By: South Kern Sol
June 23, 2016
Ed. Note: After graduating from the University of California Berkeley with a major in environmental science, Arvin resident Gerardo Tinoco decided to return home to use his education to address the issues impacting residents in his hometown. This profile is part of a series looking at young people in the Central Valley who are making a difference in their communities.
With the exception of a four-year stint at UC Berkeley, Gerardo Tinoco has lived in Arvin continuously since moving here with his family at the age of four. Born in Modesto to farmworker parents, today Tinoco works to ensure residents have access to safe and clean water.
“That’s my main passion, connecting environmental issues to human health,” said Tinoco, 24, who works as a program coordinator with the non-profit Community Water Center.
Tinoco is not shy about expressing his admiration for the Arvin community. “Growing up in Arvin was great; I really liked it. You know everyone in the community,” he said.
He recalls seeing his parents work tirelessly in the fields to support the family, and says that for much of his childhood he assumed he would end up taking classes at Bakersfield College, the local community college, and finding work in the area.
But by his senior year at Arvin High School, teachers began to take notice. Tinoco graduated top of his class in 2010 and, on the urging of his teachers, applied to several universities, eventually gaining acceptance to UC Berkeley.
“College was definitely a big shift. It was culture shock. But it was exciting,” said Tinoco. “A lot of people were worried that I was going to be scared.”
Tinoco is the first in his family to graduate college, but he won’t be the last. His younger sister is currently enrolled in Cal State Bakersfield and his brother, 16, plans to go to college as well. The family is part of the growing number of Latinos nationally who are enrolling in college. A 2014 Pew studyfound that college-going rates among Latinos aged 19-24 tripled between 1993 and 2013.
For Tinoco, the college experience was transformative. “In high school, my main goal was to get a good job and make a lot of money. But in college, I got educated, and I saw the problems that communities like mine faced,” explained Tinoco.
In Arvin and other parts of the Central Valley, those problems range from high rates of poverty to environmental challenges that include toxic water and air quality said to be among the worst in the country.
According to Tinoco, many of these issues fester because too many young people like himself leave the Valley to go to school and don’t return to apply their education to improving conditions.
That isn’t entirely surprising, considering the limited opportunities compared to larger cities to the north and south, as well as the high unemployment rates that plague Central Valley communities like Arvin. In 2016, the city’s unemployment rate stood at over 10 percent, which is double the state average.
When Tinoco returned after graduating in 2014, he initially had a hard time finding work and so took a job in the fields packing grapes. While it wasn’t what he had planned, working in the fields was preferable to staying home waiting for a job to materialize, he said.
Eventually an opening did come his way via the Community Water Center, which works to address many of the water issues that Arvin faces, one of the most pressing of which is the high levels of arsenic in the local ground water.
A naturally recurring contaminant, arsenic is a know carcinogen. The ongoing drought in the state has increased concentration levels. Hundreds of residents across the county suffer from a lack of access to safe drinking water as a result.
“Water is a basic human right but a lot of people don’t have access to it,” said Tinoco, who described his sense of satisfaction in knowing he is helping to remedy the problem. “The fact that I can help people gain access to safe drinking water in my hometown is just amazing.”
Tinoco is now thinking about returning to school to pursue a graduate degree in environmental science. Asked about future plans, he said, “I definitely see myself doing work like this where I help communities … my community.”
On April 5th, community members celebrated the installation of over 60 water stations and point-of-use filters in south Kern County in response to the safe drinking water challenges facing our community and our state. The event highlighted the progress the communities of Arvin and Lamont have made to improve access to safe drinking water in our schools and neighborhoods but also reminded local and state leaders that much more work remains to be done.
Arvin has violated federal drinking water standards for arsenic for over a decade, and according to the California Annual Compliance Report for Public Water Systems, over one million Californians are impacted by unsafe drinking water each year.
