Water quality a problem worth talking about

River water Nearly 1 million people in small, disadvantaged California communities are divided from their neighbors by a lack of access to safe and affordable drinking water. (Lance M. Yamamoto)

By Austin R. Ramsey

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It’s been more than seven years since California became the first state to pass a law recognizing drinking water as a basic human right. In the intervening years, persistent drought combined with lingering economic and racial disparities have left 300 communities and more than 1 million people in the Golden State without access to clean drinking water.

The Investigative Reporting Workshop explored widespread water contamination in the world’s fourth largest economy through the lens of a tiny Central Valley community and the strained relationship with its neighbor. 

Tooleville, California, and its roughly 400 residents are suffering from the effects of several decades of agriculture runoff seeping into their local drinking water, while the neighboring community of Exeter, (pop. 10,500), less than a mile away, enjoys clean municipal drinking water.

Tooleville residents have been unsuccessful in trying to persuade Exeter city officials to consolidate their water systems for more than 20 years. In September 2019, the Exeter City Council told Tooleville it wouldn’t even join it in asking the state to cover consolidation costs.

It’s a disturbing trend that has state regulators scrambling; hundreds of what are called disadvantaged unincorporated communities are left stranded with little to no access to clean, affordable drinking water, even though it might flow through pipes a few hundred feet away.

Lawmakers in Sacramento have passed laws designed to force communities to consolidate, but an IRW analysis of the state’s data proves that just isn’t happening. 

That’s why the almost $1.5 billion over 10 years that California’s Legislature made available last summer is being heralded as a turning point in the state’s decades-old struggle. Many water justice organizations believe the money could put an end to problems regulators have largely only talked about.

But it remains to be seen how the money will be allocated and just how effective it will be.

IRW partnered with documentarians Casey Beck and Mary Cardaras of Bummer Lamb Pictures to help illustrate California’s “Great Divide” — tiny farming communities and their urban neighbors clashing over water rights.

As the lead author on this project, I believe this work has served to highlight the nearly 1 million California residents struggling to gain access to water. Water crises in Flint, Michigan, and Newark, New Jersey, in recent years have helped bring attention to municipal water issues in the U.S., but the plight of rural Americans has gone largely untold.

California proves that the number of disparate communities, although small in size, creates a problem worth talking about.

To its credit, the state has been actively engaged in problem-solving since the human right to water initiative launched in 2012 and the revolving water fund passed last year. But there are more than 3,000 individual public water systems in California regulated by myriad state agencies.

Long-term solutions will be possible only with a broad coalition of support at a level likely never seen before.

I want to thank Beck and Cardaras for their incredible documentary short and my colleagues David Rodriguez and Lucas Smolcic Larson who contributed to the report in California, Washington, D.C., and New York. Kelly Martin visualized the data and editors Susan White, Rose Ann Robertson and IRW Managing Editor Lynne Perri put it all together.

But this story could not have been written without the countless California residents, volunteers, activists and state workers who trusted us with their stories.