Not a Drop to Drink in California’s Fertile San Joaquin Valley

by Project Censored
Published: Updated:

“For those who labor on the richest agricultural land in the nation, clean water is a luxury,” reports Elizabeth Royte in her article about the shortage of water in the San Joaquin Valley.  This might be taken as a joke, since these workers live in the most developed country, but it isn’t. Workers in California’s San Joaquin Valley face not only water shortages but also water contamination. “When Josie Nieto visits her relatives in Mexicali, Mexico, she luxuriates in long showers. And when she’s thirsty, she enjoys a glass of water straight from the kitchen tap,” Royte reports. By contrast, “at Nieto’s own house, the water pressure is so low it can take her 45 minutes to shower and shampoo. And sometimes there’s no water at all, which is why some of her neighbors hoard water in buckets.”  The main pipe of Josie Nieto’s community water system runs straight down the middle of an irrigation ditch. “I’ve seen dead animals in there,” she says. The plastic water pipe itself suffers frequent breaks, which allow contaminants to seep into the system.

How is it that this is happening in the most developed country? An answer is crucial, yet the media have not given it the attention it deserves.  Citizens in this region can’t raise their voice and get the clean water they need and deserve if the problem is never brought to the wider public’s attention. Many people are being affected because this problem has not yet been fixed though the water shortage problem is not new.

The water is so contaminated that it stinks.  Not even boiling it helps, so the citizens have to buy bottled water for drinking and cooking.  However, not everyone can afford to buy bottled water in order to cook and drink without the risk of bacteria. “Although Nieto doesn’t drink or cook with her tap water, she still pays $60 a month for water service,” Royte writes.   (For comparison, San Francisco families spend, on average, half that amount for pristine water piped from Yosemite National Park.) Nieto spends an additional $60 a month on bottled and vended water for her husband and herself. When her three daughters visit, she asks them to bring potable water from their homes and uses it to bathe her grandkids, anxious about the risks of bacteria. For middle-income families, an extra $60 a month might not hurt. But the Nietos aren’t middle income. “I could use that money for food,” Nieto says.

This issue is not only threatening the fields with its dryness but also the health of many in the valley. Nieto lives in Tulare County, the biggest milk-producing county in the nation, and yet the community water system only serves 83 percent of the whole population.  The rest have to make do outside the community system. People in these small towns are drinking contaminated groundwater while fruits like pomegranates and almonds are being watered with river water that is cleaner than the water the workers receive in their homes. These people need help in order to get clean and safe water; their towns need funds to build adequate treatment plants to make the water potable.

“Millions of people come through here every year,” Nieto tells Royte, “heading toward Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park,” the source of the region’s purest water. “People just don’t connect these kinds of water problems with the United States,” she says. “They have no idea that the people who live in these little towns can’t drink the water coming out of their taps.”


Title: Not a Drop to Drink

Author: Elizabeth Royte

Publication: OnEarth

Date of Publication: March 5, 2012


Student Researcher: Liliana Valdez-Madera, Santa Rosa Junior College

Faculty Evaluator:  Susan Rahman, Santa Rosa Junior College