quintana, 60, is raising Lujan’s younger son in nearby Visalia, maintaining her Seville residence – the home her parents built – and still wrestling with her daughter’s question. Quintana knew there was no way to directly link the breast cancer to the nitrate-laced drinking water.
“But you still can’t help wondering if there was a connection,” Quintana says. “We’ve had so much trouble with drinking water. It’s hard to live with that.”
The well was shut down in 2015, mostly because California’s epic five-year drought nearly dried it up. In that way, the drought was a blessing, Quintana says. The town got a state-sponsored emergency well, but Seville’s dilapidated pipes still periodically spit out sand, bacteria-laden water and, occasionally, a tadpole.
The state has come up with $5 million to rebuild the piping system this year, and there are plans to get healthier drinking water. This might be the year that people can stop buying bottled water in Seville.
But a decade after the fight began to clean up the water system, it still is risky to drink tap water in this farmworker community. About 500 residents still are waiting to get what most Californians take for granted – a safe drink of water from the tap.
Worrying and waiting
Across a wide, rural swath of the San Joaquin Valley, people have long been unnerved about drinking the sporadically contaminated tap water. It’s not as high-profile as lead contamination in Flint, Mich., but people here have good reason to worry, say scientists.
Nitrates from decades of use of fertilizers in the Valley’s world-class farm belt threaten the water for more than 200,000 people, according to a 2012 UC Davis study.
Nitrates, which also come from leaky septic systems, sewage treatment and dairy waste, are linked to birth defects, a potentially fatal blood disease in infants, thyroid cancer and other problems, ranging from depression to nervous system disorders.
The state is working on a nitrate cleanup approach, which may include fees on farmers to help pay not only for the cleanup but possibly to help small towns. Nitrate contamination is, by far, the most widespread problem in the San Joaquin Valley, but it’s not the only concern.
Other contaminants include arsenic, coliform and pesticides. One powerful contaminant, 1,2,3-trichloropropane (1,2,3-TCP), is a “garbage” or waste chemical, dumped into a now-banned farm fumigant many decades ago, according to records in a lawsuit over the chemical.
The city of Clovis in December won a $22 million lawsuit against the fumigant manufacturer, Shell Oil Co. But the chemical, a likely carcinogen, has not yet been regulated by the state of California.
The bigger crisis
As troubling as dirty drinking water might be, it is just a fraction of the environmental stresses that are leading to early mortality in rural pockets of poverty, researchers say.
Cumulative environmental and socio-economic burdens are killing rural residents up to 25 years younger than people who live in larger cities only 10 miles away, scientists say.
What burdens? Aside from contaminated water, consider poverty, lack of education, air pollution, pesticides, low birth weights and asthma.
Children are quite vulnerable to the cumulative environmental stress, says John Capitman, executive director of the Central Valley Health Policy Institute at Fresno State and an author of a 2012 study called “Place matters for health in the San Joaquin Valley.”
The study confirmed dark suspicions about living in this heavily farmed region. Childhood cancer clusters in McFarland and Earlimart and birth defects in Kettleman City have made headlines in the last three decades.
“The findings in the study are shocking,” Capitman says. “To see such differences in life expectancy is dramatic. Why aren’t public authorities doing more? That’s a good question.”
Over the last four years, state officials have been refining an innovative health assessment tool and evaluating communities in detail.
Officials say it is designed to guide public policy decisions, not rank the riskiest places to live. But scientists, such as Capitman, say significant health risks are obvious.
The state calls the analysis CalEnviroScreen, which looks at more than a dozen categories of pollution and environmental factors as well as many socio-economic factors.
“Rather than looking at individual types of pollution in isolation, CalEnviroScreen helps policymakers and scientists examine multiple pollutants and factors at once,” George Alexeeff, director of the state’s Office of Environmental Hazard Health Assessment, says on the state’s website.
Among California’s 8,000 census tracts, the worst of the worst are in the Valley. The rural southwest edge of Fresno is the worst in the state – more dangerous than poverty pockets in East Los Angeles and Oakland. Dozens of rural San Joaquin Valley communities in eight counties are among the worst 10 percent in California.
