The San Joaquin Valley is ground zero for issues of water quality and supply. While there are countless studies that have highlighted these water challenges, there have been few investments made to begin to address the problem. We must do more.
Our families and I are no strangers to this crisis. We depend on agricultural jobs, but at the same time rely on bottled water because our ground-water wells are contaminated. Today, more than 2,400 families are being impacted by dry wells and over a million Valley residents are exposed to toxic water. The city of Fresno suffers similar challenges with more than 40 contaminated city wells, requiring their closure, and costing the ratepayers millions of dollars. Fortunately, the city has surface water rights that help mitigate the contamination issue, a luxury that too many of our small rural communities don’t have.
As a councilmember in Fresno, I have supported efforts to invest $429.1 million in our water infrastructure. This investment not only ensures a reliable, clean water supply for our 520,000 residents, but also gives us the opportunity to provide safe drinking water to neighboring rural school districts and cities. However, this is not enough. We need state and federal resources to supplement our efforts if we want to ensure the vitality of our local agricultural economy and access to safe drinking water for all our Valley residents.
For a region that is so dependent on water it is important that we visualize the human element impacted by this problem. It is not only our farmers and their families; it is our farm workers who depend on these jobs and our children who live and go to school in these communities that lack safe drinking water. You cannot drive through the valley without noticing that this region flourishes where water flows. Our local economy depends on agriculture, and our agriculture depends on the thousands of families that toil the fields throughout the year. We all belong to the same ecosystem, we all are part of the great state of California and we must do more.
Further impacting our region is that thousands of agricultural acres have to be temporary fallowed and some permanently retired to comply with state regulations, but also due to reduced surface water allocations. This reduces our ability to recharge aquifers in areas with water quality problems; these are areas where residents rely completely on groundwater. Studies demonstrate that this crisis will worsen before it gets better if we don’t invest in our water infrastructure.
Our communities impacted by these issues are some of California’s poorest areas. About 31% of Kern County’s residents live in a disadvantaged community; in Kings County, that number is 50%, in Tulare County it’s 57%, and in Fresno County it’s 73%. While some people believe that this crisis is a Valley issue or simply an agricultural industry issue, the fact is that what happens in the breadbasket the world will have a ripple effect in our state’s economy and national food security. It is time for state and federal leaders to take aggressive and immediate action.
State Sen. Melissa Hurtado’s bill SB 559, a bipartisan measure, provides us the opportunity to take action. SB 559 will help fund a project to restore conveyance capacity on the Friant-Kern Canal. Deliveries from the Friant-Kern Canal, which have been reduced by nearly two-thirds in recent years, have been responsible for sustaining the eastside’s groundwater tables for more than 60 years. If we do nothing to address this problem, our drinking water quality problems will undoubtedly worsen, the trend of land retirement will speed up, leaving jobs and food production in the dust.
It is time to come together as a state and pass SB 559.
Esmeralda Soria represents District 1 on the Fresno City Council