En un viernes por la tarde, un miembro de un equipo de materiales peligrosos rocía productos químicos en un viñedo a tres millas de la escuela primaria La Vina en el condado de Madera. Crédito de la foto: Gregory Weaver.

What's at stake:

In La Viña, a small rural community in Madera, residents live among some of the most dilapidated roads and pesticide-laden farm fields in the state of California.

But over the last six years, the residents have found a way to solve these problems.

In May of 2022, residents of a small rural community called La Viña convinced a handful of California bureaucrats to visit the front lines of one of the most intensive crop burning, pesticide, and fumigation operations in the state.

Leaving their glass and concrete towers in downtown Sacramento and Oakland on a Friday morning, the bureaucrats drove three hours into the central San Joaquin Valley, along a grid of pock-marked, two-lane country roads, and arrived at La Viña’s small community center along Avenue 9, in southwest Madera County.

For the last three decades, the grape and almond orchards around La Viña have soaked up more fumigants and pesticides than nearly any other community in California, according to a state pesticide database. Over a million pounds of chemicals with names like “Tombstone Helios,” “Crosshair,” and “Spinetoram” are dispersed into the groves around La Viña every year. 

A school bus passes a hazmat team in the process of spraying a grape vineyard with chemicals on a Friday afternoon, near La Viña, Madera County. Photo Credit: Gregory Weaver.

On that Friday afternoon in May, residents asked the bureaucrats to help them find an answer to a question that had evaded them for decades: whether the level of pesticide exposure that came along with such prolific spraying harmed their family’s health, shortened their lives, or killed their loved ones. 

Now, La Viña, with help from those same state officials, is poised to finally help answer those questions. The state is now going to investigate the pesticide exposure of La Viña residents. It’s part of a spate of victories the community received at the end of 2022, totalling $2.7 million, that included state funding to improve the neighborhood’s roads and sidewalks.  

In December 2022, the community received a quarter-million-dollar grant by the Environmental Protection Agency for pesticide monitoring. A three-agency state task force funded by the grant is now set to carry out the resident’s long-awaited pesticide tests for the Southwest Madera area.

The state’s Air Resources Board (CARB), the Department of Pesticide Regulation, and the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment will mobilize a team of scientists over the next few years to work with La Viña residents on a spate of forensic pesticide tests.

“We’ve been fighting for many years for the county and other local agencies to pay attention to us. We’ve been asking for about 20 years for help with pesticide exposure,” said Berta Garcia, a La Viña resident since the mid-1990s. 

“I think it’s really good that the pesticide monitoring is going to happen, and I think the rest of the community feels the same way.” 

Deldi Reyes, CARB’s director of Community Air Protection, said that La Viña came on her radar when the small community was nominated for AB617, the state’s flagship environmental justice program, year after year. 

But “due to lack of [state] resources for air districts to run the [air monitoring] program adequately,” Reyes said, La Viña’s AB617 application was rejected every time.

However, the staff at the state air board “felt that it was important to try to be creative and resourceful” to find the resources the community needed to get to the bottom of the area’s agribusiness pollution situation.

“So when the opportunity came along to apply for the US EPA air monitoring grant, we jumped at it,” she said. 

In light of La Viña’s pesticide grant, Reyes and another CARB official, Ken Stroud, commended how the community is using EPA resources to build local knowledge and capacity.

“Community members know best what they’re experiencing,” Reyes said. “Supporting that knowledge to inform how the government works: that’s very consistent with our democratic principles.”

A rural community’s path to policy

Rural communities like La Viña experience a lot of problems. 

From the health impacts of extractive industries operating at their fence lines, to faraway or failing necessities like supermarkets and hospitals, to a precarious reliance on fickle machines like cars, the daily experience of rural neighborhoods in the US is strained by lopsided distances and decaying infrastructures.

In La Viña, a problem that galvanized the community was something as simple as asphalt. And just like the pesticide issue, community leaders used a go-to catalyst to get the ball rolling on much-needed fixes: make their problem too loud and clear to ignore.

The roads around La Viña are falling apart. Driving through the neighborhood’s access roads to Highway 99, the pavement is not so much deteriorating as it is shrinking. Encroached by pockets of weeds, the long-crumbled-up road margins are causing the two lane roads to become more like one-and-a-half. 

Two-ways & one lane: Flood and decay squeeze a country road in Madera County. Photo Credit: Gregory Weaver.

Six years ago, La Viña residents worked with Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability to get a mobility study funded. Its detailed transportation project list addressed the neighborhood’s critical needs: improving hospital and school access, as well as creating a more walkable neighborhood. In solving these common problems, the mobility study’s vision looks a lot like the state’s transportation blueprint: heavy doses of bike lanes, sidewalks, complete streets, and a high-frequency bus stop. 

But for four years, the community was unsuccessful in finding the funding for their mobility plan. While the residents had translated their neighborhood problem to rigorous study, they had yet to take the most important leap: from study to government-funded solution. 

Berta Garcia said the plan’s state of limbo almost smothered the community’s excitement around making change. 

“In the past, a lot more people used to go to the community meetings,” Garcia said, but lately, residents would ask her: “‘What’s the point in going?’” 

