Transcript: Podship Earth Episode 011: DIRTY SECRET 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: Welcome back, this is your host, Jared Blumenfeld. We need clean water to survive. In recent decades, we’ve all become all too familiar with the headlines highlighting the impacts of the drinking water crisis plaguing other parts of the world.

 

NEWS: 100 million people in Africa still don't have access to clean water and close to half a billion don't have access to sanitation.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: Then two years ago, the world found out about the lead poisoning disaster unfolding in Flint, Michigan.

 

NEWS: President Obama signed an emergency declaration today for Flint, Michigan, which will bring federal funding to that city as it deals with an enormous and dangerous public health challenge with its water supply contaminated by lead. There was growing anger and frustration as we hear from Stephanie Gosk.

 

STEPHANIE GOSK: The shred of good news for residents in Flint these days comes bottled and handed out at fire stations, a combination of local, state, and federal help now on the ground. Finally.

 

FEMALE ON NEWS: I've got a three-year old. You know, I don't want her to get sick. We keep paying taxes. We keep paying water bills. I mean, you know, when does it end?

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: The most frequent reaction to the Flint saga was, how could this be happening in America, the richest country on the planet? Which was quickly followed by - this will never be allowed to happen again. In today's episode, we shine a light on the one million people in California, who in 2018, still don't have access to clean water. In many rural communities in California, the water that comes out of the faucet is polluted with a cocktail of nitrates, arsenic, bacteria, pesticides, disinfectant byproducts, and even uranium. While there is also a legacy of industrial pollution from the aerospace and semiconductor industries that has polluted the groundwater in California, cities in this episode will focus on where the majority of the problem lies - small, rural, low income communities of color in California’s agricultural heartland. The story that unfolds in today's episode is about how the wealthiest state in the wealthiest country on Earth treats its poorest residents. During recent droughts in California, some of these same rural communities had no water at all. That meant no water for cooking, for showering, for cleaning, or even for flushing the toilet.  In one small town we visit, East Porterville, it took two years for help to arrive. We start our journey in Seville, California, a town of 410 residents, where the average family income is $16,000 per year. We meet up with Becky Quintana who starts by sharing a story of a recent trip with her grandson.

 

BECKY QUINTANA: Even with my grandkids, they're very concerned. They're real aware of what's going on in our area. I'll share something with you - that I took my grandson to New Mexico and then my other grandkids were there playing with the water hose, drinking, and he was having a panic attack, please don't drink the water. What are you guys doing? Don't drink the water! And I said, no, no, no, the water here in this community is okay. But in his mind, he knows that he's not allowed to even play with the water in our community or even drink out of the water hose. But he's aware.  He's five years old and now he's aware of it. He thinks that everybody has bad water. He shouldn't even have to be worrying about that.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: Next, I traveled to the larger town of Visalia, which is only six miles from Seville and only 30 miles from Sequoia National Park. I go to meet with Adriana Renteria of the Community Water Center, a group which has been at the forefront of the battle to get safe water for all Californians. Their office is in an old church on a dusty side street. Adriana helps me get my bearings.

 

ADRIANA RENTERIA: So, all around us, there are smaller communities, farmworker communities that really provide agriculture, not just for our state, but for the country and for the world really.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: How many people do you think that you serve don't have access to water that meets federal drinking water standards?

 

ADRIANA RENTERIA: We estimate that over a million Californians currently don't have access to safe and affordable water.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: A million, that's a big number.

 

ADRIANA RENTERIA: It's a big number. I think one of the reasons why it's not on the forefront of our media is because it's not happening in one area. It's not just one city of one million people. This is happening throughout the state in small pockets and it's particularly affecting small rural communities, low income communities and communities of color. And so, when you have such a spreadout issue that looks many different ways, it's kind of hard to find one unified solution for it. But even beyond being exposed to unsafe water, during the drought, many people just lost access to water, period. So, here in Tulare county, the community of East Porterville, they had over 2000 wells that went dry, and so they were on private domestic wells. It really impacted that entire community's ability to live and to feel healthy, you know, even things like washing dishes. Well, the community really came together and especially the community church offered showers, the schools opened up to provide an opportunity for the students that take showers. I grew up in the valley. I love the valley. All of this is my family. My parents were farm workers, so I relate to lot of the smaller communities in the area. I just really thought that's not just happening in Flint. It's also happening here in my hometown, in my community.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: Many communities simply lack the finances to build the treatment systems needed to filter out contaminants like arsenic or nitrates. And even when they have built clean water facilities, these same communities often lack the funds to manage and operate treatment plants. I asked Becky Quintana to describe the impact on Seville of not having clean water.