Many residents in the San Joaquin Valley rely on inadequate, contaminated water supplies, which are made even more vulnerable due to the historic drought. Sadly, low-income communities and communities of color face the greatest risks. This inequity cannot continue, which is why we are working together toward interim and lasting solutions in our communities.
The Agua4All event raised awareness about the lack of safe drinking water access in schools and communities and brought the community together to advocate for sustainable long-term solutions to ensure safe drinking water for all.
As part of the Agua4All initiative, which is a partnership with the Community Water Center, The California Endowment, Rural Community Assistance Corporation, Pueblo Unido CDC, and many local partners, over 60 water stations and point-of-use filters have been installed in south Kern County. Local schools, parks, libraries, health clinics, and other community spaces in Arvin, Lamont, and Weedpatch have received these water stations. The event was a great opportunity to celebrate the community partners, schools, local and State officials, funders, and non-profits that made Agua4All happen, and to keep the pressure on for water justice locally and statewide.
Last year's Agua4All Launch event
We hope you'll join us for the #Agua4All Community Rally and Celebration in South Kern on Tuesday, April 5, from 5-7pm in Arvin at El Camino Real Elementary School.
The California Endowment launched Agua4All in partnership with Rural Community Assistance Corporation, Community Water Center, and Pueblo Unido CDC. Agua4All raises awareness about the lack of safe drinking water access in schools and communities; creates unique public-private partnerships to install water taps where they are needed most; and advocates for sustainable long-term solutions to ensure safe drinking water for all.
This community event and press conference will celebrate the installation of over 70 water stations and point-of-use filters in south Kern County. Local schools, parks, libraries, health clinics, and other community spaces in Arvin, Lamont, and Weedpatch have received these water stations thanks to ongoing support from partners like you. Join us to try out a new water filling station -- and to meet and celebrate the community partners, schools, local and State officials, funders, and non-profits that made Agua4All happen.
Please RSVP here. We hope to see you on April 5!
Residents of Arvin, CA, have been impacted by arsenic-contaminated water for over a decade. Each of the community's five wells exceeds drinking water standards set by the federal EPA for arsenic. Drilling new wells will take two or more years and millions of dollars.
We’re working toward a more permanent, community-driven water solution for Arvin (check out recent TV news coverage here!), but in the meantime, we’re helping bring water fountains, water bottle filling stations, and point-of-use (POU) filters to schools and other public community sites so that residents can access clean, safe, and affordable drinking water now. We've been installing bottle filling stations in Arvin schools, and we’ll soon be installing more stations with POU filters in partnership with Rural Community Assistance Corporation, The California Endowment’s Agua4All Initiative, the State Water Board, Blue Planet Network, The Committee for a Better Arvin, and many more local community and site partners. Check out photos from several recent filter installations by clicking below!
By Haya El Nasser, Al Jazeera America
April 6, 2015
ARVIN, California – Californians who grumble about not being able to water their lawns everyday during the fourth year of a historic drought should swing by this small town in southern Kern County.
Drought or no drought, residents of this rural community can’t drink water from the tap and can’t even use it for cooking because high levels of arsenic — known to cause cancer — become even more concentrated when water is boiled.
“They worry about little things,” said Salvador Partida, president of the Committee for a Better Arvin, of the rest of the state. “We’re worried about not being able to drink the water.”
Last week Gov. Jerry Brown ordered the State Water Resources Control Board to enact mandatory cuts in water use by 25 percent. But more than 1 million California residents who live in mostly rural areas have unreliable access to safe drinking water, according to the Community Water Center, a non-profit group that advocates affordable and clean water for all Californians. For them, the ongoing drought that is ravaging the state's water supply is merely a sideshow.
Tap water that comes mostly from wells in these communities violated maximum contaminant level standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency at least once in 2012 – the most recent annual compliance report by the state’s drinking water program.
The number of violations with potential direct public health impact may affect even more people because of insufficient regulation and under-reporting, especially in areas served by small systems, said Heather Lukacs, project director at the Community Water Center.
