Dead lawns and itchy people
It is late September and we were talking over coffee this morning about the San Joaquin Valley water situation the way valley residents will do when fire fighters on the King Fire above Placerville are worried about flash floods and all we see is vague overcast composed of many substances as well as some water vapor. Mothers wearing winterish jackets are taking their children, also in jackets, to school. We observe them while talking about the state water bond to be voted on Election Day in November, planning a local water meeting in December, the Restore-the-Delta advocates, the situation on the west side of the Valley versus on the east side, former Merced County Planning Commission Chairman Steve Sloan's multi-million-dollar sale of ground water to a water district in adjoining Stanislaus County, Planada's high water rates and Le Grand's emergency well-drilling, Westlands Water District, Tulare Lake, Donald Wooster's Rivers of Empire, Mark Arax's The King of California, Marc Reisner's Cadillac Desert, the 160-acre limitation, Lloyd Carter's great journalism on the heavy metal pollution of Kesterson Wildlife Refuge and his indispensible website, "Chronicles of the Hydraulic Brotherhood," people standing or walking seem to be yelling into their cellphones and the usual coffee-shop-laptopistas seem to be scowling into their screens, and I am beginning to wonder when the whole Valley society or whatever we call this starts to explode if this drought keeps on going on.
This dry September is not the first in recent years. Gone apparently are the old Brown Rot Rains of past Labor Days, as gone as the late peaches they once rotted. All the water-politics talk, the winter jackets on mothers and children going to school, me wearing a jacket and jeans for the first time in six months, the mention of dried up community wells and high rates in outlying towns surrounded by pastures being converted to orchards on well water pumped from a thousand feet down, the Keynesian "animal spirits of capitalism" of west side entrepreneurs selling ground water to another county (was the outrage of east side supervisors really environmental, territorial, or did it come up from pure pecuniary jealousy?), and the ringing in of the great writers on our most abstruse metaphysical topic, water -- they were all just different ways of praying for rain while sitting outside a coffee shop late in another dry September surrounded by dead lawns and itchy people. -- blj
Los Angeles Times
Drought has 14 communities on the brink of waterlessness
By HECTOR BECERRA
California's drought has 14 communities on the brink of waterlessness
Central Valley communities truck in water while they work to find a solution to combat the drought
Since January, 28 areas have cycled on and off the state's list of water systems that could run dry in 60 days
Under the blistering Central Valley sun, Filiberta Sanchez and her toddler granddaughter strolled down a Parkwood sidewalk lined with yellow weeds, dying grass and trees more fit for kindling than shade.
"It was very pretty here, very pretty," said Sanchez, 56, as little Jenny crunched a fistful of parched dirt and pine needles she grabbed from the ground. "Now everything's dry."
Parkwood's last well dried up in July. County officials, after much hand-wringing, made a deal with the city of Madera for a temporary water supply, but the arrangement prohibited Parkwood's 3,000 residents from using so much as a drop of water on their trees, shrubs or lawns. The county had to find a permanent water fix.
Parkwood is one of 28 small California communities that have since January cycled onto and off of a list of "critical water systems" that state officials say could run dry within 60 days. Amid the drought that is scorching the state and particularly the Central Valley, the State Water Resources Control Board decided this year, for the first time ever, to track areas on the brink of waterlessness.
"It's a sign of how severe this drought is," said Bruce Burton, an assistant deputy director for the board.
For some communities, earning a place on the list was the impetus to address problems that should have been fixed long ago. Some drilled new wells, built storage tanks or connected their water systems with larger ones and got off the critical list. Other communities were saved by late spring rains that filled reservoirs and other water supplies.
Fourteen communities, though, remain on the list, approaching a crisis point and trucking in water while they work to find a solution.
Tim Quinn, the executive director of the Assn. of California Water Agencies, said communities that have made the list are often small and isolated, and they relied on a single source of water, such as a stream, without backup sources. But he warned that if the drought continues, larger communities could face their own significant problems.