 

BECKY QUINTANA: That was a big impact for families, especially for farm workers. They had been working in the fields for hours all day and to come home and not be able to wash your body, knowing that you have chemicals in your hands.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: So, what did people do if they couldn't shower - if they were so worried about the pollution, as they should be, from the water coming out of the faucet?

 

BECKY QUINTANA: People had to communicate with other family members before they would go home, asking questions, because sometimes in our community we didn't have water at all because sometimes the electricity would be turned off and we had zero water. During the summer here, in the central valley, a lot of the homes have a swampcoolers. You need water to keep your house cool. And as I was looking out the window, I see this guy with a baby stroller, and I thought, does he have a baby? He was hauling a five-gallon water gallon in there. And I thought, oh my gosh, I this looks like something from the movies, from somewhere in a third world country, people hauling water, you know, in a baby stroller. I started thinking, it's 110 degrees outside and they have no water to keep their house cool inside. I'm sure their house inside their house must have been 115, but just not having the water to keep cool.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: A recent report found that a quarter of California’s 7,000 public schools did not meet drinking water standards.  Bacteria and arsenic were the most common violations. I asked Becky whether this was the case for her kids’ school in Seville.

 

BECKY QUINTANA: I was a board member at the time, school board member, and for our school not to have drinking water for our kids is unheard of. I mean, this is like third world issues and it's happening here in my community. So, I did take an initiative to try to make a difference locally with our local politicians and that didn't go very well because they just tend to not want to help undeveloped communities. It's like, you guys are costing us too much money, you know, you got to figure that out by yourselves. And of course, it got to the point where our local politicians weren't listening to us.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: Next we meet up with Ernesto Teran who cut his teeth organizing with Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers in their fight for fair treatment of agricultural laborers. Erasto lives in the town of East Porterville that was cut off from water during the recent drought. Erasto. what was it like during those times?

 

ERASTO TERAN: Like people say, you know, we are in one of the richest countries in the world, and California, if it would be a country, it would be the sixth economic in the world, maybe the fifth. And I can tell you a comment from a resident, he said: when I was living in Mexico, I was poor, but at least I had the river next to me and I could go get water for my family. But here I have to drive more than a mile, two miles, to family or friends to give me water, at least to flush my toilet.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: Erasto, not only did East Porterville run out of water, but when you do have water, it's heavily contaminated.

 

ERASTO TERAN: Here in the valley, we have major contaminants of nitrates, bacteria, one, two, three DCP. These contaminants, they've been here for years. Last year, we tested about 30 wells in this area. And we have a record that most of the wells, they have contaminants.  We have nitrates, one of the heaviest contaminants here in the valley. We are not upset or mad with the agriculture sector, but this is the time they need to take responsibility about how they contaminate it and how they have contaminated it for years. We still have a big gap between the needs of the residents and the quality of life that some cities have in California. For example, what would happen if that drought was in Beverly Hills? I guarantee you that in the next 24 hours, someone is going to call Jerry Brown and say, Mr. Brown, we don't have no water. The next day it will be resolved, no problem. We took two years, two years.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: When you go to a small community and you tell them for the first time that their water is contaminated, and it doesn't meet the safe drinking water act federal standards, I mean, what's their reaction to that?

 

ERASTO TERAN: Well, better explanations. For example, we tested Mr. Christopher Chavez’s well outside of Porterville, between Porterville and Poplar, and he had a well that was very contaminated with nitrates. He was drinking that water for years, for years, until we tested that well. Well, but in this case, Mr. Chavez’s well was over 80 percent higher than the standard.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: I asked Adriana with the community water center how they started to move the drinking water issue from a crisis to a sustainable solution.

