Dan Morain
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  • HECTOR AMEZCUA / hamezcua@sacbee.com

    Juan Gonzalez drinks water from a well in Easton that tested high for nitrates in recent months. A UC Davis study for the state Water Resources Board found that "nitrate contamination is widespread and increasing" in the Tulare basin and Salinas Valley, where nitrates are in farming fertilizer.

  • HECTOR AMEZCUA / hamezcua@sacbee.com

    Jonna Saethre uses tap water in Easton to wash up. For drinking, some residents have to drive to Fresno to get safe water. In areas where wells have been found by researchers to be contaminated with nitrates, residents in Easton and nearby towns are urged to shower with their mouths shut. State ballot measures have authorized money for better water, but millions of dollars have not been released.

  • HECTOR AMEZCUA / hamezcua@sacbee.com

    Welcome to Easton. It's like many hamlets in the heart of California. It uses well water – and increasingly, the water is contaminated. Does anyone care about them?

  • HECTOR AMEZCUA / hamezcua@sacbee.com

    Tina Torres, left, carries a water jug as she walks in Easton with Carolyn Plaza and her children Dylan, 2, and Austin, 3. The women say they are not too worried about tests that found Easton's water wells to be contaminated.

  • HECTOR AMEZCUA / hamezcua@sacbee.com

    Water also is needed to rinse the vegetables that are grown and fertilized in the area.

  • Dan Morain

Dan Morain: Who carries their water?

Published: Sunday, Aug. 12, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 1E
Last Modified: Sunday, Aug. 12, 2012 - 2:57 pm

In the village of Easton, where summer temperatures regularly reach beyond 100 degrees, some lawns are unusually green for this time of year, and people think twice before drinking from the tap.

Teresa Ruiz runs an accounting business in a sun-bleached office building on the main street, and her mom, Stella Ruiz, counsels workers about immigration issues, accepting produce gleaned from the fields as partial payment.

Teresa worries what could happen to her kids if they drink tap water. She takes no chances, spending $50 a month on bottled water for her family. She also wonders why one of her three kids had troubling cysts in his mouth.

"Where do those come from?" she asks. "Who knows?"

Easton is a blip of a place southwest of Fresno, situated in the Tulare Lake basin, once the largest body of fresh water this side of Lake Michigan before the rivers that fed it were dammed.

Of Easton's 2,100 residents, 63 percent are Latinos. The drugstore and diner have closed and probably aren't coming back soon. Easton won't experience "significant population increases … as the relocation of a nearby highway has resulted in economic decline," an analysis prepared for Fresno County planners says.

Easton residents draw water from individual wells. Using a $5,000 grant, the Easton Community Services District found that 19 of 28 wells tested so far delivered water with one or more toxins at unsafe levels.

Similar results have been found throughout much of the Tulare basin. Well water has been fouled by a stew of the soil fumigant DBCP, which can cause male infertility and has been banned since 1977; bacteria from septic systems too close to wells; and nitrates, primarily from nitrogen-based fertilizer.

A UC Davis study prepared earlier this year for the state Water Resources Board found that "nitrate contamination is widespread and increasing" in the Tulare basin and Salinas Valley, sources of much of the nation's produce.

Lawns stay green when they are sprinkled with nitrate-laden water. That's also a sign of troubled water. The federal Environmental Protection Agency describes some of the risks: "Infants below six months who drink water containing nitrate in excess of the maximum contaminant level (MCL) could become seriously ill and, if untreated, may die … . Symptoms include shortness of breath and blue baby syndrome," which robs babies of oxygen.

Big city environmentalists work to save the coast, the bays, rivers and lakes, and the Delta. Well-endowed foundations spend large sums to provide clean water in Third World nations.

But few pay attention to Easton, where, in the heart of California, in 2012, people are urged to keep their mouths shut when showering, and avoid drinking and cooking with water pumped from the aquifer. Similar warnings have been issued in East Orosi, Seville, Riverdale, Tooleville, Lanare and other farm towns where people rely on well water.

Many of the people affected are the same ones who pick the crops that are treated with the stuff that has seeped into the groundwater that quenches their thirst.

Californians should be forgiven if they believe they dealt with this issue. In 2002, voters approved Proposition 50, a $3.4 billion bond that earmarked $435 million for "small community drinking water systems to upgrade monitoring, treatment or distribution."

