In March, a United Nations independent expert visited the tiny Tulare County community of Seville, where she learned about San Joaquín Valley residents’ prolonged fight for affordable and clean drinking water.
The visit was part of a 10-day tour through the United States that included stops in communities that have limited or unequal access to safe drinking water and sanitation services.
About six months later, Catarina de Albuquerque, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Human Right to Safe Drinking Water and Sanitation, has released her findings and recommendations regarding the country’s compliance with the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation services.
While it acknowledges that most people in the U.S. have access to safe drinking water, her report does not mince words when describing those communities — including numerous unincorporated, majority Latino communities in Tulare County — that have been marginalized and excluded from this basic right.
“While these groups comprise a small proportion of the population, the independent expert emphasizes that they need priority attention,” she writes.
The agricultural San Joaquín Valley, she writes, is “experiencing enormous challenges, particularly nitrate contamination, with regard to drinking water.”
Affected community residents — including Rebecca Quintana, a Seville resident who has lived for decades with unreliable and unsafe drinking water — and water advocates are hoping the U.N. report will shine a bright light on the Valley’s drinking water challenges, which disproportionately impact Latinos.
They also hope to use the report to garner support for a Human Right to Water bill package that is moving through the state legislature, and spur policy changes at the state and federal level.
The report provides an opportunity, “for us to remind the legislators that this is something the whole world is watching,” said Laurel Firestone, co-executive director of the Visalia-based Community Water Center.
“It is part of an international movement to recognize this as a human right and to make sure people — everyone, no matter who they are — have access to clean water.”
In the report, De Albuquerque expresses concern that Latinos in the impoverished Valley are disproportionately suffering the health and economic burdens of unsafe drinking water.
In Tulare County — where 60 percent of residents are Latino and 23 percent of people live below the poverty line — about 20 percent of the small public water systems are unable to meet the nitrate maximum contaminant level on a regular basis, and another 20 percent of small systems are over half that maximum level, according to the report.
High levels of nitrate come from fertilizers, animal factory waste, and leaky septic systems, according to the Community Water Center. Nitrate levels above state and federal standards can cause death in infants less than six months old, stillbirths, and cancer in adults.
Valley communities inevitably shoulder the costs of this water pollution, de Albuquerque said. She describes how residents of Seville — where the median household income is $14,000 — devote about 20 percent of their income to water and sanitation costs.
“Households who are unable to afford alternative solutions, such as buying bottled water, uninformed about the water quality or forced to make difficult trade-offs, such as forgoing other basic needs, fall into a protection gap,” she writes.
De Albuquerque calls for action to relieve racial disparities in drinking water quality.
She cites a recent UC Berkeley analysis that found that in smaller water systems, communities with larger percentages of Latinos and renters are potentially exposed to drinking water with higher nitrate levels, compared to communities with higher proportions of white residents and homeowners.
“The independent expert expresses concerns with such racial disparities, and urges the Government to take concerted action to eliminate discrimination in practice, as well as to ensure country-wide regulation and monitoring of private drinking water supplies,” she writes.
Debbie Davis, policy director for the Environmental Justice Coalition for Water, commended de Albuquerque’s focus on the disproportionate impacts of contaminated drinking water.
“In the politics of it all, it is seen as an accident of fate that certain communities don’t have access to safe drinking water, when in fact there is a discrimination factor,” she said. “Having it in the UN report elevates (the issue of racial disparities) in a way it hadn’t been elevated before.”
When de Albuquerque visited Tulare County this spring, she told residents that her role was to shine a light on the barriers people face in accessing clean drinking water.
“The power that I have is to draw attention to issues, and to point my finger at problems that I see in the countries that I visit,” she said at that time. “Sometimes there needs to be someone from the outside pointing the finger at the country to make the country move, do something, and change things.”
Months later, Tulare County residents and water advocates hope the report will do just that.
“I think the state (legislators) really don’t know what is going on here in the Valley,” said Quintana of Seville. “I’m hoping it does bring more attention to how critical this issue is — it’s a crisis.”
Davis, of the Environmental Justice Coalition for Water, agreed.
“I hope that every legislator and anyone in a state agency that deals with water issues will read the report and try to imagine how they can implement her recommendations,” she said.
In the report, de Albuquerque recommends enacting international, federal, state and local policies that protect water quality and affordability, champion the human rights to water and sanitation, and educate the public about water quality.
Water quality advocates also hope the report will spur lawmakers to pass the Human Right to Water bill package. One of the main components of the package — AB 685, which would make it state policy that every human being has the right to clean, affordable, and accessible water — is currently stalled in the Senate Appropriations Committee.
“The will needs to be there by those in power to make these things happen,” said María Herrera, community outreach coordinator for the Community Water Center. “The call has been there, and our residents have been highlighting this issue ... We need to see the action from those who can do it.”