"If this drought keeps on going, some larger, more sophisticated communities are going to be in trouble next year," Quinn said.
Near the Oregon border in Siskiyou County, the city of Montague with a population of about 1,400 is one of the list's success stories. It had long used an irrigation ditch that transported water from a lake 25 miles away. But the ditch ran dry and, in April, Montague landed on the critical list.
Working with state and federal agencies, Montague built a pipeline that pumped water from wells near Lake Shastina into the Shasta River and then into residents' homes, said Chris Tyhurst, Montague's water supervisor.
"The good thing about the project is that it solves long-term problems as well as this year's," he said. "If we hadn't gotten our pipeline finished like we did, we'd probably have had about three or four more weeks of water left, and that would have been that."
With the pipeline built, Montague was removed from the list this month.
Arroyo Seco Resort, tucked along a windy, mountainous road on the edge of the Los Padres National Forest in Monterey County, has been on the critical list since late August.
For the last three weeks, the resort has paid $350 each for about five truckloads of water, said Glenn Dugger, 65, the resort's supervisor. (The resort is asking the state for a reimbursementWith 62 cabins, the century-old resort has a peak population of about 130 full-time and part-time residents who relied on the Arroyo Seco River for water.
On a recent afternoon, Dugger stood in the bone-dry river bed. It dried up a few months ago, and the one 27-foot-deep well that still works can't pump enough water for the resort. Arroyo Seco means "dry creek" in Spanish, Dugger said, and "It's living up to its name."
The resort has asked for state help to dig wells as deep as 200 feet. Meanwhile, residents are asked not to water outdoors, leaving the once lush resort faded and brown.
Other communities that remain on the list include Lake Berryessa Resort in Napa, Woodside RV Park in Mendocino County and Lupin Lodge, a nudist resort in the Bay Area that is facing accusations of water theft.
If this drought keeps on going, some larger, more sophisticated communities are going to be in trouble next year.- Tim Quinn, executive director, Assn. of California Water Agencies
Burton, at the water board, said the state started tracking at-risk water systems in January. State officials were already working with many of the communities, funding projects — along with the U.S. Department of Agriculture — to shore up water supplies by digging new wells, making existing ones deeper or hauling in outside water. The state is also using emergency drought funds for water projects that officials hope will keep some areas from earning a spot on the critical list.
"We didn't want water systems to come to us and say, 'Oh, we ran out of water today,'" Burton said.
Parkwood saw signs of trouble even before its well dried up. Water pressure in some showers slowed to a dribble and toilets barely flushed.
Johannes Hoevertsz, Madera County's public works director, said that without the city of Madera's help Parkwood would almost certainly have run dry. After the remaining well failed, the county passed out bottled water to residents and warned people to boil water before drinking or cooking with it.
Driving his county pickup through Madera — just across from Parkwood — Hoevertsz spotted a sprinkler dousing a green yard, a luxury that could net a Parkwood resident a $75 fine. A few Parkwood neighbors take the risk, though, their green lawns probably kept verdant with surreptitious watering in the dark, early morning hours. Most, though, were brittle and brown.
Phil Magos, 67, a Parkwood resident for 23 years, said watching his yard die was painful. Among the casualties was a beloved fern he and his wife, Debbie Magos, brought with them to Parkwood as newlyweds.
"I feel bad when I go outside because it looks horrible," he said. "When people drive in our neighborhood and they look around, they probably think, 'Wow, this is a really bad area to even consider buying a house.'"
With the neighborhood wilting, Hoevertsz in early September pleaded with Madera to allow Parkwood residents minimal watering privileges. On Wednesday, the City Council unanimously voted to allow watering of shrubs and trees. Hoevertsz said he's confident the faltering well will be repaired soon, so the neighborhood can end its reliance on charity.
Despite the pall the drought has cast over Parkwood, Hoevertsz said it may have been a necessary prod for change.
