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In the San Joaquin Valley, agricultural runoff from fertilizer and manure leaches into groundwater, contributing to some of the highest levels of nitrate pollution in community water systems in the country.

Residents in Tipton were warned months ago not to drink or cook with tap water because of dangerous levels of nitrate. For two years, Estella Bravo, 78, has been advocating for her neighbors to get free bottled water.

“It’s been about 20 years that the water’s gotten really bad,” Bravo said. “They keep looking for places to put wells, but all of them come out negative with arsenic, or a whole lot of nitrates. A lot of it would be due to our dairies. All around us we’ve got dairies.”

More than 85% of the town’s population identifies as Hispanic or Latino.

A new report shows Latino neighborhoods are disproportionately impacted by elevated levels of nitrate, which advocates say is a result of a historic pattern of racist policies at every level of government.

“We didn’t just find a lot of nitrate in majority-Latino communities, we also found that as nitrate levels rise, the likelihood that a community is majority-Latino also goes up,” said Anne Weis Schechinger, a senior analyst of economics with the Environmental Working Group.

Because most of the Valley’s farmworkers are also Latino, “many people are drinking water contaminated by the very farms that employ them,” she said.

The findings add to the evidence of what advocates and other researchers have said for decades: Access to clean drinking water isn’t equal in the Valley, and often, it’s Latino families and historic Black communities that carry the health and financial burdens of polluted water.

Yana Garcia — CalEPA Deputy Secretary for Environmental Justice, Tribal Affairs and Border Relations — said access to clean and affordable water “falls along racial lines” in part as a result of discriminatory land use practices in California’s history.

“There was a real explicit intent that white communities were invested in and communities of color were not,” Garcia said. “We think of that as a land use pattern out of state, in the South. But we don’t often think of that as a land use pattern that affected, and continues to persist in many ways, in our state of California.”

There is hope that is shifting. Some new state and regional funding policies were written to prioritize often-neglected communities; Tipton can apply for some of that funding to pay for a new well with lower levels of nitrate and arsenic.

“I think our system has been set up in such a way that the most marginalized, who continue to be people of color, are seen as, for some reason, expendable,” Garcia said. “The day to day work that many of us engage in, is really trying to deconstruct that.”

The fear of getting sick

Right now, “the reality is, people cannot drink tap water without the fear of getting sick,” said Susana De Anda, co-founder and director of Community Water Center that has worked closely with Valley residents for water justice since 2006.

“It’s a fact that over 1 million Californians are exposed to toxic water on a daily basis (from multiple contaminants),” De Anda said.

“That means people wake up, go to their kitchen and they can’t drink water from their faucets. Mothers are worried their children will swallow the water they use to brush their teeth. Families have to make sure they have alternative water sources in their home so they don’t have to drink tap water.”

Bravo says when people drink the tap water in Tipton they get stomach aches or kidney problems.

The federal legal limit for nitrate was set at 10 milligrams per liter of drinking water, based on a 1962 public health recommendation to protect infants and pregnant mothers from a potentially-deadly condition that deprives baby’s bodies of oxygen.

More recent research suggests that anyone who drinks water with elevated levels of nitrate — even below the legal limit — for several years may be at risk of increased colon cancer, thyroid disease and birth defects.

In Tipton, the nitrate level in one well fluctuates in and out of compliance since 2019.

Bravo is a champion for her community. She distributes food from Central Valley Food Bank to over 200 families a week, and she tries to update her neighbors on current water quality, especially young parents and pregnant women.

“You don’t know what the kid is going to develop. They’re going to have something happen to them,” Bravo said. “If they put a pool out for them, they’re going to drink the water. They take a bath, they drink the water. They take a shower, they’re going to sit there and open their mouth. I know; I used to watch my kids do it.”

Between 2003 and 2017, nearly 70 water systems serving 1.5 million people in majority-Latino Valley communities tested nitrate levels above the federal legal limit at least once, EWG found. And, 157 systems tested levels at half the legal limit.

Immigrant and low-income communities are often impacted, and “people can’t afford water purification systems,” Bravo said.

Those numbers don’t take into account people on private wells who often drink from the same polluted groundwater.

“We need to properly manage our groundwater, right now,” De Anda said. “I’m a big believer that no matter where you live, no matter your zip code, you need to have clean water flowing into your home and your school.”

Racist land management practices in California

Most drinking water in the Valley is groundwater, as local and imported surface water has historically been delegated for agricultural use. Groundwater is polluted because of natural and man-made chemicals.

Cities with well-funded water systems can drill new wells to find cleaner water, purchase surface water, or build expensive water treatment systems to meet federal water standards.

Rural areas often lack that drinking water infrastructure. They also often lack sewer systems, meaning those communities more often rely on septic systems that also leach nitrate into groundwater.

“Just in my district alone we have communities like Sultana, Monson, Goshen, as well as Yettem, Seville, Cutler, Orosi, East Orosi that have been struggling to get clean drinking water for many, many years,” said Tulare County Supervisor Eddie Valero, one of the first Latinos to serve on the board.