In the last two years, the state has made plans to move these “disadvantaged communities” to the head of the line for the millions of dollars available from the state’s greenhouse gas cap-and-trade auctions. The idea is to raise the quality of life with environmentally friendly projects.
But the program is in its infancy, and people have been focused on the state’s most intense five-year drought on record, which only now is beginning to ease.
Stories have appeared in national media, such as the Los Angeles Times, about people living through the brutally hot Valley summer without indoor plumbing, inviting comparisons between Third World conditions and California, a state with the world’s eighth-largest economy. In some places, outhouses were placed in yards not far from children’s toys and picnic tables.
The state responded, sending a sea of bottled water and pushing harder to make millions of dollars available for emergency wells. In East Porterville, residents organized to distribute bottled water among 7,000 people. A familiar sight was a porch or patio filled with boxes of bottled water.
Maria Jimenez, who lived in 2015 in the Tulare County town of Monson, captured scant rainfall in a bucket on top of her roof to help flush the toilet. The well at the rental had gone dry.
“It’s at least some water,” she said at the time, adding that it was something people do in Mexico.
In neighborhoods, outdoor water tanks have appeared. People have disconnected from their dry wells and hooked up their plumbing to the tanks, which are refilled periodically.
It wasn’t just the lack of storms that dried those wells. The San Joaquin Valley farm industry, worth more than $30 billion, needed to pump water just to survive.
Farmers who usually buy river water from government water projects had been left high and dry. As their wells went dry, they drilled new ones as deep as 2,500 feet and pumped around the clock, desperately maintaining precious orchard crops while letting some other fields die.
Water tables plummeted and parts of the landscape sank two feet.
For rural residents, the drought simply made a stressful life worse. People living on wages near the poverty line already were paying up to $60 a month for tap water they couldn’t drink.
Politics, money, delay
Activists and advocates privately fear problems with state funding bureaucracies and local political problems will stall California’s effort to make communities less risky places to live. Delays have not been unusual in the drinking water cleanups.
Three past examples of the delays for water cleanup: Seville and the Matheny Tract in Tulare County, and Kettleman City in Kings County. Matheny Tract’s problem has been solved, and Seville and Kettleman City appear to be within a few years of long-term solutions. But people still are living in these places with drinking water they cannot trust.
In Seville’s case, part of the years-long wait for a fix included a technicality in state rules, along with foot-dragging among bureaucrats. The town and six other area communities are working on a solution, but it takes time to sort through details and local politics.
For the Matheny Tract, 300 homes next to the city of Tulare, an effort to hook up to the water system in the nearby city was delayed when local officials balked at an agreement they had signed in 2011 to consolidate water systems. The officials were worried about the city’s water supplies as the drought intensified. With a lawsuit settlement moving forward and a state order for consolidation, the water began flowing last summer.
In Kings County, the Kettleman City fix for natural arsenic contamination was delayed because residents could not pay off a $500,000 debt on the water system. Chemical Waste, the owner of the nearby Kettleman Hills Hazardous Waste Landfill, covered the debt as part of its effort to expand its facility. The expansion was approved and the debt paid, but the fix still was going through the state environmental review early last year.
The 1,400 people who live in Kettleman City, midway between Los Angeles and San Francisco, may have thought the problem was solved after the debt was paid, says resident Maricela Mares-Alatorre, who has been an activist for many years.
“I don’t think people realize what’s going on because the state hasn’t done a good enough job of communicating,” she says. “Bottom line is that we’re still waiting. It is frustrating.”
Finally last summer, the settlement of an administrative civil rights complaint over treatment of some Kettleman City residents has moved the process forward, promising better communication and more attention to improving public health. A water treatment plant is expected to be operational by the end of 2018.
Seville and the six other small communities in northern Tulare County could be the state’s first to build a regional treatment plant that would help them get away from nitrate-plagued groundwater.