"If it starts raining tomorrow," he said, "let me tell you, nothing's going to be done about the drought."
Emergency state funding issued to repair Le Grand wells
By Ramona Giwargis
LE GRAND -- State and local government officials joined forces this week to provide financial assistance to a community on the brink of emergency after losing two of its three water wells last month.
Assemblyman Adam Gray, D-Merced, Merced County Supervisor John Pedrozo, and officials from the state Department of Public Health and the Governor’s Office of Emergency Servicestoured Le Grand’s wells Friday – most of which are aging, out-of-service or experiencing drops in water production.
“I have a lot of sleepless nights right now,” said Richard Kilgore II, public works superintendent of the Le Grand Community Services District. “If we lose another well, we’d have to go to bottled water or have portable water trucked in.”
Kilgore, who’s worked for the district 33 years, said he’s never seen a critical situation like the oneLe Grand now faces. He placed a call to Pedrozo, who contacted Gray’s office to help secure state emergency drought funding to repair Le Grand’s wells.
Gray said his role was to bring the situation to the state’s attention and make sure the agencies could act. “This community had an emergency situation,” Gray said. “Let’s get in front of a crisis and solve the problem, and that’s what we did here.”
Le Grand will receive $237,000 in state funds for the first phase of redeveloping its wells, according to Kassy Chauhan, Merced district engineer with the state Department of Public Health.That amount includes $30,000 for bottled water, if necessary. The funding is allocated based on a community’s need and the level of emergency, state officials said.
The money will help rehabilitate a water well drilled in 1966 that collapsed due to its age and another one that had a valve fall out. A third well needs new equipment to reach its capacity of producing 1,000 gallons a minute after it dropped to 200 gallons a minute.
Kilgore said district officials made temporary fixes to some of the wells, but a permanent solution is needed.
If the first round of repairs doesn’t fix the problems, Le Grand could get another $240,000 from the state’s public water system drought emergency funding. That money would be used to purchase private land that contains a well drilled by a developer in 2005.
“The development didn’t happen because the housing market went to pieces, but he already drilled the well,” Kilgore said, adding that it’s 75 feet from a water main. “We’ve gotten permission to test the well, and if it meets state requirements, we’ve already talked to them about buying it.”
Kilgore called the funding a “godsend” and said repairs will start within weeks. Without theemergency funding, he said the community of Le Grand could have been in serious trouble.
The situation already impacted area schools, and education officials were thinking of a backup plan, said Rosina Hurtado, superintendent principal of the Le Grand Elementary School District.
“Toward the end of the school year, our water pressure went really low when the wells started going out,” Hurtado said. “We were getting concerned because we need to have the restrooms functioning and have drinking water for the students.”
Hurtado feared the water shortage could affect businesses that provide local jobs during the summer.
One of those businesses has already made several changes to help conserve water.
“We have to be more careful with water when we’re washing dishes and can’t keep it running,” said Margie Vallejo who works at the Pizza Factory in Le Grand.
“It’s scary thinking we might not have the water,” she added. “It’s a small town. What’s going to happen to us if that happens?”
Kilgore said Le Grand residents are on a “stage 3” water conservation level, which means restricted watering days and the mandatory use of buckets to wash cars. Stage 4 would ban outdoor watering and car washes.
Pedrozo called the current drought the worst he’s ever seen, but said the funding will help prevent a dire situation for Le Grand residents. “Water is our most precious commodity,” the supervisor said. “I think we acted on it quickly enough, and that settled people’s nerves.”
While the well repairs will benefit residents living in the water district, they’re not the only ones suffering from one of the driest years on record.
Longtime growers like the Giampaoli family have been forced to idle 150 acres of land. The family has about 20 private wells on their Le Grand property.
“We’re just hoping the wells we have last for the season,” Dario Giampaoli said. “I don’t know what next year will bring. It’s day by day, I guess.”
