When Cristobal Chavez injured his back 15 years ago so badly he could no longer haul produce, he changed up his entire life. He sold his home in Los Angeles and moved to a 15-acre ranch near Porterville, where his family — his wife, three children and several additional foster kids — could spread out.
He would raise sheep, chickens, goats and a self-sustaining family.
"I thought I was going to move to a safe place," he says. "It was not safe."
His water well tested off-the-charts heavy with nitrates. The EPA Maximum Contaminant Level for nitrates is 10 parts per million; Chavez's well had 38 ppm.
Nitrates can cause a host of problems including diminished oxygen carrying capacity, a condition called blue baby syndrome. The chemical is insidious because it's odorless, colorless and tasteless.
And, along with arsenic and 1,2,3-TCP, nitrates are among the most prevalent contaminants, both naturally occurring and not, in water systems throughout the state. How prevalent? One million Californians, perhaps many more, can't drink from their tap. Or shouldn't.
That's why Chavez has signed on with other water purity activists to support the Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Fund, a trailer bill attached to Gov. Jerry Brown's budget revision, released Friday. Chavez and a dozen others were in Bakersfield for a Friday rally in support of the proposal.
The Water Fund, first established as Senate Bill 623 by Sen. Bill Monning, D-Carmel, would build and sustain new and existing water infrastructure by tacking on 95 cents per household to each monthly water bill, among other funding sources, to raise $140 million annually.
It has widespread support among Democrats and Republicans — but it's not unanimous.
State Sen. Andy Vidak, R-Hanford, is all in — he's a co-author. But Assemblyman Rudy Salas, D-Bakersfield, has not yet committed one way or the other (although, in a statement, he said he would be working "to ensure that the proposed Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Fund fully addresses the need for clean drinking water"). And Assemblyman Vince Fong, R-Bakersfield, is opposed, saying, among other arguments, there's got to be a better way to pay the program's $140 million annual cost.
But the Water Fund is supported by a broad coalition — some 110 groups, including health, business and agricultural organizations, among them the Farm Bureau and Western Growers. And that's saying something, because ag will bear a substantial portion of the burden to pay for it.
Clean water might seem like a given to most of us, but, according to the California State Water Resources Control Board, hundreds of communities across the state cannot consistently provide safe drinking water. In some cases it's been an issue for a decade or longer.
The problem is especially egregious in places with small and lower income ratepayer bases. In some communities, high water treatment costs mean unaffordable and burdensome rates. Many pay for both unsafe tap water and bottled water for drinking, cooking and other uses that demand untainted water.
A disproportionately high number of those communities lie in the San Joaquin Valley. Arvin is among the Kern County towns most affected.
This is not just a rural problem.
"It doesn't matter what color you are, or where you live. It affects everyone," said Lucy Hernandez, a mother of five and grandmother of three from West Goshen, a small Tulare County community where nitrates and 1,2,3-TCP are serious concerns.
"It's an everyone issue," said Jerry Tinoco of Arvin.
As The Californian reported May 6, Arvin-based carrot giant Grimmway Farms is proactively dealing with 1,2,3-TCP levels that exceed state-established standards —although officials say those readings pose only a remote risk.
In fact, the chemical 1,2,3-TCP can be found all over the valley. The City of Bakersfield won an $84 million settlement to address the issue as well.
A poll commissioned by the Water Foundation shows that 69 percent of the public supports paying an additional $1 per month to assure safe drinking water throughout the state.
But why a state-mandated water bill surcharge?
Because, when monolithic utilities like PG&E and the Gas Company need to increase rates to pay for infrastructure upgrades, they just get permission from the state Public Utilities Commission and then raise them.
But California has literally hundreds of independent water districts, including 537 special districts not affiliated with cities or counties, and many are so small and serve so few customers they could never finance the kind of infrastructure improvements that are in many cases required. And many of those small districts serve a predominately low income clientele.
It's not a question of whether a Water Fund is necessary; it's a question of how we'll pay for it. A 95-cent surcharge that spreads around the pain seems to be the consensus choice, but it's far from a sure thing.
"Arsenic, nitrate, 1,2,3-TCP, uranium — it's a toxic cocktail," said Susana De Anda of Visalia. "We're at the finish line now, but we need all the votes we can get to secure this."
Chris Chavez, whose six foster children are 14, 14, 13, 11, 11 and 5, has been waiting for some kind of relief for 15 years. He sees the Water Fund trailer bill as his best chance.
"The people need this," he said. "My family needs it."