“I believe that people do not have clean drinking water due to the many years of eroding systems, due to the many years of not focusing on the infrastructure piece,” he said.

A 2018 report by the UC Davis Center for Regional Change outlines the historic land use policies that led to a lack of investment specifically in disadvantaged unincorporated communities, where residents are primarily people of color.

During a large migration into California in the 1900s, the report says, immigrants from Mexico, the Philippines, India and other countries, along with African Americans from the Jim Crow South and low-income white people, settled in the Valley.

The draw included fertile soils, good weather and abundant, publicly-subsidized irrigation. Agricultural development and oil and gas extraction were booming and the Southern Pacific Railroad was under construction.

Once they arrived, many immigrants, “were excluded from many urban areas through racially-restrictive housing, economic redlining, as well as threatened and actual racial violence,” the report says.

Pushed out of urban areas with municipal water systems, people of color settled and made community in rural, unincorporated areas and founded Black colonies or townships near agricultural fields that provided work, or opportunities for Black-owned farms.

But development of infrastructure didn’t follow the people. Instead, “development patterns that prioritized established urban areas inhabited by wealthier and whiter populations starved peripheral and rural neighborhoods of investment.”

Those patterns were written into state, regional and local policies to underinvest in low-income unincorporated communities throughout the 1960s and 1970s.

The Housing Element of the 1969 Madera County General Plan, for example, focused on getting rid of “rural slums,” by giving funding to urban centers. It was assumed funding for rural infrastructure would come from state or federal sources.

The 1973 Tulare County General Plan was similar. It labeled 15 populated communities where residents and taxpayers lived as “non-viable.” Most of the areas were historically Black communities or labor camps, including Allensworth, Alpaugh and Lemon Cove.

The policy was a clear attempt to destroy the towns.

“These non-viable communities would, as a consequence of withholding major public facilities such as sewer and water systems, enter a process of long term, natural decline as residents depart for improved opportunities in nearby communities,” the plan reads.

Researchers Carolina Balazs and Isha Ray argued that those policies are similar to redlining, by labeling a community as “nonviable” to withhold investment, leaving communities with poor infrastructure.

Similar policies continue to play out in decisions about what areas are annexed into city limits, or where municipal water service extends.

As a result of a long history exclusion, residents in low-income communities outside of city limits “pay a triple penalty to obtain water,” according to the UC Davis report.

Residents bear the health cost of unsafe drinking water; they purchase that water at high costs, and they still have to buy bottled water for drinking and cooking.

Residents in Tipton pay $50 to $60 a month for water service and then have to buy bottled water. It’s too much for some families. Bravo said she knows parents who drink tap water and save the bottled water for their children.

“Last time we got water was because the governor was sending it out, back in 2015,” Bravo said. “Then when the drought finished, the water finished. The water problems are still here.”

How California is confronting water injustice

In the last few years, California adopted monumental policies to address the disproportionate burdens of pollution on rural, disadvantaged communities.

  • California’s SAFER program provides millions of dollars every year to improve water quality in disadvantaged communities.

According to Adriana Renteria, who directs the State Water Resources Control Board Office of Public Participation, California is at this important moment in drinking water history as a result of years of advocacy work.

“Thirty years before this moment, advocates, farmworkers, specifically indigenous and Latino women, have been advocating for the state to acknowledge this issue for a long, long time,” Renteria said.

Now the job is implementation. Renteria said that to do it right, agencies at every level of government need to bring equity to decision making, with suitable public engagement.

Tulare County, for example, is required to include an environmental justice component for a new General Plan. Staff, with the guidance of community groups, are strategizing how to increase public participation from low income and people of color.

Senate Bill 200 established the Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Fund, the most robust drinking water funding program to date, which – if fully funded – will provide up to $130 million a year until 2030 for water projects in disadvantaged communities.

Language access is a priority throughout the SAFER program, for example. And, Renteria said, instead of waiting for water district managers to apply for a grant, state officials are approaching communities based on need.

It’s going to take a lot more to undo more than a century of discriminatory practices.

“I think we get conceptually, yes, we have a human right to water. Yes, we believe that is a priority. But when it comes down to day to day decision making, we don’t have the tools or the understanding yet of really how to apply that concept.”

Garcia said, “The challenge for us is ensuring that each new decision that we make now, we’re able to counteract what history has given us and really ensure that we’re not continuing to contribute to the disproportionate burden that continues to exist in these communities.”

This story was produced by Fresnoland in partnership with Univision 21, Fresno.

Can you help buy water for Tipton? Fresnoland is working with Estella Bravo to distribute bottled water and holiday decorations to the community of Tipton this season. $20 will provide clean drinking water to a family for one week.

To donate, go to and write “Tipton” in the “write us a comment” box on the donation form.

CORRECTION: The original version of this story incorrectly stated the year water quality standards were set for nitrate. Public health recommendations were published in 1962. The water quality standard for nitrate was established in 1974 under the Safe Drinking Water Act.

Corrected Dec 10, 2020

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