Julie Giampaoli said one of her domestic wells, which reached around 250 feet, has gone dry. She urged politicians to think about long-term water-storage solutions.
“You can’t build a dam overnight. We needed this a long time ago,” she said. “Funding is great, but ultimately, we need the long-term storage. If we go completely dry, the nation’s going to feel it.”
Los Angeles Times
Scrutiny of a farm town's water divides residents.
|By Diana Marcum, Los Angeles Times
Reporting from Seville, Calif. — On a chilly day in March, a U.N. human rights lawyer came to this tiny farm town to investigate unsafe drinking water — part of a world tour that also included Bangladesh and Namibia.
Advocates who had long been trying to call attention to Central California's increasingly tainted groundwater were elated. Ruben Tavarez, a school board member, was miffed.
"It makes it sound like Seville is a Third World country!" he said. "There's nothing wrong with the water. The pipes are just bad."
Indeed, when students in the city of Visalia, where Tavarez works as a substitute teacher, asked about nitrate contamination in Seville, he drank a big bottle of water in front of them, making a point of telling them he'd filled it from his tap at home.
Such are the divided reactions to an environmental threat whose consequences might not be immediately known. A far-off threat you can't see or taste or smell.
Recently, Tulare County Supervisor Steve Worthley stood outside a Seville community water meeting chatting with residents about the town's nitrate levels, which continually fluctuate just above and below public health limits.
"The problem with the environmentalists is they don't understand the legal limits are here," said Worthley, a rancher, holding a hand at chest level.
"And poison is way up here," he said, raising his hand high over his head.
The day the U.N. lawyer came to Seville, residents — mostly women, mostly mothers — from 17 other San Joaquin Valley communities that lack safe water because of nitrates, pesticides and arsenic came to tell Portugal's Catarina de Albuquerque their stories. They spend much of their meager incomes on bottled water and receive confusing health warnings.
In the neighboring town of Cutler, Spanish-speaking farm workers received notes in English that their pesticide-laced water is safe to drink, but that long-term consumption could put them at risk of cancer.
Tainted water — especially nitrate contamination— is a part of life in California's richest agricultural region.
Nitrates in the water
Some 40 years ago, farmers started using nitrogen fertilizer to boost crops. Septic tanks and runoff from dairies also leak nitrates. Now, much of the San Joaquin Valley sits on nitrate-polluted groundwater.
A recent study by Pacific Institute, an Oakland water policy research center, estimated that 1 million Central Valley residents at times have harmful levels of nitrates in their water, and the cost of cleanup would be at least $150 million.
High nitrate levels are linked to blue baby syndrome, which cuts off an infant's oxygen supply. In adults, nitrates are suspected of contributing to miscarriages, stomach disorders and certain cancers.
There has been no regulation of how much fertilizer farmers can use or how close fertilizers and feed lots can be to wells.
In June, for the first time, the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board will consider guidelines requiring farming operations most likely to pollute groundwater to reduce and monitor how much nitrogen they're putting into the soil.
Even if the guidelines are passed, it will be several years until specific rules are in place. Water experts say that even with perfect compliance, it could be decades before already polluted groundwater improves.
Marina Gallo, 50, can't believe such high-level policy issues have zeroed in on little Seville, a century-old, close-knit community of about 400.
She cuts from her house through a grass field to the town's one well. The pipes carrying drinking water from the well run through a muddy irrigation ditch. On top of the pump is a phone number hand-painted on a scrap of wood.
"That's the number you're supposed to call when something's wrong with the water, but that guy died," she said about the system's latest private owner.
Once, Phillip G.H. Benzenberg owned Seville's water system. Residents recalled how he walked door to door to collect the monthly $20 water bill. If the town's water looked cloudy, he'd dump some bleach in the pump. When there were cracks in the pipes, he'd tie them up with old bicycle inner tubes.
