Fulfilling California’s Responsibility to Provide Clean Water

By Kacey Bills, MPP 2014

Photo Credit: Kings County Official Website (http://www.countyofkings.com/)

When I was a child growing up in Fresno, California, beach weekends were common over the blistering summer. My family always headed to the Central Coast on I-5, making a halfway pit stop in Kettleman City to get chocolate milkshakes. My anticipation for the sugary treat would be at its peak as we drove past the Waste Management and California Aqueduct signs along the highway. The proximity of a waste landfill and a major water source was peculiar to me. That mental image coupled with the lack of visible housing from the freeway made Kettleman City seem like one giant truck stop.

I recently read an article by the California Report describing the concern of Kettleman City residents over the expansion of the Chemical Waste Inc. Hazardous Waste Landfill.[1] When I learned of the controversy over the private company offering to pay Kettleman City’s $500,000 water debt pending the project’s approval, my childhood curiosity about the small town was transformed into an adult fascination.

Kettleman City is representative of many small farming communities in the Central Valley, with the population being predominately Latino, low-income, and with English as a second language. Water supplies in these communities have been proven to contain unsafe levels of chemicals, such as arsenic and nitrogen.[2] With many of the residents of these communities living below the poverty line, tax revenue to provide the necessary infrastructure for clean water is limited. Kettleman City has been attempting to provide safe water for decades, and has accumulated over $500,000 in debt in the process. People in these communities spend a disproportionate amount of their income on water and sanitation (20% compared to the national average of 0.5%).[3] Governor Brown has attempted to deal with this issue by signing AB 685, “The Human Right to Water Bill,” which specifies that all people are entitled to clean, safe, and affordable water.

That bill clearly establishes the state government’s responsibility to provide clean water, and yet Kettleman City officials must choose between the lesser of two evils: Either agree to the landfill expansion and afford clean water from the California Aqueduct, which flows within 3 miles of the town, or oppose it and attempt to get state grant funding. With clean water established as a basic human right, it seems exploitative for water to also be used to extort the support of townspeople for a project that they might oppose.

“The Human Right to Water” Bill is considered in the 2014 California Water Action Plan, one of the targets of which is to “provide safe water for all communities.” The state hopes to achieve more equitable access by encouraging collaboration across agencies and local governments.[4] The legislature is relied upon to allocate funds for communities in need. It is likely a standard grant process will be used to determine where the funds will go. Grant writing requires the hiring of technical experts, which is unaffordable to many disadvantaged communities. Furthermore, processes may take years to be implemented, and even longer to become an effective force for change in ensuring clean water systems.

Access to clean safe water in California is not equitable.[5] In 2010, the UN released a special report on California’s inability to provide safe drinking water to its residents. It stated that over 250,000 California residents do not have access to safe drinking water and must purchase bottled water.[6] With the mean income in these communities only $14,000 a year, water is a major expense. A 2011 study by UC Berkeley found smaller water systems in California have higher percentages of Latinos and renters receiving drinking water with high nitrate levels. Data proves what is easily observed on a drive through the Central Valley. The people who work to feed the world are at risk of being contaminated by the resource that gives them a livelihood: water.

Investigations by the California Department of Public Health and Environmental Protection Agency have shown no conclusive evidence to suggest Chemical Waste Inc. has contaminated the water supply in Kettleman City.[7] Conclusive evidence would require identification of the toxic substance in the environment, as well as proof of the pathway to an individual’s body. It’s common for scientific studies on contaminants to never lead to conclusive evidence. The company may never be proven responsible for the high levels of toxic exposure in Kettleman City, but it doesn’t mean that a community should negotiate a contract over a basic human right.

Kettleman City is already exposed to a wide range of toxic chemicals. The town should be spared the expansion of one of the largest hazardous waste landfills in the country and have its water debt paid off through state water funds The residents should have affordable access to the clean water from the California Aqueduct that flows directly past them. A responsible government should not force citizens to over-pay for a resource it designates a basic human right.

[1] Plevin, R. (2014, February 3). Kettleman City Weighs Toxic Dump Expansion Against Funding for Clean Water. The California report. Retrieved February 8, 2014, from http://www.californiareport.org/archive/R201402030850/b
[2] California Water Boards. (2013, January). Communities that Rely on a Contaminated Groundwater Source for Drinking Water. Retrieved from http://www.waterboards.ca.gov/gama/ab2222/docs/ab2222.pdf
[3] Report of the Special Rapporteur on the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation, Catarina de Albuquerque. (2011, August) Retrieved From http://www2.ohchr.org/english/bodies/hrcouncil/docs/18session/A-HRC-18-33-Add4_en.pdf
[4] California Natural Resources Agency, California Environmental Protection Agency, California Department of Food & Agriculture. (2014, January). California Water Action Plan. Retrieved from http://resources.ca.gov/california_water_action_plan/docs/Final_California_Water_Action_Plan.pdf
[5] Balazs, C., Morello-Frosch, R., Hubbard, A., & Ray, I. (2011). Social Disparities In Nitrate-Contaminated Drinking Water In California’s San Joaquin Valley. Environmental Health Perspectives, 119(9), 1272-1278.
[6] Report of the Special Rapporteur on the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation, Catarina de Albuquerque. (2011, August) Retrieved From http://www2.ohchr.org/english/bodies/hrcouncil/docs/18session/A-HRC-18-33-Add4_en.pdf
[7]California Environmental Protection Agency and California Department of Public Health. (2010, December). Investigations of Birth Defects and Community Exposures in Kettleman City, CA. Retrieved from http://www.calepa.ca.gov/EnvJustice/Documents/2010/KCDocs/ReportFinal/FinalReport.pdf

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