A local irrigation district came up with a plan to get Kings River water, build a water treatment plant and treat the river water for consumption among the 5,000 or so residents living in Orosi, Cutler, East Orosi, Monson, Seville, Sultana and Yettem.
Six years ago, there was a big push for funding to study the treatment plant. It seemed to gain momentum after a highly publicized visit to the area from the United Nations in March 2011. Rebecca Quintana was among those who helped spur the visit.
The U.N. was touring places around the world – including Africa and parts of Asia – to highlight the need to provide healthy water as a basic human right. The U.N. urged California to act quickly in cleaning up the water.
But after moving the area’s funding request high on the priority list, the California Department of Public Health quietly dropped it to a lower priority. Officials explained the lead applicant, Orosi, had a water supply that was not currently out of compliance with standards.
Engineers argued it was only a matter of time before Orosi would be out of compliance again, but the decision was not reversed. It took months for the seven communities to get another lead applicant, and the funding process kicked into the next year. Delays continued throughout the following year.
Those involved say the delays happened despite the fact that the irrigation district, Alta Irrigation District in nearby Dinuba, already had figured a way to get the small amount of river water. The district had worked on the project for four years.
“In California, you always figure the tough part is getting the water,” Alta general manager Chris Kapheim says. “Not this time.”
In 2013, the state’s drinking water cleanup program got another wake-up call. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency publicly scolded California for not spending nearly $500 million of federal dollars for drinking water fixes.
With mounting pressure for change, the Drinking Water Program was shifted from the state health agency to the State Water Resources Control Board, which has streamlined the funding process. The program is swifter now, activists say.
One more important hoop
A decade ago, the town of Lanare in Fresno County got a small arsenic treatment system with about $1 million in federal funding. It operated only a matter of months before being shut down because residents could not afford to pay for the maintenance. It still is mothballed.
The lesson has not been lost in Tulare County. The seven towns last year were discussing how the water treatment plant would be owned and operated. They have settled many issues as they move toward establishing an agency to govern and operate a water treatment plant.
Every community has different issues, says Ryan Jensen, water solutions coordinator with the Community Water Center, a nonprofit group based in Visalia. The group is helping to form the entity to govern the project.
“It’s almost a $30 million project, and you’re talking about saddling seven communities with debt,” he says. “You need to be able to answer everyone’s questions and make sure everyone is represented.”
Monson, for instance, is completely on wells. The town does not have distribution pipes. The monthly bill is almost nonexistent. To make the system work, residents’ monthly bill would be nearly $76 a month for the treated water.
Seville residents pay about $60 a month for their water. Their cost would drop to $46.01 for water treatment.
Seville resident Argelia Flores, who is involved in the committee to discuss the treatment plant, says the committee is working toward making sure residents know the options.
She added that it’s difficult to pay for water that residents don’t trust. Sometimes, the water is contaminated. Sometimes it just stops flowing.
“There’s a temptation to stop paying the bill,” she says. “It is very discouraging to get all sudsed up in the shower, and then have no water to rinse.”
Seville got good news late last year. About $5 million in state funding will be used to rebuild its inadequate piping system. There also are hopes of drilling a new well for both Yettem and Seville so the communities can have healthy water as they wait for the new treatment plant.
Meanwhile, the communities continue to iron out legal details on the governing agency to run the water treatment plant, hoping to complete the work and get all the communities on board by late February or March. If all goes well, the plant could be operating by 2020, which is still three years away.
Rebecca Quintana, buoyed by the news of the state funding this year and a new pipe distribution system, says she soon will move back full time into her childhood Seville home.
“We’ve been working a long time for good water,” she says. “I think it’s finally happening.”
About this report
Former Bee reporter Mark Grossi was a 2016 fellow for the Washington, D.C.-based Alicia Patterson Foundation. This is the first of a series of stories he wrote that focus on the San Joaquin Valley’s rural areas where people face environmental challenges.
Read some of Grossi’s reporting while he was at The Bee, archived on his blog: www.fresnobee.com/earth-log