NGOs: San Joaquin's Thirst
In California’s San Joaquin Valley, America’s fruit basket, Agriculture is King. Decades of applied pesticides and fertilizers have delivered high yield, immaculate-looking fruit to many of the supermarkets in the U.S. and to the far corners of the globe, but not without a local cost. Heavy pesticide and fertilizer use in cultivating household staples has contaminated local community drinking water.
But pesticides and fertilizers are only part of the problem. The primary groundwater contaminant in the region is nitrate and can also be traced back to the Central Valley’s other reigning ruler: Dairy. This combination of fertilizers, animal factory waste and old, leaky septic systems cause high levels of nitrate that exceed state and federal health standards and can cause death in infants less than 6 months old and cancer in adults. The groundwater is also infused with arsenic, DBCP, over-chlorination and bacteria- all of which cause short and long-term illnesses. Many communities, which are often poor, have decentralized septic systems that are cumbersome and costly to link to a more centralized water delivery system or to replace. Since water infrastructure projects are also politically charged, marginalized communities often find their drinking water improvement efforts tangled in a bureaucratic fray, where it can take years to get a project approved.
Years ago, my good friend Laurel Firestone co-founded an organization called the Community Water Center (CWC) to bring attention to water contamination in the region and to advocate for change. I visited her in late 2011 and learned more about the impacts of CWC’s work.
CWC has stepped in at all stages of efforts to improve drinking water quality in the Central Valley, from testifying to policymakers, to community organizing, to working to get local projects funded. CWC’s work is especially challenging because of the delicate social and economic relationship between the agricultural industry and local communities (largely comprised of immigrant farm workers) whose jobs depend on it.
Over the past few years, small wins have started to emerge. CWC staff told me they are beginning to see changes in the way industry is willing to discuss the issue of contaminated drinking water and a greater awareness of the health impacts of water among residents. However, the biggest, and perhaps unexpected, change that CWC has seen is around community engagment. Where CWC has organized residents around safe drinking water, local communities have remained engaged and connected to each other to advocate for improvements on other issues that affect them, such as health, education, and immigration.
So, here too, water is a conduit.