More than 100 areas with fewer than 10,000 people had arsenic violations. Most are small, poor communities with a predominantly Hispanic population, some of whom are forced to spend up to 10 percent of household income on bottled water.
As of February of this year, the state reports that approximately 255,000 people served by 341 systems got water that was not potable. Almost half of the residents affected were getting water that exceeded the acceptable level of arsenic. The number is expected to rise over the entire year as more violations are reported.
“A lot of it is aged infrastructure,” said Sarah Buck, rural development specialist with the Rural Community Assistance Corporation. “And it’s very expensive to drill additional wells.”
There is now a statewide effort to bring safe drinking water to all Californians. The Agua4All campaign, a coalition of state and advocacy groups, including The California Endowment, has just launched pilot programs here and in nearby Lamont and the Coachella Valley to bring water fountains and water bottle filling stations to schools, parks and community centers.
The plan is to place Agua4All stations in all parts of the state that need them.
In 2012, the groups — all members of the Safe Water Alliance — sponsored The Human Right to Water Bill, which was signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown. California became the first state to legally recognize that every human being has the right to safe, clean, affordable and accessible water adequate for human consumption, cooking and sanitary purposes.
The bill helped launch the current effort to provide “point-of-use water treatment systems” that remove arsenic from the water at drinking fountains in poor communities. A state grant of more than $400,000 is helping provide up to 69 filters to install on new Agua4All water fountains and continued maintenance. This is the first time the State Water Board has funded such a large number of treatment systems at water stations.
“Everybody knows the water can’t be drunk because it stinks,” Partida said. “I’m not going to drink that and I’m certainly not going to let my kids drink that.”
Partida and his wife spend $4 to $5 a week for two 5-gallon jugs of clean water.
“So you can imagine if you’ve got a lot of kids,” he said. “Ninety-nine percent of the population in Arvin buys bottled water … I’m amazed nobody was doing anything about it until now. A lot of people need to wake up.”
Drilling for clean water
In Arvin, a city of about 20,000, 93 percent of the population is Hispanic, according to the Census Bureau. In nearby Lamont, an unincorporated area of 15,000 people, 95 percent are Hispanic.
“Arsenic has been in certain parts of the aquifer at least for decades,” said Lukacs, with the Community Water Center, an Agua4All partner that’s working with affected communities. “Here, it’s mostly naturally occurring, and for that reason, we need to ensure people have access to safe water.”
Arvin Councilman Jose Gurrola, Jr. is a staunch supporter of long-term solutions to the city’s water problem.
“We’re drilling new wells that have no arsenic,” he said, keeping his fingers crossed.
That’s because when two wells are drilled in the next two years, they may or may not produce arsenic-free water. Preliminary tests show a good chance of finding safe water but the city won’t know until the drilling is done. The cost, originally at $4.5 million, has risen to $5.5 million because the drilling frenzy by big agricultural interests throughout the Central Valley has raised demand.
If the wells are clean, three more will be drilled at a cost of $9.7 million. If they’re not, the city will have to build two centralized arsenic treatment plants. Total additional cost: $18.7 million.
The money would have to come from the state and federal governments, taxpayers and grants but there are no guarantees. Plus, the burden of paying for expensive maintenance and loan repayments could fall on local residents.
A financial burden
In Lamont Park, three green fountains have been installed. Residents can drink from them and fill water bottles to take home.
“For low-income families, buying clean water is a big burden,” said Gerardo Tinaco, an Arvin native who works for the Community Water Center. “They pay for their water bill and then they pay for 5-gallon jugs.”
The Agua4All campaign is combining its efforts to bring potable water to poor communities with the Building Healthy Communities effort funded by The California Endowment. A 2011 survey by the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research showed that 73 percent of children in the Arvin-Lamont area drank soda or sugar-sweetened beverages the day before the survey was taken.
