Here’s a statistic that, no matter how many times we report about it, still sounds shocking: More than a million Californians lack access to safe, clean drinking water.
The crisis is particularly acute in the rural Central Valley, where some communities — like tiny Matheny Tract outside Tulare — have struggled with unsafe drinking water.
In Matheny Tract, the community’s two wells are contaminated with arsenic. Reinelda Palma knows about it firsthand. She drank the tap water until a few years ago, when a doctor told her that she had been exposed to arsenic.
“It was very traumatic when the doctor told me that I had high arsenic contamination in my body,” she says in Spanish. “And I thought, if this is happening to me, then this must be happening to everyone, including the children.”
That’s when she became an advocate.
Matheny Tract is not a city or a town. It’s unincorporated, which means it has no elected government, and it’s hard to get services like sidewalks or streetlights. About 1,200 people live here, and almost a third of them live below the federal poverty line. Like Palma, most are Latino.
Palma and her neighbor Javier Medina, took me on a tour of the neighborhood. We saw a lot of bright yellow fire hydrants that looked brand-new, but Palma and Medina said they didn’t work.
That’s because they are waiting to be hooked up to water.
Ashley Werner of the nonprofit advocacy group the Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability says people in unincorporated communities like Matheny Tract have been fighting for clean water for years.
“Effectively in local government, often there’s no elected representatives claiming to have any responsibility to ensure that people have access to clean water,” she says.
In Matheny’s case, getting water from the nearby city of Tulare seemed like an obvious solution. The city is so close, Palma can point to it from her backyard.
In 2009, Matheny and Tulare signed a contract to connect their water systems. Roads were dug up and hydrants put in place. But in 2014, the city sued to re-evaluate the contract. Construction stopped.
“We did not have capacity to serve 300 homes at a turn of the switch, ” says Martin Koczanowicz, Tulare’s city attorney. “We spent over half a million dollars in short-term fixes to our infrastructure, and we had jurisdictional issues which were a barrier.”
But Ashley Werner says the community’s residents — mostly immigrants, farmworkers, and minorities — felt discriminated against. With the help of Werner’s group, Matheny countersued.
“It was a lack of responsibility on the part of elected officials to the residents of Matheny Tract,” says Werner. “In a sense, by everybody involved, that they had no duty and no commitment to this community.”
Matheny and Tulare remained in a legal stalemate until March of this year, when the state intervened under a new law. Senate Bill 88 allows the state to order a city to share its water with communities that need it. Matheny Tract is the law’s first success. By June, Tulare will be forced to share its drinking water.
Getting clean water is a huge relief for Javier Medina. He’s a dairy worker, and his family of six has been using bottled water. He’s glad that the state stepped in. But he wishes it hadn’t been necessary.
“We live in the best country in the world and everyone should be looking out for everyone’s well-being,” says Medina. “Everyone should try to find a way to help their neighbor.”
Matheny Tract should have safe drinking water soon, but hundreds of California communities still don’t. Maybe some of them are your neighbors.