 

ADRIANA RENTERIA: So, we worked really hard to make sure that California prioritizes humans’ rights to water and that right was passed in 2012. And what that means for us now that we have our state recognizing that human right, is that we can then create pathways for solutions to addressing that.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: Why is it important to have a human right to safe drinking water?

 

ADRIANA RENTERIA: Well, really water is life and water impacts your health. A community's ability to grow when you have contaminants like nitrate and arsenic in your water, not only is that impacting your health, but it's impacting the health of your family. And it particularly impacts the health of children. When you see who is most impacted by exposure to toxic water, you see that it's low income communities, communities of color, and it's just unjust. It's not fair.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: Even before California declared drinking water a human right, Becky Quintana had been working day and night to get clean water for her community of Seville. Becky, what's the latest in 2018?

 

BECKY QUINTANA: Well, you know what, we started almost nine years ago and we're finally getting bids coming in for new infrastructure, but nine years is a lot of years. That's too long. I mean, water is a crisis, but to wait 9 years is a little too long.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: It’s a lot too long.

 

BECKY QUINTANA: I mean, to me, it seems like forever. It's very interesting because when I do talk to the people from the community, it's like the same thing, we're never going to get water. How long has it been, Becky? It's already going on what? 10 years? I said, yeah, but we're almost there. You know, we’ll be there. But it's discouraging for a lot of people. It's like we're never going to get there.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: But you are tenacious. I mean, yeah, maybe nine years is a very, very, very long time to wait for clean drinking water. But at the same time, without Becky, it would never have happened.

 

BECKY QUINTANA: Maybe.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: I mean, you kept going, you kept pushing.

 

BECKY QUINTANA: Pushing and pushing. I mean, it got to the point where I would take letters and notes to our board of supervisors and read letters and you know, give me a call, call me. I even got threatened.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: Tell us about that.

 

BECKY QUINTANA: Well, cause when the UN came to Seville….They brought the UN to the United States and they visited, I think four towns, and Seville happened to be one of them.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: So, in March 2011, Catarina de Albuquerque of the United Nations visited Seville to evaluate the community's water system. She was appointed by the UN’s Human Rights Council as the first UN independent expert on human rights obligations with respect to access to safe drinking water and sanitation. Becky, what did you say to the UN?

 

BECKY QUINTANA: I wanted to let them know what we were living under. And of course, at the time, it was brought to the attention to the board of supervisors here in Tulare county that the UN was here. And they were very upset. And to me, it was like you should be happy that they're here so that everybody knows and maybe Washington knows what's going on so maybe we can get some funding to help communities.  But they were really upset that why did we have to go to this extent and they were not happy, but you know what? That's what it took. It opened a lot of eyes throughout the United States. But Seville just happens to be one community. There's a lot of communities, especially in Tulare county that has water issues.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: Cousin David joined me for the talk with Becky and he was clearly upset.

 

DAVID: It makes me uncomfortable hearing that because it just seems so foreign to me. I mean, I've always lived in big cities, so I always take everything for granted that I have clean water. Just hearing you tell that story just made me angry. I felt bad. I can't even believe how entitled some of us are. We get so much.

 

[SPONSOR MESSAGE]

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: Back with Adrianna Renteria rear at the Community Water Center, she explains that their long campaign for clean water funding might soon bear fruit.

 

ADRIANA RENTERIA: This January, the governor included language for the Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Fund in the governor's budget. So that's really exciting. It really means that the governor is prioritizing the Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Fund and we as a state, need to remind him and all of our representatives that we also prioritize that. And as a low-income community, treatment systems or other type of water quality remediation projects, are not currently accessible. A portion of the fund would it come from an agricultural fertilizer fee and another portion of the fund would come from a fee on dairies, and then another portion of the fee would come from a public fee. It's an unusual coalition between farmers and environmental justice, social justice, and health advocates in supporting the Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Fund, which is one solution to address and to implement the human rights of water.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: Adriana is right. The coalition to create a $140 million dollar annual Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Fund was really unprecedented. For decades, social and environmental justice groups have been at loggerhead with farmers. Now they're working in unison.  In order to find out how this all came together, I talked with Dave Puglia, the executive vice president of the Western Growers Association, whose members and their workers provide over half the nation's fresh fruits, vegetables, and tree nuts, including nearly half of America's fresh organic produce.  Dave, how did all this happen?