Chris Molina, director of operations at the Boys and Girls Clubs of Kern County, stands by one of the new filtered water stations in the Lamont facility. “It’s been great for the kids,” he said. “They used to drink sodas. Now they’re drinking more water.”
Another water station is planned in front of the club, right across a major drop-off point for school buses that carry up to 400 high school students.
Ivan Chetala and Karla Hernandez are lounging on the grass at Lamont Park with 7-month-old Carol in a stroller. The Lamont residents said they buy five gallons of water every week but continue to cook with tap water.
Tinaco tells them in Spanish about the new water fountain nearby and advises them to fill up water bottles from there. He also warns them that boiling the water will not help with the arsenic problem. “It seems so simple,” Molina said. “One little fountain and now we see kids drinking the water and say it tastes better and parents don’t have to purchase water for them.”
Photo Credit: Haya El Nasser, Al Jazeera America
By Jenny Rempel, The California Endowment Blog
February 2, 2015
20-year-old Arvin City Mayor pro Tem Jose Gurrolla often tells the story of how, after spending hours playing under the San Joaquin Valley sun as a kid, he and his friends knew instinctively not to quench their thirst with the water coming out of their school’s taps. Even children know that the water in South Kern County isn’t safe.
Although the state considers access to clean water a basic human right, many Californians in rural communities like South Kern do not have a place to access it. As Gurrolla and his friends knew, the water that comes out of their taps isn’t safe to drink and may not be safe for cooking or even washing. They are often forced to travel miles to find a safe water source, or pay thousands of dollars each year for bottled water. The problem is often most critical for Californians living in high-poverty areas that can least afford the extra expense.
Last week, as many as 150,000 residents between the communities of the Eastern Coachella Valley and South Kern came one step closer to being guaranteed safe water access in their communities. The California Endowment, Rural Community Assistance Corporation (RCAC), Community Water Center (CWC), and Pueblo Unido CDC came together to launch the #Agua4All Initiative. #Agua4All brings clean, safe drinking water to rural families through access to water bottle filling stations installed at public community sites in South Kern and East Coachella communities.
Dozens of residents and community leaders came out to show their support for the #Agua4All Initiative at launch events in East Coachella and South Kern, a testament to the dire need for easier access to safe water in these communities. We were honored to be joined by our #Agua4All partners – from local site partners like the Kern County Boys and Girls Club, to community-based organizations like the Committee for a Better Arvin, to local elected officials like Jose Gurrola and Supervisor Leticia Perez, to state leaders at the State Water Board.
Over the next few months, 120 water stations will be installed in public spaces like schools, libraries, and community centers. This is an interim solution for a problem that requires long-term answers from our legislators and other community leaders.
We believe that health happens with #Agua4All. That’s why we installed these taps, and why we will continue to work to ensure all Californians have access to safe, clean, and affordable drinking water. Through #Agua4All, we are raising awareness about California’s drinking water crisis and building community partnerships to install safe water taps in the schools and neighborhoods where it’s needed most. To learn more about our efforts, and to contribute to the installation of more taps in these communities and others, visit https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/agua4all-coachella-kern-and-beyond.
By Courtenay Edelhart, The Bakersfield Californian
January 29, 2015
Clean drinking water is something many Americans take for granted, but in areas such as south Kern County access to safe water is not guaranteed.
A new program called Agua4All is attempting to address that. At a ceremony Thursday in Lamont, the California Endowment, the Rural Community Assistance Corporation and the Community Water Center unveiled the first of what eventually will be 60 water bottle filling stations in the area.
The filtered water taps will be sprinkled in high-traffic public areas throughout the region including parks, schools, clinics and Boys & Girls clubs. Residents can fill up water jugs there free of charge.
A number of dignitaries gathered to dedicate the first one at Lamont Park. Another one at Rexland Acres Park southeast of Bakersfield also became available Thursday, and the others will be rolled out in the next few months.
"This is a game changer for the people of south Kern," said Arvin City Councilman Jose Eurrola. "Access to clean drinking water is a human right.
