In Alpaugh, a small California town home to about 1,000 people, Sandra Meraz is one of many who struggles daily with not having safe and affordable drinking water. The water in Alpaugh is contaminated by arsenic, and Meraz refuses to drink or cook with the water, resulting in her having to pay a large amount of money on bottled water, while still paying a monthly water bill. The passage of SB 623 would solve this problem not only for Alpaugh but also for over 300 other California communities who also struggle with lack of safe, clean, and affordable drinking water. SB 623 establishes a Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Fund, which would make short- and long-term drinking water solutions available to low-income Californians who lack safe and affordable drinking water. Further, SB 623 would assist with operations and maintenance costs for low-income communities that can’t afford treatment for their drinking water.
Check out Sandra’s full op-ed in The Hanford Sentinel here
Arvin is one of 42 communities in Kern County impacted by unsafe drinking water. Mayor Jose Gurrola grew up in Arvin and has experienced firsthand the struggle that comes from living in a town with undrinkable water. Arsenic contaminates the water of Arvin, and drinking water with arsenic has unforgiving consequences, including: respiratory illness, reduced mental functioning, and cancer. No one should have to turn on the tap to water that can lead to such horrible outcomes. SB 623 aids communities like Arvin by ensuring that all Californians have access to the clean drinking water that they need and deserve. It prioritizes low-income communities that do not meet primary drinking water standards or have access to affordable water.
Check out Mayor Gurrola’s full op-ed in The Bakersfield Californian here
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.”
First-grader Shiloh Rivera holds up a reusable water bottle donated to every student at his Arvin school as part of an advocacy campaign called Agua4All. KERRY KLEIN/KVPR
The state estimates that over a million Californians lack access to safe drinking water. After 15 years with arsenic contamination, one small Kern County community took the struggle for clean water into its own hands--in a campaign that could serve as a role model for others.
It’s recess at El Camino Real Elementary School in Arvin and the courtyard is packed. Kids play tag and tetherball, and laughter echoes throughout the yard.
So does another, more subtle sound: the trickle of water at drinking fountains and water bottle filling stations. The kids know to get a drink when they need a break from the sun. That may sound totally mundane, but a year ago, 11-year-old Johana Mendoza wouldn’t touch the school water.
“It was really dirty,” she says. “I never drank it because my mom told me not to. And I also didn't really like the taste of it. It didn't taste clean, and it looked really dirty.”
More precisely, it was contaminated—with arsenic. It’s in the drinking water in this rural, agricultural town of 20,000 people.
Arsenic has been a problem here since 2001. Before these kids were even born. But now, 15 years later, a new advocacy campaign has temporarily solved the problem—at least in schools. They’ve installed state of the art water filters, given kids durable water bottles, and installed stations where students can refill those bottles. And overlooking every one of those stations is Wally the Water Droplet, a smiley little cartoon. The students are taught: only drink the water if Wally’s there.
“He looks like a dewdrop and he's blue, and he has a smile on his face,” Mendoza says. “He looks friendly.”
This is all a result of Agua4All, a collaboration between non-profit advocacy groups and concerned residents.
“Agua4all is basically a project to increase access to and consumption of safe drinking water throughout California,” says Sarah Buck, a rural development specialist with the Rural Community Assistance Corporation and the Agua4All program manager. “For the past 2 years we've been doing a pilot project to get to that end through the installation of water bottle filling stations and treatment where necessary in south Kern and the eastern Coachella Valley.”
So far, Buck and her associates have installed over 140 filling stations and 80 filters in schools and public spaces like parks. And Wally the Water Droplet? He plays a very important role.
“Once you know your water's safe, then we really want you to drink a lot of it,” says Buck. “A lot of these kids and families really just are drinking way too many sugar-sweetened beverages and aren't drinking enough water. We really want to make water cool and make it desirable.”
Agua4All is the product of over two years of planning and more than $2 million in grants and donations like water bottles. You might be wondering: why did it come to this? Lawmakers passed policies like the Safe Drinking Water Act and the Human Right to Water Bill to protect communities like Arvin. And yet, it was still up to a group of advocates to raise their own money and install their own filters. But even though these laws are huge steps forward, says Buck, they’re still vastly underfunded, and community efforts like Agua4all may bring change faster than government agencies can.
