More than a decade ago, UC Davis released a groundbreaking report about the growing human health threat from groundwater contamination. It revealed that hundreds of thousands of Californians rely on polluted groundwater to meet their household needs. More than a million are at risk.
The problem is now well understood. Yet for over a decade, the California Water Resources Control Board has failed to take meaningful action.
That’s why a coalition of Latino, farmworker, environmental and fishing organizations filed suit in October challenging the water resources board and Central Coast Regional Water Board for continuing to allow agricultural pollution to contaminate drinking water supplies and ecosystems. The case is focused on the Central Coast, but a successful outcome may help force action by regional water boards statewide.
The Salinas Valley is a hot spot for agricultural contamination, although the problem is widespread in the Central Valley and elsewhere. In recent years, local growers have begun harvesting as many as six crops a year on some of the world’s most intensively farmed land. Each crop receives a dose of chemical fertilizer — sometimes mere yards from groundwater wells and local homes.
When farmers use too much fertilizer, excess nitrates drain into groundwater and local streams, threatening people and wildlife. High levels of nitrates can cause deadly methemoglobinemia (also know as blue-baby syndrome), cancer and thyroid diseases.
Small, predominantly Latino communities in the Salinas Valley like San Jerardo put a human face on this growing contamination crisis. For years, families have been sickened by agricultural pollution. The community has been forced to close three costly wells because of contamination — and a fourth well showed rising nitrate levels in the recent drought.
San Jerardo cannot continue drilling and closing one well after another. Other communities with clean water are too distant to tap into. And effective water treatment is prohibitively expensive. Today, most community members are forced to buy bottled water on top of paying high local water bills. Some spend as much as 18% of their income on water. Those who cannot afford bottled water drink the groundwater — and bear the health consequences.
This agricultural pollution also harms wildlife. The Central Coast supports some of the most significant biodiversity in the world and is home to the last remaining population of California sea otters, three species of threatened steelhead and one species of endangered coho salmon. Seventeen local waterways are listed as contaminated by agriculture, including the Salinas River, which has been highly toxic for over a decade.
According to the Central Coast Regional Board’s own findings, “sufficient water quality improvements have not been achieved over the last 15 years of agricultural orders.” Yet the regional board removed the ‘lynchpin’ of the staff’s proposed surface water protections without any substantive justification.
As this crisis has grown, agricultural interests have proposed — and the state board has rubber stamped — so-called voluntary efforts related to nitrate contamination. Those efforts have all failed and the problem is worse today as a result.
We know how to end this pollution. The first step is for the state water board to impose enforceable limits on the amount of fertilizer applied — to assure that farmers use only the fertilizer needed by crops. The second is to require buffers of natural vegetation between farms and local streams. These buffers help absorb fertilizer and pesticides before they contaminate streams.
The need for both requirements is clear. In fact, the Central Coast Regional Board staff proposed both — only to be slapped down by the governor’s appointed board members, under pressure from the chemical and agricultural industries. That decision is the foundation of our lawsuit.
California law requires the protection of ecosystems and wildlife. It also recognizes access to clean water as a human right. It’s time to honor both requirements. It’s time for the water boards to end their paralysis and act to protect Californians and California’s natural heritage.
Sean Bothwell is the executive director of California Coastkeeper Alliance. Ileana Miranda is general manager of the San Jerardo housing cooperative in the Salinas Valley.