"My family buys potable drinking water and I know a lot of others do, too, but there are people who know the tap water is unsafe who can't afford to buy water, so they drink it, anyway. That's an injustice."
The groundwater in southern Kern County contains troubling levels of arsenic, which is known to cause cancer. Some arsenic occurs naturally, but agricultural practices in rural areas may contribute to further contamination, said Annalisa Robles, program manager for the California Endowment.
"It's dangerous to drink out of the tap," Robles said, but residents still have to pay a monthly bill for residential water service. When they buy bottled water, "they're paying for water twice, and that's really unfortunate because these are heavily low-income areas with a lot of disadvantaged families."
The poor water quality may also contribute to obesity and diabetes, Robles said, as some families opt for sugary beverages instead of the bad water.
"It really is a health issue," Robles said. "We want our kids to get off the couch and go outside and exercise, but we all know how hot it is out here. The kids need to stay hydrated."
The California Endowment, and grants from a variety of other sources, are paying the $700,000 cost of pilot programs in southern Kern County and the Eastern Coachella Valley, but the intent is to make Agua4All water filling stations permanent in all parts of the state needing them, said Stan Keasling, CEO of the Rural Community Assistance Corporation.
"We want to not only continue this, but expand it," he said.
By Laura Bliss, Citylab
January 14, 2015
Latino Americans suffer from disproportionately high rates of obesity—especially children, who are 51 percent more likely to be obese than their white counterparts. Unhealthy advertising from food companies, a lack of access to safe and adequate recreational areas, and poor snack and beverage options at schools have all been cited as major contributors to this early-life epidemic.
But there may be another, overlooked factor in the mix: A recent policy brief from U.C. Davis' Center for Poverty Research shows how negative beliefs about the safety and quality of tap water, especially among Latinos, is linked to higher consumption of sugary beverages—key culprits in obesity.
"In some areas, people are getting their water from private wells," says Kaiser. "Those aren't as regulated."
The brief comes from a study, led by Dr. Lucia Kaiser, of water contaminants and consumption habits in two low-income rural towns in California's Central Valley. These are towns largely inhabited by immigrant agricultural workers. Parts of the valley have the highest rates of drinking water contamination, and the most public water systems with contaminant violations in the state. Despite its agricultural wealth, the valley also comprises some of the most impoverished regions in the nation.
"In some of these areas, people are getting their water from private wells," says Kaiser. "Those aren't as regulated, or as tested to be proven safe." There were 13 water systems used by people in the study—two state-regulated and 11 smaller public and private systems, including those wells. Kaiser's team found that every single one had contaminant-level violations at some point over the last 12 years, including traces of bacteria, arsenic, and disinfection byproducts.
While contaminant levels in the two large public wells have decreased, the perceptual damage has been done. Kaiser's team interviewed 27 mothers living in the community about their family's water consumption habits. They all reported that they avoid drinking tap water because of its bad taste, dirty appearance, or "general contamination"—comments that are, according to the brief, "consistent with high mineral content in samples from the largest water system serving this community." These minerals—manganese and iron—aren't considered dangerous by the EPA, but research from the World Health Organization suggests high levels of manganese might have neurotoxic affects.
Moreover, whether or not the water is currently safe to drink by city standards, this legacy of poor quality has conditioned community members to eye their taps with suspicion. "It’s hard to regain trust when people have had that kind of experience," says Kaiser. "Keep in mind, too, that these are farm-worker families. They’re working out in the fields in a very hot climate with protective clothing. They're sweating a lot. The need to drink water is very real."
So families drink water—but in bottles, or from a filtration system. These are extra cost burdens for families already living in poverty. Or they might choose sugary beverages. Among the families interviewed in the brief, "at least 38.5 percent of children aged 3-8 years drank [sugary beverages] more than 2-3 times per week. These children may drink [them] so frequently in part because of a real or perceived lack of safe drinking water."
