‘That’s the water we are paying to drink’
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.
High levels of nitrates can reduce oxygen levels in newborns' blood, suffocating them through a disorder called "blue baby syndrome." Studies also have linked nitrates to birth defects and various forms of cancer. Little research has been done, however, to determine whether more people are getting sick because of contaminated water in the Valley.
The Valley's troubles worsened during the drought, when desperate farmers pumped groundwater for irrigation. That lowered water tables throughout the region, bringing nitrates into contact with the intakes of communities' wells. Polhemus said pumping worsened the prevalence of naturally occurring arsenic, one of the biggest water contaminants in the state. Long-term exposure to high levels of the metal has been linked to lung, skin and bladder cancer, along with other illnesses.
In Dos Palos, where the water contains potentially harmful chemicals known as trihalomethanes, Joaquin Garcia has 5-gallon jugs of clean water delivered to his home. Trihalomethanes are found in water systems with inadequate or faulty purification. Long-term exposure to them has been linked to liver and kidney problems and an increased cancer risk.
On the outskirts of town, Victor Navarro's family installed a $6,000 filtration system to clean the well water. "To be honest, I don't even know if it does anything," said Navarro, 25, who works as a truck driver.
Researchers at UC Davis who have studied the problem say unsafe drinking water goes hand-in-hand with another Valley issue: poverty. Farmworkers and other rural residents generally live in isolated, unincorporated communities served by water districts that lack the resources and expertise to address contamination.
UC Davis professor Jonathan London, lead author of a study published in February, said the prevalence of underfunded water providers is partly a legacy of the Valley's historical development, which segregated Latino workers in farm-labor camps or isolated communities, usually cut off from city services.
"There are so many of these disadvantaged unincorporated communities, and the water districts have sort of followed," London said.
The result is tens of thousands of Valley residents, many of them poor, with substandard water coming out of their taps. The UC Davis study also said Valley residents often "pay a triple penalty" to obtain safe water: Not only do they face health risks, their water bills tend to be higher, and they have to buy expensive bottled water on top of that.
Water problems, however, aren't limited to the San Joaquin Valley. In San Miguel, not far from Paso Robles' tony wine country in San Luis Obispo County, students and teachers at Pleasant Valley Elementary School have gone without clean water on campus for more than five years because of excessive arsenic.
Children carry around personal water bottles supplied by the school. Water coolers sit next to the unused drinking fountains.
"We haven't gotten too many complaints," said school principal Wendy Nielsen. The school plans on installing a new well and treatment system, funded with state grants, by the end of summer.
State officials estimate 30 schools and day care centers, serving more 12,000 children, have unsafe water.
Tiny systems, big issues
For years, the water piped into Shannon Hoff's mobile home in Isleton, a tiny Delta town around 40 miles south of Sacramento, exceeded state standards for arsenic. The family uses bottled water to drink, cook and brush their teeth. But they have no choice when it comes to bathing.
"What's going to happen to these guys further down the road?" Hoff said, while her 10-month-old son, Hunter, played on the floor beside his 19-year-old sister, Taylor, on a recent afternoon.
The park's owners have spent more than $500,000 on a new treatment system. After months of regulatory delays, it went online a few weeks ago. The cost of the upgrades will be passed along to the 250 people who live in the park, said Brock Kaveny, the president of Cascade Community Management, the property management firm that runs the park.
Last week, the system malfunctioned, sending gushes of dark brown water into toilets, sinks and showers. Kaveny said the problem was temporary.
"That's not indicative of the water served there," Kaveny said. But residents such as Hoff who have received stacks of notices over the years warning about contamination aren't giving up their bottled water any time soon.
Approximately 2,100 of the state's water systems serve fewer than 500 residents; many of the utilities serve fewer than 75 customers in a single trailer park, school or a subdivision. Often, they are privately run.
Small agencies account for 80 percent of the citations the state water board issues every year. Many are operated by a single employee or volunteers, yet they are required to perform the same duties as a well-funded municipal water district with dozens of staff members serving tens of thousands of people.
"They have almost no capacity," said Polhemus, the state water board official.
While the proliferation of underfunded districts is a widely acknowledged problem, state officials say they have only begun to chip away at it. SB 88, passed in 2015, gives the state water board the authority to force small distressed systems to merge with well-financed municipal water agencies, many of which have boundaries just a few hundred feet away.
But only a handful of mergers have taken place since the bill passed. Municipal agencies have balked at taking on the expense of upgrading a troubled water system with rusty equipment, inadequate treatment systems and a history of violations, Polhemus said.
Statewide, the water board spent $243 million in the past year helping local water districts with capital improvements under a joint state-federal program. Since 2014, it also has disbursed $43 million in Proposition 1 water-bond funds for community water tanks, filtration systems and other upgrades. The state has spent $14 million shipping bottled water to distressed water providers since 2014.
The two ballot propositions — one Tuesday and one in November — would provide additional dollars to address polluted water. But the Brown administration says far more money is needed, on a sustained basis, to correct the problem.
'We are paying'
Enter the proposed drinking-water tax.
The bill would raise an estimated $140 million a year, with most of the money going to help disadvantaged communities fix their contamination problems. Residential water bills across the state would increase by 95 cents per month. Low-income earners would be exempted from the tax. Businesses would pay $4 to $10 a month.
In addition to the $110 million those taxes would generate, agriculture would kick in another $30 million a year through a tax on fertilizer as well as dairy production and livestock feedlots, said Sen. Bill Monning, D-Monterey, who introduced a similar proposal last year. In return, farmers would receive some regulatory relief: As long as they follow "best practices" on limiting nitrate discharges, they would be freed from disciplinary action by the state water board, Monning said.
The bill's supporters include a strange-bedfellow alliance of farmers and environmental-justice advocates, but Monning said it will take "a big lift" to get the two-thirds majority the tax needs for passage in the Legislature. Two Republican senators co-authored the bill, but no Assembly Republicans have voiced support for it, said Assembly Republican leader Brian Dahle, R-Bieber.
The Association of California Water Agencies, which represents the big urban suppliers, is trying to kill the bill. Tim Quinn, the association's executive director, said a problem caused to a considerable degree by farming shouldn't be solved "by putting a charge on somebody's bill in Los Angeles or San Diego or San Francisco." He said other funding sources should be explored instead.
The Brown administration, however, said the problem of unsafe water isn't just agriculture's fault, so farmers shouldn't have to pay more than their fair share.
"We are paying, and we are volunteering to be part of the solution," said Anja Raudabaugh of Western United Dairymen, an association representing more than 1,000 of the state's dairy producers that supports the proposed tax.
In many communities solutions have been elusive.
In Lanare, the community service district received a $1 million federal grant in 2006 to treat arsenic contamination. After six months, the plant had to be shut down because there weren't enough funds to operate it. The district later was put into receivership and a new board was elected. Now two new wells are scheduled to come online this fall.
They won't come soon enough for residents like Solorio, the local clean-water advocate.
"The water gives us life," she said. "But if the water is sick, it can also kill us."
Nashelly Chavez from The Sacramento Bee, Matt Fountain from the San Luis Obispo Tribune, Thaddeus Miller from the Merced Sun-Star, Robert Rodriguez from The Fresno Bee and Kevin Valine from The Modesto Bee contributed to this article.
Five McClatchy news organizations in California worked with Tim Swanson, regional editor for enterprise and investigation, on this project. If you have feedback or story suggestions, contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you for supporting local journalism in the state and in your local community.