Flint, Michigan, and its 100,000 citizens exist in one universe; California’s Central Valley and its population of nearly a million cling to survival in another. Both have economic woes. Both suffer a deadly water supply made toxic with lead. Beyond that, all comparison ends.
First, there’s Flint. Rightly, consider the tragedy that befell that broadly poor and disadvantaged Michigan community just three years ago. As reported recently, “In April 2014, to save money, the Michigan city decided to take its water from the [Flint] river instead of Lake Huron and created a still-ongoing hell that affected its entire population of 100,000.”
Chemical differences between the lake and river waters leached corrosion from municipal and residential water pipes, contaminating Flint’s drinking water with toxic levels of lead. Twelve subsequently died and a far greater number still experience health and developmental problems from heavy metal poisoning that may linger for decades or for the rest of their lives.
In one case, Flint, state and federal governments saw a problem, punished those responsible and are working to fix it. In the other, California, a million children and adults still suffer.
So severe was the suffering in Flint that it was quickly embraced by a national demand for immediate solution and justice.
As a result of the city’s decision, failure to fix the problems and a cover-up, 10 governmental officials were charged, including five environmental regulators, three health experts and two former emergency managers. More arrests and bookings with criminal charges of involuntary manslaughter followed for Michigan’s Health and Human Services Director and four other public officials.
There is no parallel justice or outcome for many small, rural Central Valley towns located in a triangular arc between Bakersfield, Fresno and Interstate 5. Like Flint, an estimated million people live at ground zero with a drinking water supply contaminated with a toxic brew of arsenic, lead, radon, selenium and hexavalent chromium-6 at levels far more potent and harmful than that found in Flint’s faucets.
Even more deadly problems than drinking from contaminated wells face as many as 15,000 other Californians: They have no water at all. Hundreds of domestic wells in the triangle are dry due to a combination of the 2012–2016 drought and reduced state and federal water deliveries that forced local communities and farmers to turn to pumping deeper and deeper groundwater reserves.
Dangerously poor water quality has grown to become a statewide problem in California. In the last five years the State Water Resource Control Board reported high levels of arsenic in Contra Costa County, nitrates in Yuba County, combined uranium in San Diego County and hexavalent chromium in Los Angeles.
Trihalomethanes – a contaminant also found in Flint – were reported in Riverside County.
In 2012 the California Department of Public Health found critically elevated levels of lead in blood samples of nearly 500 children; almost 10 percent of children they tested had severe blood lead levels exceeding 4.5 micrograms per deciliter, a health hazard.
Nearly pure water falls as snow on the Sierra Nevada Mountains to the east, percolates into the soil, flows down and west towards the Valley as surface streams and through underground aquifers. Along the way, it passes through natural mineral deposits and granite, leaching away poisonous heavy metals and radon.
Pumped up to residential faucets, the once pure snow becomes contaminated drinking water for Californians.
For decades, California and the federal government have ignored these communities and their toxic water supplies. There have been no criminal investigations, no evoking of the Clean Water Act by EPA to order cleanup of water sources, no largess of millions of dollars thrown at the problem by a concerned legislature or Congress as there was for Flint.
Michigan’s Flint, California’s Oakland and the Central Valley represent contrasting views into what will become a national problem for this generation to solve. In one case, state and federal governments saw a problem, punished those responsible and are working to fix it. In the other, a million children and adults still suffer.
Neither the State of California nor California politicians – certainly not the EPA or U.S. Congress – are stepping up to solve their problems.
Millions of our fellow citizens live in third-world conditions without clean drinking water, with thousands more denied any water at all. Men, women and children – entire communities – have demonstrable health problems rooted in governmental inaction. More become sick every day.
This should be our collective concern and our collective goal: to recognize their plight and undertake an immediate solution.
A moral imperative exists for all of California and the U.S. to provide its citizens with reliable, clean, healthful water in California, just as the state and federal government did in Michigan.
Aubrey Bettencourt is the executive director of the California Water Alliance, a statewide water policy nonprofit that advocates for the water needs of California families, cities, businesses, farmers and the environment. Follow @AubBettencourt and visit CaliforniaWaterAlliance.org for more information.