Fresno Bee Newsroom Blog

Fight for west-side water on display this week

West San Joaquin Valley water battles are leaping onto the big screen and into the sports world this week — both under the heading of “The fight for water.”

On Thursday, Olympic boxer Jose Ramirez, who is from the west-side community of Avenal, will talk about his first professional fight in the Valley, on Nov. 9 at West Hills College in Lemoore.

He is expected to say he wants it to make a statement about the hardship of west-side farm water shortages, calling it “The fight for water.” His news conference is scheduled at noon Thursday in the Sierra Athletic Club.

On Saturday, an award-winning documentary, “The fight for water: a farm worker struggle,” will screen at 6 p.m. at the Tower Theatre in Fresno.

The film, produced by Juan Carlos Oseguera, features a 2009 water march by growers and farm workers.  The Latino Water Coalition is a central player in the march.

New organization will advocate for Valley rural towns

Community worker Veronica Garibay and lawyer Phoebe Seaton — known for the Community Equity Initiative at California Rural Legal Assistance, Inc. — have launched a new organization to continue helping rural California.

The nonprofit Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability will focus on land-use planning, resources and government organization.  Garibay and Seaton say there is a need to directly organize, influence policy and legally protect low-income, rural communities from environmental degradation and inequality.

Said Seaton: “Local decisionmakers have historically and systematically failed to invest in low income communities on the one hand, while over-burdening those same communities with industrial, toxic and hazardous facilities.”

Leadership Counsel will collaborate with CRLA, a non-profit legal advocacy group that has long promoted the interests of migrant laborers and the rural poor.

State water board recommends farm fertilizer fee for water cleanup

A farm fertilizer fee is at the top of the suggestion list released Wednesday in a state report focused on widespread contamination of drinking water, especially in rural San Joaquin Valley towns.

The state needs to come up with $36 million a year to address the Valley problems from nitrates, which come from fertilizers and animal waste.

The contamination threatens drinking water for 250,000 people from Fresno to Bakersfield, according to a study released last year by the University of California at Davis.

Many people in small towns such as Seville in Tulare County have been drinking bottled water for years as they await a state solution. A Fresno Bee series of stories in 2011 highlighted the problems.

Grants and loans through the state have not panned out for  some towns that can’t afford to pay back loans or maintain treatment facilities.

Another funding source is needed, say leaders of the State Water Resources Control Board, which did the report.

“There just isn’t a stable, long-term funding source,” said Jonathan Bishop, chief deputy director of the water resources board in Sacramento.

Bishop said the recommendations are among the steps required by SBX2-1 in 2008. It’s up to the Legislature to settle on how to get funding.

Other ideas to raise money include a tax on farm commodities and a water-use fee.

Activists led by the Community Water Center in Visalia say rural residents have been stuck with the bill for bottled water long enough.

“The state has known for 40 years that applying too much fertilizer on crops contaminates drinking water,” said Maria Herrera of the water center, which represents many towns.

“The problem is getting worse for communities and taxpayers throughout California. We need action now.”

Another study links dirty drinking water, small Valley towns

The evidence keeps mounting that people living in impoverished, Latino towns around the San Joaquin Valley are in danger if they drink water out of their taps.

Researchers this year linked dirty drinking water with many towns, such as Seville, Orosi and Tooleville in Tulare County. The culprit is widespread nitrates, which come from fertilizers, septic systems, animal waste and rotting vegetation.

This month, a new study reveals people living in similar communities also are at a high risk of drinking arsenic in their water.

Arsenic is routinely found in the water of such towns as Lanare in Fresno County, Kettleman City in Kings County and Alpaugh in Tulare County.  It is linked to skin, lung, bladder and kidney cancer. More recently, it has been connected to diabetes.

The lead researcher in the latest study is Carolina Balazs of the University of California at Berkeley.

She said, “We found that across the Valley, lower income communities had higher arsenic levels than their wealthier counterparts. These same systems may be the least equipped to comply with drinking water standards in the future, leaving residents at continual risk of exposure.”

California’s approach to cleaning up the problem has fallen far short for many years, say those living in the communities. A plan to build a water treatment plant in Tulare County has been caught in funding snafus with the California Department of Public Health for more than a year.

Balazs says California needs a new, well-funded approach over the long-term.

“In the meantime,” she said, “interim solutions need to be put in place so that residents of small communities are protected from dangerous contaminants like arsenic.”