“[These agencies] say, ‘your water has to be under this amount to be safe, and we're going to fine you if you don't,’” says Buck, “‘but there's not necessarily a mechanism for us to give you the money to do it.’”
The EPA recognizes the problems here in California. Jared Blumenfeld, an EPA administrator in charge of a number of western states, says the agency is putting pressure on California to prioritize smaller communities like Arvin.
“Any of the medium sized and large cities, this isn't an issue because you can pay for the infrastructure to take the arsenic out of the water,” he says. “But if you're in a small community, drilling new wells is hard, and many communities have drilled well upon well and the source water still contains arsenic.”
He says Agua4All has been a huge success, and it could be a model for other communities lacking money for big infrastructure upgrades. But as he said at an Agua4All rally last month, even this shouldn’t have been so hard.
“We're here in 2016 celebrating a water fountain,” he said to an auditorium of Arvin residents. "You'd think we were going to the moon—because this has taken that kind of effort.”
Agua4All has made many schools and public spaces safer. Now, residents just need to wait a little longer for arsenic-free water in their homes. The city is drilling new wells, and so far, arsenic levels are well within the safe zone. If all five wells come up clean and clear, the rest of Arvin could get new drinking water as early as 2018.
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.
The community of Arvin, which has had unsafe arsenic contamination for over a decade, is now on track to have safe water by the end of 2019. Six of the community’s seven wells currently exceed arsenic standards, which led to enforcement action from USEPA Region 9 starting in 2008. In September, the Arvin Community Services District (ACSD) agreed to a new Administrative Order with a timeline for the community’s Arsenic Mitigation Project. The new Administrative Order outlines very clear milestones with specific deadlines which ACSD is obligated to comply with. CWC is working with community organizations like the Committee for a Better Arvin to ensure that ACSD remains on track with the new project timeline and that community members are receiving regular updates from ACSD.
As part of the Administrative Order, the ACSD will keep three free water filling stations in operation until a permanent source of safe water is secured for the entire community. If you live in Arvin, help spread the word about these safe water access points!
On Monday, June 15th, the Community Water Center and Rural Community Assistance Corporation unveiled the first round of filtered water fountains in Sierra Vista Elementary School. These fountains are part of the movement for safe drinking water in South Kern County.
Approximately 20,000 residents in the City of Arvin have been impacted by unsafe drinking water for over a decade. Nearly every public well in the city has high levels of arsenic, a drinking water contaminant that can cause cancer, reduced mental functioning in children, and Type 2 Diabetes.
An innovative partnership between the Community Water Center, Rural Community Assistance Corporation, the State Water Resources Control Board, The California Endowment, and Helping Hands for Water is installing water fountains and bottle filling stations with point-of-use treatment systems specifically designed to remove arsenic from the water. In total, more than 70 safe water stations will be installed in local schools, libraries, health clinics, parks, and other community spaces in Arvin.
At the kickoff event, representatives from the school, local nonprofits, and other community partners shared updates about the Arvin Safe Water Program. Local community leaders lead a walking tour of the fountains to demonstrate the arsenic treatment systems. Students and residents tasted the water and celebrated the community’s progress toward achieving safe drinking water sources.
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!
Jerry Tinoco discusses Arvin's long-standing problem of arsenic contamination and the financial challenges for many Arvin residents of acquiring adequate water filters. Watch the KERO interview here: http://www.turnto23.com/news/local-news/arvin-water-district-working-on-longterm-solution-that-includes-new-wells?autoplay=true
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 Alice Daniel
(11/14/2013) ARVIN — Thousands of students in the south Central Valley who didn’t have access to clean drinking water in their schools will now be able to quench their thirst safely after several organizations and companies that make water filters formed an unusual partnership.
More than 3,500 students in four public schools and five Head Start centers in the small towns of Arvin and Lamont southeast of Bakersfield in Kern County no longer have to worry about unsafe levels of arsenic in their drinking water.
“We really see this project as a model for other schools and communities that are struggling with contaminated water,” said Shen Huang, a technical analyst for the Community Water Center. “It’s a pretty creative solution. A lot of coordination went into it. If you work together you really can make a difference.”