Voters in 2006 approved Proposition 84, "The Safe Drinking Water, Water Quality and Supply, Flood Control, River and Coastal Protection Bond Act," a $5.4 billion bond that set aside "funding for emergency drinking water … to ensure immediate action for public safety."

The California Department of Public Health has failed to spend $7.6 million of the $10 million earmarked for emergencies. State health officials don't deem Easton's situation to be an emergency. If it were, scores of communities in similar straits would qualify, and the $7.6 million would quickly disappear.

That reasoning rankles Assemblyman Henry T. Perea, a Fresno Democrat whose district includes Easton. A long-term solution might be to tap into Fresno's water system. But people need help now. Why not spend emergency money to install a clean water station in the middle of the community, so people don't have to drive to Fresno to fill their jugs?

"What we're talking about are communities that have little political power," Perea said. "They don't have lobbyists. They don't have a trade association. All they want is what the rest of us take for granted. When they turn on the tap, they should get clean water."

Assemblyman Mike Eng, D-Monterey Park, is carrying a bill inspired by a lofty United Nations notion that clean water is a right.

"Every human being has the right to clean, affordable, and accessible water for human consumption, cooking, and sanitary purposes," the bill proclaims.

If you wonder who could argue with such froth, the answer is that plenty of people do, most of them in suits. The California Chamber of Commerce, big water agencies, and agricultural interests are lobbying against Eng's bill, contending it would open the way for lawsuits.

In 2009, then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed similar legislation, citing the potential for litigation. He compromised by signing legislation that supposedly would speed delivery of money to distressed communities.

Since Schwarzenegger signed that legislation, the state Department of Public Health has handed out $32.3 million in grants for water projects. But only $5.2 million has gone to the Tulare basin counties of Fresno, Tulare, Kern, and Kings.

"The funding process is not working," said Maria Herrera of the Community Water Center, a Visalia-based nonprofit that is the one organization that dwells on Central Valley groundwater pollution. "Money obviously is not coming fast enough."

California, unlike most Western states, does not regulate its once-vast groundwater resources. Authority over its use and abuse is divided among myriad state and regional agencies. When no single agency has broad responsibility, they all can duck. That's especially true when the people drinking tainted water live in Easton, as opposed to the tony mansions that line Van Ness Extension in north Fresno.

Much of the issue comes down to money. Some residents are willing to pay to build and operate water treatment plants, but pockets aren't deep in Easton. Others deny there's a problem and would fight having to pay for improvements. Lawmakers could try to impose a cleanup fee on fertilizer. But the influential farming industry – which disputes the UC Davis report – would surely fight that.

Gov. Jerry Brown convened a nitrate task force that included health experts, farm lobbyists and environmental justice advocates. It is expected to issue a report in the coming weeks. None of this is new, however.

Authorities have known about groundwater pollution for decades. In 1987, the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimated one of five Americans depended on water contaminated by agricultural sources, and singled out the Central Valley as one of the affected regions.

Over the years, health authorities have investigated cancer clusters and birth defects in the Tulare basin, but have found no links to tainted water. Occasionally, the issue has hit the mainstream, as happened when Julia Roberts played "Erin Brockovich," a lawyer's investigator who uncovered illnesses associated with poisoned water in the Mojave Desert town of Hinkley.

No one is making a movie about Easton.

Luz Moreno sits in Ruiz's office, her 5-year-old daughter squirming by her side. Through a translator, Abigail Solis, an organizer for Community Water Center, the mother of three explained that she and her husband make regular trips to Fresno for water.

Moreno grew up in Mexico, where water had bugs and was cloudy. She knew not to drink it. Easton's water is deceptively clear and has no off-taste. "Yes, I'm surprised about the water," she said. "The United States is supposed to be progressive, compared to Mexico."

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by Dan Morain

Dan Morain, editorial page editor

Dan Morain

Dan Morain, editorial page editor, has been a columnist at The Sacramento Bee since 2010. As a news reporter, he covered the California Supreme Court when Rose Bird was chief justice, the Legislature when Willie Brown was speaker and the Governor's Office during Gray Davis' tenure. He spent 27 years at the Los Angeles Times, where his final assignment was to be part of the team that covered the 2008 presidential campaign. He and his wife, Claudia Morain, have three children, each of whom attended public schools and California's public universities.

Email: dmorain@sacbee.com
Phone: 916-321-1907
Twitter: @DanielMorain

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