But in December, along with the pesticide grant, La Viña had another breakthrough. 

This December, the community won a $2.4 million grant from the California Transportation Commission (CTC) to implement a part of their mobility study. The funds will go towards long-awaited improvements in the neighborhood: building new sidewalks, completing the unfinished ones, painting some bike lanes, and adding a spate of streetlights and crosswalks.

Many plans go unimplemented. How did La Viña, a community without even internet access, see their plan through?

Too loud 

In April 2022, four years after their original mobility study was completed, La Viña went on a policy push. A week before their meeting with the air and pesticide bureaucrats, the residents called a press conference in their front yard. Along with nearby rural neighborhoods, they mobilized on a familiar issue: the woeful state of their streets. 

The residents’ choice for the location of the press conference was strategic. 

The press corp, a mix of English and Spanish-speaking news stations, settled 10 feet away from a discarded barrel of industrial lubricant that was chafing rust in the bloomed roadside bermuda. Across the street, 200-pound turds of crushed concrete were scattered on an unfinished sidewalk. As the press conference began, a dad pushed his baby in a rickety pink stroller whose plastic wheels screeched and rattled as he walked the child across a bed of disintegrated asphalt pebbles.

A rubbernecking UPS driver on his daily route honked, smiled, and waved as he drove past the residents at their roadside podium. With their microphones turned up, the rural residents called out Madera County decision makers. 

“I’ve lived here since 1990, and I haven’t seen any of the community’s needs get addressed,” said La Viña resident Eusebia, who only provided her first name, pointing to the slick, worn-out sidewalk where her kid had slipped and fallen the previous day, April 20, due to rain. 

“If you drive on Road 19, you’re going to rattle your teeth,” said Elaine Moore, a resident of Fairmead, another rural community, a few exits North on Highway 99. “I’ve lived on the same property since 1971, and Madera County has never paved the road. They come out, throw a little bit of stuff at a hole, stomp on it, and go away. Three days later, the hole’s back!”

The broken double-yellow: a road in Madera County is so weathered, its markings verge on the illegible. Photo Credit: Gregory Weaver

According to Jared Carter, Madera County’s deputy public works director, the county had a key challenge in supporting La Viña’s ambitions, namely, Madera’s rapidly deteriorating rural road network. 

Madera’s current grid of country roads weren’t “built to last,” Carter said. Its lattice of roads and avenues date back to the early 1900s and “really require almost reconstruction, rather than just preventative maintenance.” 

A hundred years ago, to build these primitive asphalt roads, the county “literally just sprayed oil on the dirt, dumped down some rock and mixed it up and flattened it out,” Carter said.

“So there’s no base; there’s no structure to them. They definitely weren’t built to last as long as they’ve been out there.”

It’s one of the most worn-out systems in California, according to a statewide road study from 2020. At the current level of funding, 70% of Madera county’s roads will fall into disrepair by 2028.

With poor infrastructure foundations and no local fiscal source to renovate the roads, Carter said La Vina’s transportation projects needed to get the attention of the state’s transportation bureaucrats.

This required a more data-driven approach in the county’s state grant applications, and an emphasis on pedestrians, rather than cars, Carter said.

“I remember, six, eight, 10 years ago, applying for ATP [Active Transportation] funds. You know, it was pretty much just: write a good story about what you want to build. If it’s a good idea, they would likely have it funded,” Carter said. 

A road disappears to dirt and rubble on a road in Madera County. Photo Credit: Gregory Weaver

La Viña residents, by rallying to get their mobility study implemented over the last few years, have helped the county hone its focus on applications to competitive state grant programs. 

“A big part of the grant was framing the project in a way that showcased those pedestrian facilities in the residential area where you have a lot of people walking back and forth to the market, things like that,” he said. 

“This was certainly a great win, and we’re excited about getting this project done.”

What’s next for La Viña?

To get the rest of the mobility study funded, Carter said, his public works department is looking at which parts could be competitive in other state grant programs. 

“Coming back and looking at that next phase, maybe ATP is the source that we can go after, or there’s another funding program that comes along that we can fit [the mobility study] into. I mean, really, that’s the game.”

To Berta Garcia, La Viña’s twin victories were much needed to boost community morale.

Garcia, a leader of La Viña, says community interest has not budged on the same bread-and-butter issues: street repairs, speed bumps, and rural internet access, so that the local kids don’t have to drive 15 minutes into the city of Madera to get their homework done. 

The community is also working with the state Department of Conservation to connect rural land use with public health, by leveraging the department’s land fallowing program to create buffer zones between agricultural fields and their community.

Agricultural fields surround the fence lines of the playground at La Vina elementary school in Madera County. Photo Credit: Gregory Weaver

Garcia’s deepest hope for her community efforts in La Viña is that she leaves behind a neighborhood that her grandson can grow up in, without sacrifices to his health or career.  

“I am doing it because I have a son…and my grandson’s very young. So I’m doing it for them,” she said. 

“We’ll keep fighting until we win what we’re fighting for.”

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Gregory Weaver is a staff writer for Fresnoland who covers the environment, air quality, and development.