Environment

California’s rural poor hit hardest as massive drought makes remaining water toxic

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Unsafe levels of arsenic have been found in the groundwater feeding a community well at St. Anthony Trailer Park, 40 miles south of Palm Springs, CA. In ordinary times, the concentration of naturally occurring arsenic is low, and the water safe to drink. But during California’s unrelenting drought, as municipalities join farmers in sucking larger quantities of water from the ground, the concentration of arsenic is becoming more potent.

A recent laboratory test found that water in St. Anthony’s shallow well has twice the concentration of arsenic considered safe. The water is not safe to drink.

Similar scenarios are playing out across California as the extreme drought marches on.

For many Californians, the state’s long drought has meant small inconveniences such as shorter showers and restrictions on watering lawns. But in two rural valleys, the Coachella southeast of Los Angeles and the San Joaquin to the north, farmworkers and other poor residents are feeling its impact in a far more serious and personal way.

Tulare County, in southern San Joaquin Valley, is a land without water, a real-life example of a future many Californians fear as scientists warn of a possible decades-long megadrought.

Some residents complain that the water does not smell good and one woman explained that although her family does not drink the water she does use it to bathe herself and her 4-year-old son. When her young son developed “bumps on his head” she thought it was dandruff but after a visit to the doctor, the doctor said that it was from arsenic.

Arsenic has been linked to various cancers of the bladder, lungs and skin when consumed in high doses. It is also known to cause birth defects and attack the nervous system.

Near agricultural fields, its levels can be increased by fertilizers and animal waste that run off farms. Mineral mining operations in the area contribute to the problem.

“We don’t have confidence in [the water],” said a resident of St. Anthony Trailer Park. “It was never great,” she said, but after three full years of drought, “it’s even worse.”

Many residents have resorted to driving 10 miles to a grocery store to buy bottled water.

Thousands of people around Porterville couldn’t take baths or wash dishes because their individual wells stopped pumping water. Children didn’t play outdoors because they didn’t want to attend school in dirty clothes that could not be laundered. Entire neighborhoods were living on bottled water.

“Can you imagine two years without having water?” said Chacón-Serna, who works with the Porterville Area Coordinating Council. “These are families with five to seven children. The houses don’t have air-conditioning.”

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“California’s rural poor hit hardest as massive drought makes remaining water toxic”