 

DAVE PUGLIA: The real motivator was an acknowledgement that we do have a problem. But clearly, because we do apply a nitrogen fertilizer in the ground, some share of that nitrate came from historic ag operations.  Farmers in California did have that “Aha” moment when they realized, look we can fight this all day long, but this is a legitimate problem. We don't want anybody in our communities to lack for safe drinking water. We did have something to do with the nitrate that's now in the drinking water below them. Let's step forward. Let's put some skin in the game and help correct the problem. California drinking water is plagued with contaminants that go well beyond nitrate and go well beyond the farm areas of the state. Urban areas have very serious water quality problems, drinking water quality problems. A lot of it is naturally occurring material such as lead or arsenic, and so we wanted to find a way for the state to holistically tackle the problem, get clean drinking water to the people who don't have it now, and remove the threat of punitive enforcement against growers.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: Probably everyone came into the room for different reasons. But when

you left the room, there's now fees on Ag. Tell us a little bit about those and how they will work.

 

DAVE PUGLIA: Yeah, we had to step forward and agree to essentially tax ourselves for mitigation of that part of the problem- the nitrate problem in rural areas. So, we've agreed to an increase on the existing tax on fertilizer used for farming that will generate about $30 million per year, mostly from crop agriculture, from people growing fruits, vegetables and tree nuts. Some of it will also come from states’ dairy operators and poultry operations. It also is accompanied by a fee on every water user in California that, with the exception of those who are poverty level or below they'd be exempted, or very small water systems would be exempted.  But most of us would pay about ninety-five cents per month for the operations and maintenance costs of upgrading systems or connecting people to larger systems so they no longer have water that is out of compliance.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: The only folks that seem to be really against this are the water utilities in the big cities. I was looking up- it just happens that I got the list off their websites- the number two city on the list was the city of Beverly Hills where the medium home value is 4.9 million dollars and their property tax bill is $78,000 a year average and they're quibbling about $12 a year and that could be the thing that sinks this piece of legislation. I mean, tell us your thoughts on that, Dave.

 

DAVE PUGLIA: Oh, well, we normally find ourselves in alignment with California's water agencies, but you're right, there are those like Beverly Hills who oppose it.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: I called around to three different water agencies, but none of them wanted to talk with me about why they oppose the Safe Drinking Water Fund. Instead, they sent me to their trade group, aptly named ACWA, the Association of California water Agencies, who represents public agencies across the state. I asked Cindy Tuck, who leads that government relations team to explain how a group of water agencies could be against a fund to support safe drinking water.

 

CINDY TUCK: So, we're okay with the creation of a fund. The question is how should that fun be funded. So, the Ag part of the bill would raise up to $30 million dollars. That's only 20 percent of the funding that this fund is intended to have. The other 80 percent, which is the proposed tax on water - the water community wasn't at the table, so it was an agreement between some folks, but it wasn't an agreement between everyone that the bill affects. The way this has been written, they're proposing that the local water agency would collect the tax for the state, and send 100 percent of that to Sacramento, and then the state water board would decide where that money goes. The proposal is for most residences - it would be ninety-five cents per month.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: No one wants a fee or a tax raised on them, but how else are we going to solve this problem without a fee on people who can afford it?

 

CINDY TUCK: We're opposed to creating a tax on people's water.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: instead of agreeing to a fee from water users, these agencies want the money to clean up California's dirty water to come from somewhere else. I asked Dave Puglia from the Farmer's Association for his take.