CWC worked with the Committee for a Better Arvin, the Arvin Union School District and the Community Action Partnership of Kern on the project. The California Endowment is a major funder of the effort, and several manufacturers provided filters at no cost.
Arsenic levels in some areas of the south valley are twice as high as the EPA’s legal safety limit. “There are public health effects to chronic exposure of arsenic,” said Huang. It can cause cancer, Type 2 diabetes and reduced mental functioning in children.
Salvador Partida, co-founder of the environmental group Committee for a Better Arvin, has been pushing for filters in the school district for years. “It’s a real breakthrough, a tremendous help for these kids,” he said. “It’s not a permanent fix but at least it’s a start.”
Still, he wants to see a long-term solution for the entire town. “The only thing we can use the water we pay for is for our grass and to bathe.”
Widespread Problem in Valley and Beyond
Contaminated drinking water is not uncommon in the Central Valley. Dozens of small communities grapple with the problem. “It’s not limited to Arvin or Lamont,” said Huang. “Arsenic is a widespread issue, as well as nitrates.”
Arsenic is naturally occurring in the water in Kern County, but it can also come from practices like mining or chemical treatments, said Huang. Other contaminants, such as nitrates, are the result of decades of intense industrial agriculture.
“It’s a story that plays out all over the region,” said John Capitman, executive director of the Central Valley Health Policy Institute at Fresno State. Chemical fertilizers, pesticides and animal waste have seeped into the aquifers and then the groundwater for about 70 years, he said.
Some of these communities actually started out as labor camps for farm workers. “The social costs of food production in this region have really been borne by the laborers and residents,” he said.
A 2012 study by the University of California-Davis estimated that a quarter million people in the Tulare Basin in the Central Valley (one of the country’s leading dairy producers) and the Salinas Valley were at risk of nitrate contamination in their drinking water. High levels of nitrates have been linked to a potentially fatal condition called blue baby syndrome, caused by a lack of oxygen in the blood.
Many California towns operate their own small water districts. The volunteer boards often lack the technical expertise and the political clout to get clean drinking water, said Capitman. It’s also expensive to run treatment plants. According to the UC-Davis study, “Treatment and alternative supplies for small systems are more costly as they lack economies of scale.”
Even With Budget Cuts, School Districts Find Solutions
Clean drinking water in schools is not a given, according to a report by California Food Policy Advocates on Improving Water Consumption in Schools.
The report highlights the fact that in the Central Valley, unsafe tap water poses a “true public health concern” and that even providing filters “may be infeasible or too costly for cash-strapped schools.”
Michelle McLean, superintendent of the Arvin Union School District, said water contamination is a problem that causes a lot of tension and stress for districts that have already suffered major budget cuts. “Public schools, especially rural or high-poverty districts, usually don’t have the financial resources to provide alternative sources of drinking water,” said McLean. Before her district got filters, students brought bottled water from home. There were also water dispensers at each school but they were expensive to refill.
Now the schools not only filter the water in the water fountains, they also each have two hydration stations where students can refill their water bottles. “Parents can be assured that at least at school their kids will have clean water,” said McLean.
McLean said districts should work with public and private entities to apply for grants, get funding and find solutions. It’s also important to do the groundwork. She said her district and the community spent a lot of time researching the right filters for arsenic. “We had a really good work group and we started looking at all our options,” she said.
Getting the right filter is critical. “There’s a lot of sharks preying on our communities,” said Huang. “Some people will say their filters will take out anything. But filters are very specific to the contaminant. There’s not a one size fits all.”
The filters for this project are certified by the California Department of Public Health to remove arsenic effectively. The department has a list of certified devices on its website. DPH also offers grants for interim solutions to contaminated water in communities, said Huang.
Maintenance Is Key to Success
“Preliminary water testing already shows the filters are reducing the arsenic level below the safety limit,” said Huang. “But the success of the project is really in the maintenance and operation.”
Maintenance support and training will be provided to the school staff to ensure that the filters are performing successfully. “We want our projects to be sustainable, so the schools need to know what to do,” said Huang, who will be doing some of the training.
One of the funding partners in this project, Blue Planet Network, will track the process online, including data about water quality.
“The network is essentially a space for people to share their projects, to show how one creates change in the community,” said Huang. “Seeing these children get safe drinking water is very rewarding for us and our community partners.”