"All us kids loved old man Benzenberg," said Gallo's neighbor, 56-year-old Alan Medina. "We'd see him coming and run to the water tank. When he left, he always took a couple of big jars of water with him. He said Seville had the best-tasting water of anywhere."
Becky Quintana, Seville's most tireless clean-water advocate, said that in the 1960s and '70s her farmworker activist father went to the public health department with concerns about the water, but nothing was done. Nitrate levels were secretly climbing the entire time.
After Benzenberg died, the system passed through a couple of more hands. Two years ago, after repeated pleas by residents, the county took the system into receivership. Now residents pay $60 a month for water that frequently fails public health standards for drinking.
UN News Center
California law on human right to water sets example for others – UN expert
28 September 2012 – The new law passed by the state of California in the United States on the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation is an “inspiring example” for governments, a United Nations independent expert said today.
The assembly bill 685, adopted on 25 September in the most populated US state, with more than 37 million inhabitants, also provides for coordination among state agencies about the use of water for human consumption, cooking, and sanitary purposes.
“When I received the good news about the adoption of this bill, my thoughts immediately went to those people I met last year in California who still do not benefit from this fundamental human right,” said the Special Rapporteur on the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation, Catarina de Albuquerque.
With the new law, water and sanitation will be placed at the centre of policy formulation to ensure that all people in California have access to affordable, accessible, acceptable and safe water and sanitation in sufficient amounts to protect their health and dignity, Ms. de Albuquerque noted.
As a state that is likely to be heavily affected by climate change, California should now become the first state in the country to adopt a comprehensive policy on the human right to water, she added.
“I remember the tragic stories of farm-worker women in Seville, in the San Joaquin Valley, who were condemned to drinking the water from their polluted wells because they did not have the money to purchase bottled water,” Ms. de Albuquerque said. “I recall the crying women who told me that they were devoting about 20 per cent of their $14,000 per year income to water and sanitation. I am also thinking about the indigenous people of the Winnemem Wintu Tribe, whose lack of water and adequate sanitation was appalling.”
Ms. de Albuquerque met with the author of the bill, Assembly Member Mike Eng, and its co-sponsors during her visit to the US in February and March last year. She also visited communities affected by the inadequate access to safe drinking water. Since then, she has followed the developments on this issue and given recommendations to lawmakers who introduced, discussed and adopted the bill.
“This bill is a clear sign that bringing safe and affordable water to all in California is a political priority, which I warmly welcome. I am happy to congratulate the state of California for this historic step,” she said.
“After the adoption of a comprehensive law, the crucial next step is to come up with a plan, policy and strategy for the sector. As part of the duties of our office, I am at the disposal of the Government to give the necessary support.”
Independent experts, or special rapporteurs such as Ms. de Albuquerque, are appointed by the Geneva-based Human Rights Council to examine and report back, in an unpaid capacity, on specific human rights themes.
United Nations Office of the High Commission on Human Rights
Ms. Catarina de Albuquerque, Special Rapporteur on the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation
Catarina de Albuquerque is the first UN Special Rapporteur on the right to safe drinking water and sanitation (formerly Independent Expert). She was appointed by the Human Rights Council in September 2008, having started her mandate on 1 November that year. Between 2004 and 2008 she presided over the negotiations of the Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which the UN General Assembly approved by consensus on 10 December 2008.
De Albuquerque is an invited Professor at the Law Faculties of the Universities of Braga and Coimbra and a Senior Legal Adviser at the Office for Documentation and Comparative Law, an independent institution under the Prosecutor General’s Office.
She was awarded the Human Rights Golden Medal by the Portuguese Parliament (10 December 2009) for outstanding work in the area of human rights. Her work in human rights was also honoured by the Portuguese President of the Republic (October 2009) with the Order of Merit, which is a recognition of an individual's personal bravery, achievement, or service.
She holds a Law Degree from the Law Faculty of the University of Lisbon (Portugal) and a DES from the Institut Universitaire de Hautes Etudes Internationales (Geneva, Switzerland).