 

DAVE PUGLIA: I do think that it is a very narrow-minded view when you look at the larger problem of people in California who don't have access to safe drinking water. That's insane. It's not tolerable. California should have never let the problem get this bad, but we now have an opportunity to take a huge step forward to rectifying it, and we shouldn't be hung up over squibbling or squabbling over which pot of money to tap. We don't think it's asking too much to pay a dollar a month to make sure that people have clean drinking water.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: In order to understand how this is going to get resolved, I reached out to Joaquin Esquivel, who was appointed by California Governor Jerry Brown to the State Water Board, the entity that ultimately holds responsibility for implementing the 1974 Safe Drinking Water Act. I asked Joaquin how in 2018 a million Californians could still not have access to clean drinking water.

 

JOAQUIN ESQUIVEL: I think it speaks to the fact that it is probably one of our more thorny issues, but I think now that we have the proper public attention, now that we've seen a tremendous amount of leadership in the state, I think that there's hope to have this addressed.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: What are you hearing from communities?

 

JOAQUIN ESQUIVEL: People, when it comes down to it, have this basic desire to be able to have safe and clean drinking water, and it's something we take incredibly for granted. It is a dark mark on us in the state that we have so many without access.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: Has the community voice has been heard by you and other board members?

 

JOAQUIN ESQUIVEL: Unless you go and speak with community members and you understand the challenges they're facing, it's incredibly hard. And so, in my trips are down to the Central Valley, back home even in the Coachella valley around issues on the Salton Sea, which have tremendous environmental justice implications for many of the same agricultural dependent communities. I know it's incredibly difficult for people to take the time to come to Sacramento, particularly on a work day, but it makes a tremendous difference. I'll be honest. Those that attend are usually industry representatives. They're paid to be there, but sometimes what that means is, those that can't afford to take the day off, those that aren't as plugged in to sort of the bureaucratic minutia of the board aren’t the ones that we hear from as often. But when they do come in, when communities come in, they make their voices heard. And when they address the board, I know it has a tremendous impact on myself and my colleagues.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: Do you think that the Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Fund will end up getting adopted?

 

JOAQUIN ESQUIVEL: I hope that this is sort of the crowning achievement of that to really once and for all address this need to safe and clean drinking water within our state.


 

JARED BLUMENFELD: I certainly hope that what Joaquin said is right. I asked Becky in the small town of Seville, California, what she'll do if the funds don't come through this year.

 

BECKY QUINTANA: My parents have been there since the 1940s. I, myself, was like, I'm going to make a difference. I’m going to make sure that when I'm gone from this world, that whoever lives in this community is going to have safe drinking water.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: A big thanks to Becky Quintana, Adriana Renteria, Erasto Teran, Dave Puglia, Cindy Tuck, and Joaquin Esquivel for sharing both the challenges and the solutions to the clean drinking water crisis in California. If one million people in a very wealthy state like California can be denied the basic human right to water for all these years, it offers a glimpse into why the world's poorest 840 million residents don't have access to clean water today. It's clearly not about the technology because that's been around for decades and just hopefully getting better.  And in the case of California, it really isn't about the money. California's budget will exceed $190 billion in 2018. It's about the political will to spend money on poor communities that often don't have the political clout to get the help they need.

 

What I took away from today's episode is that through excellent grassroots organizing skills and sheer tenacity, small environmental justice groups like the community water center, can help give a voice to community members like Becky and Erasto.  And what is truly a game changer is that for the first time farm workers, health advocates and environmentalists were able to work with farm and dairy owners to broker a deal that has the potential to help a million people get access to something I often take for granted - clean water with which to drink, cook, clean, and wash. With the final vote on the Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Fund and what happens in the next few months, I'll keep you updated. If you live in California, please go to the webpage for this episode and see how you can help get the legislation over the finish line. I would encourage each of you to look at the environmental issues facing the poorest members of your community, city, or country and to reach out to local groups that are making a difference.

 

In next week's show, we will be looking at the role that culture plays in shaping how we think about climate change. Please like the Podship Earth pages on Facebook and Instagram. Thank you so much for being part of the Podship Earth journey from the entire Podship Earth crew – editor Rob Spate, producer Nancy Ferranti, executive producer David Kahn, and me, Jared Blumenfeld. Have an absolutely fabulous week.