Ivan Garcia, who collected and entered data for the study, is a 30-year-plus resident of the Central Valley's tiny city of Firebaugh. There, "I cannot remember ever being offered a glass of tap water," he says. And he still doesn't drink it himself. "Being that I grew up in a home with a filter system, I just assumed that tap water was unhealthy. In Firebaugh, there is a major food processing plant whose waste some residents say contaminates our water in town. Whether or not this is true, I'd rather be safe than sorry."
"There is a major food processing plant whose waste some residents say contaminates our water. Whether or not this is true, I'd rather be safe than sorry."
It's time for policymakers not only to police and remove contaminants that may still exist, say the researchers, but also to rethink water-quality messaging. Long-suspicious residents have to know that water is safe to drink in order to drink it. "Better communication would certainly help," says Kaiser. "You can develop written materials in the right language, and at the right literacy level, and get on the radio." She says subsidies for household filtration systems could also benefit families who rely on expensive bottled water or obesity-linked sugary beverages.
Dr. Anisha Patel, an Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at UCSF who researches clean-water access in public schools, says the brief is right on track. "Due to real contaminants or the fact that that many of these families are integrating from countries where the water was not safe, there is this negative perception among Latinos," she says, adding that African-American families also show similar habits.
Patel notes that the Davis brief dovetails with a forthcoming joint report from the Community Water Center and the Environmental Justice Coalition for Water on the state's biggest public and private violators of contaminant levels, with a special look at public schools.
"From 2005 to 2011, over 14.3 percent of public schools in California were associated with at least one violation," says Shen Huang, Technical Analyst at the Community Water Center, of the report. "Schools in high-poverty areas, including the Central Valley in particular, had recurring violations, from arsenic, bacterial contaminants, nitrates, and disinfection byproducts."
Huang says the plan is for the report's release to coincide with the January 29 launch of Agua4All, a pilot project funded by the California Endowment. 120 water-bottle-filling taps will be installed in some of the state's most rural communities, including parts of the Central Valley. It's not enough, of course: Schools and households need more directed assistance. But taps are a small step towards health, safety, and a basic human right for some of the nation's poorest.
Photo Credit: Gary Kazanjian
By Amanda Gomez
ABC23 News - Kero Bakersfield
ARVIN, Calif. - Students in Arvin have been dealing with unsafe drinking water for years, but now a private health foundation is working to change that.
The Arvin Union School District received a grant from The California Endowment to provide students with clean drinking water. The district will be installing filters on water fountains at the El Camino Real Elementary School to filter out arsenic and nitrates.
“We are going to be filtering regular drinking water at the fountains and cooking water at all four of our school sites as well as the family resource center and warehouse,” said Michelle McLean, Superintendent for Arvin Union School District.
The California Endowment will also be installing water stations on campus for students to fill their reusable water bottles.
“We know that families are spending upwards of ten percent of their income to buy bottled water and it’s just not right. It’s unfair to ask low-income families to buy bottled water and then also pay a water bill on top of that,” said Annalisa Robles, Program Manager with The California Endowment.
"I drink more water than anything else,” said third grader Lauren Gayer.
"They say water is important because sugar is bad for you,” said third grader Ava Martinez.
The California Endowment will be installing the filters on September 15th. Robles told 23ABC unsafe drinking water is a big issue in rural communities in South Kern County and that is the reason the foundation chose Arvin for their program.
“They've been asking for this for decades. Unsafe water can cause connections to health issues such as cancer and thyroid problems and others,” said Robles.
Robles also told 23ABC the foundation has plans to install water stations at schools in the Lamont District, Vineland, Greenfield, as well as public parks and community health centers.
McLean and Robles were recently invited to the White House where first lady Michelle Obama recognized them for their efforts and the launch of the program as she pushes her Drink Up campaign to encourage more people to drink water.
The Agua4all program is a state-wide effort to help communities with unsafe drinking water.
For more information on programs offered by the California Endowment click here.
Watch the video here: