When I first came to California many years ago, it took me a long time to get used to the idea that I could buy fresh strawberries in the middle of winter. For this Pennsylvania girl, fresh strawberries meant late spring, time to hit the local farm stands with my mom, looking for the plumpest specimens for her light-as-air shortcake.
Well into adulthood, in fact, the taste of strawberries has–until recently–evoked that exhilarating moment when school let out, freedom beckoned, life seemed filled with possibilities.
Of course, California has distinct growing seasons, too, but the mostly mild climate of the state’s agricultural regions allows farmers to harvest strawberries and corn in December; some crops, like oranges, broccoli, and avocados are grown year-round.
California’s ability to raise fruits and vegetables all year helps feed the nation, and the state’s nearly $40 billion agricultural industry has dominated America’s agricultural production for decades. To maintain this productivity, farmers use nitrogen fertilizers and waste manure from cows. Plants need nitrogen to grow, but crops typically take up less than half of all the nitrogen applied. The rest is released into the air, runs off into streams, or slowly percolates through the soil into the groundwater.
Once in groundwater, nitrogen turns into compounds called nitrates. Studies link nitrates to thyroid dysfunction, various cancers, and miscarriage, though the evidence is inconclusive. But there’s little disagreement that nitrates pose a serious risk to infants, who can develop a potentially deadly disorder called “blue baby syndrome,” which starves tissues of oxygen.
Nitrates turn toxic when bacteria in the gut and saliva turn them into nitrites. And because babies have a different community of microbes in their guts than adults, including more nitrite-producing bacteria, they are far more vulnerable to nitrate exposures.
California officials have long known that nitrates are one of the most widespread contaminants in the state’s groundwater. About 16 million people in California get their drinking water from groundwater sources. That’s why, in 2008, the Legislature required the state Water Resources Control Board to report on the causes of contamination and identify potential solutions. The water board contracted experts at UC Davis, who released their widely covered report in March.
The UC Davis researchers looked at nitrate contamination in two of the prime agricultural regions in California, the Tulare Lake Basin and the Salinas Valley, where about 2.6 million people rely on groundwater. They found that agriculture accounts for 96% of nitrate-contaminated groundwater. More than a quarter of a million people in these regions may have nitrates in their drinking water.
Some of the poorest people in the state live in these agricultural areas. And many of those coping with tainted drinking water work in the fields that leach the nitrates, picking our produce, our strawberries, oranges and lemons.
In April, I went to Tulare County for a story for Environmental Health News to speak with residents who’ve been struggling with nitrate contamination for years. Their taps dispense toxic water they can’t drink but they still have to pay for their monthly water bill. And then they have to buy bottled water from the grocery store or fill up five-gallon jugs from a water vending machine—something I’d wager most San Franciscans have never seen.
One woman I spoke to, a single mother of four named Bertha Dias, makes $7.50 an hour picking fruit. She pays nearly five times as much to have safe drinking water in her house than the average San Franciscan pays to drink water so pristine Willie Brown famously bottled it as Hetch Hetchy Mountain Water.
The nitrate contamination problem has been covered before, including an in-depth investigation by California Watch in 2010. Yet the problem hasn’t gone away.
Low-income people seeking safe drinking water throughout Tulare County are working with the Visalia-based Community Water Center to find their own solutions. Potential solutions run from digging a new well to hooking up to a larger water system to installing filtration systems under the sink. But many measures are temporary fixes, until the state figures out how to deal with the problem over the long term–which the UC Davis study concluded would cost about $36 million a year.
In 2009, strawberries brought in more than three-quarters of a billion dollars for Salinas Valley farmers, resulting from a 10-year increase in consumer demand, Carolyn O’Donnell, communications director for the California Strawberry Commission, told a reporter for TheCalifornian.com. She attributed the increased demand to better-tasting varieties that hold up better under shipping.
Now Bay Area consumers can see Salinas Valley strawberries at their local grocery stores nearly anytime except winter, when shipments from Southern California pick up the slack.
But now when I think of strawberries, the romance is gone. I can’t help but think of Bertha Dias and the other farmworkers like her, who spend long, hot days picking our fruit and vegetables out in the fields, only to come home to water they can’t drink. They deserve better.