At the Shiloh elementary school near Modesto, drinking fountains sit abandoned, covered in clear plastic.
At Mom and Pop’s Diner, a fixture in the Merced County town of Dos Palos, regulars ask for bottled water because they know better than to consume what comes out of the tap.
And in rural Alpaugh, a few miles west of Highway 99 in Tulare County, residents such as Sandra Meraz have spent more than four decades worrying about what flows from their faucets.
“You drink the water at your own risk,” said Meraz, 77. “And that shouldn’t be. We have families here with young children.”
An estimated 360,000 Californians are served by water systems with unsafe drinking water, according to a McClatchy analysis of data compiled by the State Water Resources Control Board. In many communities, people drink, shower, cook and wash dishes with water containing excessive amounts of pollutants, including arsenic, nitrates and uranium.
The state’s water problem, however, is far more pervasive than that number indicates. At least 6 million Californians are served by water providers that have been in violation of state standards at some point since 2012, according to McClatchy’s analysis. In some areas, contaminated water is such a common occurrence, residents have almost come to expect it.
“It’s ubiquitous,” said Darrin Polhemus, the state water board’s deputy director for drinking water. “It’s pretty extensive across broad swaths.”
Now, after years of half solutions, the state is considering its most comprehensive actions to date. Gov. Jerry Brown has asked the Legislature to enact a statewide tax on drinking water to fix wells and treatment systems in distressed communities. Residents and businesses would pay a tax on their monthly water bills, while agriculture would contribute through taxes on fertilizer purchases and fees paid by dairy farmers and feedlot operators.
For the average Californian, the tax would mean paying an additional $11.40 per year.
A two-thirds majority is required for passage of the tax, and a powerful consortium of urban water agencies is trying to defeat the bill, arguing they should not have to pay for what is largely a rural problem. The bill is due to be voted on this summer.
Whether or not the Legislature acts, voters might step in. Proposition 68, a parks-and-water bond on Tuesday’s primary ballot, would earmark $250 million to combat polluted drinking water. A second proposition, which has qualified for the November ballot, would set aside $500 million to address the problem.
For those who lobby the Legislature on water issues, the influx of dollars would be long overdue. Contaminated water has been acknowledged as a significant problem for decades. In 1995, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said California needed $34 billion to clean up its drinking supplies.
Isabel Solorio has had water issues since she and her husband moved to Lanare, a small farming community south of Fresno, 20 years ago. The water smelled like rotten eggs and had a yellowish color, she said.
In her role as president of the local advocacy group Community United, she travels to Sacramento to lobby on issues such as the drinking water tax.
“The legislators of this state should have acted several years ago,” she said. “It’s not fair that we support the state economically, but we don’t have clean water.”
A greater awareness
Why all the attention to water now?
Six years ago, the Legislature passed the Human Right to Water Act, which recognizes that everyone “has the right to safe, clean, affordable and accessible water adequate for human consumption, cooking and sanitary purposes.”
The law is only one page long and doesn’t appropriate any money or levy any taxes to fund its declaration. But along with California’s epic five-year drought and the drinking-water scandal in Flint, Mich., the bill has generated considerable momentum for addressing the dilemma.
“There’s more general awareness about drinking water being an issue,” said Laurel Firestone, co-executive director of the advocacy group Community Water Center.
California has 3,015 independent water systems. As of May, 269 of these suppliers were out of compliance with state drinking water standards.
Of those 269 water systems, 141 are found in five counties of the San Joaquin Valley: Stanislaus, Madera, Fresno, Tulare and Kern. However, 38 of California’s 58 counties have at least one water supplier in violation of state water standards.
In the Valley, 185,000 residents are served by water systems deemed out of compliance by the state water board. The region has some of the highest rates of nitrate contamination in the United States, a problem linked to the widespread application of fertilizer and the runoff from livestock in the nation’s most productive farm belt.