The Real California Water Problem

April 7th 2015

Laura Donovan

Last week, California Governor Jerry Brown (D) announced unprecedented water regulations in response to the state's massive drought. While we wait on the specifics of Brown's plan to reduce water usage by 25 percent, one small town in Kern County, Calif., has an even scarier problem: tap water they can't safely drink or use for cooking. 

Arvin, Calif., a mostly Hispanic rural community in the southern part of the state, is reporting high levels of arsenic in its water supply.

Salvador Partida, president of the Committee for a Better Arvin, told Al-Jazeera that Californians outside of Arvin don't realize how easy they have it in comparison.

“They worry about little things,” Partida told Al-Jazeera. “[Arvin residents are] worried about not being able to drink the water. Everybody knows the water can’t be drunk because it stinks. I’m not going to drink that and I’m certainly not going to let my kids drink that." 

The water problem is costing residents money as well. Partida says he and his wife must spend up to $5 per week on store-bought, clean water. It might not seem like a lot up front, but when you multiply that by the number of weeks in a year, Partida would spend $260 annually just to give his family safe drinking water, and he says this is what the majority of Arvin residents wind up doing. According to Arvin's town website, the median income for a family is just $24,816. On a tight budget like that, the hundreds spent on water make a real impact.

The nonprofit Rural Community Assistance Corporation's (RCAC) Agua4All campaign has streamlined programs to install water fountains and bottle filling stations in parks, community centers, and schools in Kern and Riverside County. The ultimate intention is to put water stations in all California towns that lack safe water. Arvin Councilman Jose Gurrola Jr. has committed to drilling new wells that don't have arsenic, which a Community Water Center partner told Al-Jazeera "has been in certain parts of the aquifer at least for decades."

Unfortunately, the arsenic levels mostly occur naturally, so Arvin won't know until the drilling is complete whether or not the new water will be safe to drink. 

According to RCAC, Arvin isn't the only California town with this problem. More than one million California residents in mostly rural areas don't have access to uncontaminated water.

In 2012, Gov. Brown signed the Human Right to Water Bill, which mandates, in law, safe water for all residents. After that new law, the state issued a grant of at least $400,000 to install dozens of filters at Agua4All water stations. These water stations have also encouraged children to drink water instead of soda, according to Chris Molina, director of operations at the Boys and Girls Clubs of Kern County.