This story was originally published by High Country News and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.
When Ramona Hernandez turns on her kitchen faucet in El Adobe, an unincorporated town just a few miles southeast of Bakersfield, the water that splashes out looks clean and inviting. But she doesn’t dare drink it. “You worry about your health,” she said in Spanish as she sat in her tranquil front yard one morning early this spring, her elderly mother-in-law working in the garden behind her.
“I’m scared,” Hernandez said, “of getting sick from the water.” Drinking the tap water in this tiny community of dusty ranches and unpaved roads could expose Hernandez to arsenic. So, for years, she and her husband, Gerardo, have shuttled twice a week to the nearby town of Lamont to load up on bottled water. At a cost of about $80 a month, it’s enough for drinking and cooking. If they had the money, Hernandez, 55, would buy bottled water to shower with and use for her chickens. But given her husband’s salary as a farmworker, she says, that’s not a realistic option.
Like more than 300 communities across California, El Adobe lacks safe drinking water. Since 2008, the arsenic levels in one of its two wells have regularly exceeded the safety standards set by federal and state authorities, often by more than double. Long-term exposure to arsenic in drinking water is linked to diabetes, high blood pressure and cancer.
Contaminated drinking water affects an estimated 1 million people in California, many of whom rely on private wells or small community water systems like El Adobe’s. A majority of these residents live in the Central and Salinas valleys. These are largely low-income, rural and Latino communities, where lack of access to clean water exacerbates the health disparities that already exist due to structural inequities. Since 2012, California law has recognized that access to safe and affordable water is a human right, but action has lagged behind the language.
Arsenic levels in El Adobe’s other well are currently deemed safe, but the well can’t provide enough water to meet year-round demand. That means that many residents of the unincorporated town, including the Hernandezes, continue to pay for water they can’t drink. The El Adobe Property Owners Association charges households $125 a month for tap water, money that also covers streetlights and road maintenance (although only one road is paved). Most residents also buy bottled water at the store. Others take their chances and drink the tap water despite the risks. Many townspeople are low-income farmworkers and retirees, and buying bottled water is a significant expense.
“I can’t afford bottled water all the time,” said Kyle Wilkerson, 40, a father of three who lives on a fixed disability income. He’s also president of the El Adobe Property Owners Association, a small cadre of community members who manage the town’s water infrastructure almost entirely as volunteers.
Wilkerson said he worries about his own health as well as that of his family. “But what am I going to do?” he said. “You get to the point of, it is what it is.”
And indeed, residents in towns like El Adobe have few options. Arsenic can be removed from water, but it’s prohibitively expensive for most small towns. An arsenic treatment facility requires millions of dollars to build and another $100,000 or more per year to operate, said Chad Fischer, an engineer who works at the California Division of Drinking Water’s district office in Visalia, which regulates water in the region.