BRAWLEY, California – It takes Humberto Lugo several minutes to explain how the home he is standing in front of actually gets its water. It’s a small, stucco house dwarfed by an expanse of dusty farm fields that sit mostly fallow in September, awaiting the next planting of winter vegetables.
An irrigation canal runs by the front of the property, and brings water not just to the surrounding farms but also to homes. Lugo demonstrates how a rubber hose is dropped into the canal and the water, gravity-fed, then pours into an open concrete pool in the house’s front yard that is teeming with algae, fish and debris. The home’s resident, a renter and farmhand, occasionally dumps some ammonia in the pool before pumping the water to the house to use for showering and other needs.
The home sits about 25 miles from the United States-Mexico border – on the U.S. side.
This kind of do-it-yourself water treatment is common here in California’s Imperial Valley in the southeast corner of the state. At last count, 2,757 rural homes here – referred to locally as “countryside homes” – do not have a source of treated, municipal water and instead rely on untreated irrigation water for washing dishes, showering and cleaning.
Lugo works on policy issues for Comite Civico Del Valle, a local nonprofit in Brawley, California, founded by farmworkers in 1987 to increase civic participation in social justice issues, including water and health.
“People should have access to clean drinking water out of their faucet,” says Luis Olmedo, the organization’s executive director. “This is not the case in the countryside.”
Instead, conditions here look more like those found in a developing country, not in a state that boasts the sixth biggest economy in the world. California regulators not only know that thousands of local residents rely on untreated water in their homes – water that travels hundreds of miles in open canals – the State Water Resources Control Board has signed off on the arrangement. The water provider, Imperial Irrigation District, is allowed to send raw, untreated water to homes as long as those homes have a secondary source of clean drinking water – usually a bottled or bulk water delivery.
Regulators may seem unconcerned about the health risks, but organizations such as Olmedo’s believe it’s a public health disaster in the making – and he’s got the attention of a scientist who is investigating the health risks of canal water.
Vanessa Galaviz, a toxicologist in the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment at the California Environmental Protection Agency, is launching a study to test the water in the canals for contaminants.
“You have agricultural and industrial runoff,” says Galaviz. “There is chemical contamination, there is biological contamination, including basic fecal matter – these are open canals. There is no water treatment that is done to them.”
And that is entirely legal.
At Vivian Perez’s home in the Imperial Valley, canal water is siphoned into a concrete cistern that looks like a small well before it’s pumped to the house. The family uses it for bathing, washing dishes, washing clothes – everything but cooking and drinking.
“Unfortunately, regardless of how you wash the clothes, sometimes there is a funky smell at times, which is not unusual,” says Perez. “We’ve seen dead fish in the [cistern] or dead animals.”
Perez is concerned about the water quality. “You just never know what’s in the water, what it does to our skin and our bodies,” she says.
Little research has been done to know how much of a health risk canal water may pose and there is no state or local oversight of the jury-rigged systems that residents use to get canal water to their homes. “Everyone is on their own,” says Lugo. “They do whatever they think is appropriate,” and if they can’t afford a water treatment system that often means using pool-cleaning chemicals such as chlorine, ammonia or other disinfectants to try to clean the water before it enters the home.
The Perez family, who have lived in their home since 2003, are investing in a water filtration system, but it will cost at least $9,000 plus ongoing maintenance expenses, says Perez.
That option may be out of reach for many of the area’s residents. Folks who live in rural parts of the county are often agricultural workers who live close to their jobs, or because it’s more affordable, says Olmedo. The county, which is predominantly Latino and Spanish-speaking, has a poverty rate of nearly 25 percent.
“The difference is people who have more money can live a safer, better quality of life as opposed to people who are low-income and drawing contaminated water because their water systems may be outdated – it may be just a straight pipe into their home,” says Olmedo. “All the elements the water has collected in its entire course from the Colorado through the heavy [agricultural] industry, where it gets possibly assaulted by chemicals, by fecal coliform [bacteria], by potentially manure coming out of feedlots, birds and wildlife defecating into the water – anything: it all ends up in people’s homes.”
Imperial Irrigation District is allowed by state law to supply untreated water to homes because it has an alternative drinking water compliance program. The program requires any home receiving canal water to have a contract with a bulk or bottled water delivery service that comes from an approved list of sellers, says Tina Shields, Imperial Irrigation District’s water department manager.
Residents are responsible for the costs of the water delivery, which varies but is often around $50 a month or more. Canal water costs $21 a month.
The water delivery companies are also required to notify Imperial Irrigation District if someone asks to end their drinking water service. “We go out and see why – whether they’re moving or it’s a bill issue,” says Shields. If it’s an issue of affordability, Shields says the agency works with the resident on a solution, and the agency has a program for low-income residents that reimburses up to $30 a month for water delivery.
Imperial Irrigation District sends out periodic reminders that the canal water shouldn’t be used for drinking, oral hygiene or washing food that won’t be cooked. The latest missive included a note from Shields saying, “We just want to remind customers that there may be disease risks if pathogens are present in untreated canal water, so an approved water source needs to be used for human consumption.”
Even though there is a risk of pathogens in the water, the State Water Resources Control Board doesn’t consider the use of this water for household purposes a possible health risk.
“The exposure from just bathing in canal water we don’t consider a health risk,” says Sean Sterchi, district engineer for the State Water Resources Control Board in San Diego. “Any exposure to bacteriological contamination that might be in that water is really considered to be incidental exposure – they’re not supposed to be drinking the water when they are taking a bath or shower.”
Galaviz, however, says that some chemicals that may be found in the water from pesticides can be dangerous if exposed to skin or inhaled. Most concerning, she says, is chronic exposure.
And Olmedo worries that children may be especially vulnerable to health impacts from bathing in the water or drinking it while playing in pools and with garden hoses in a region where temperatures hit the triple digits for four months of the year.
“It’s easy to forget where that water source came from, especially for kids,” Olmedo says.
Esther Bejarano works as an educator for Comite Civico Del Valle and, more than a decade ago, lived in a countryside home that relied on canal water. After washing her son with bottled water as an infant, when he was six months old she decided to bathe him in the sink with the canal water. “I placed him in the water and he got completely red, rashes all over his body,” she says. “He wasn’t ready for bathing in the water. It was horrible.” Bejarano says she moved back to the city about 10 years ago because of concerns about water and air quality.
Closing the Data Gap
Galaviz is launching a multi-year project to collect and analyze water from the canals to better understand what chemicals and bacteria may be present – but it won’t be an easy task. The water travels a great distance to reach the Imperial Valley and then may pass through hundreds of miles of small, lateral canals that move water between farms.
Agriculture here is an industry worth nearly $2 billion a year. Fertile soil gets just 3 inches of rain a year and most of the region relies on imported water that travels hundreds of miles from its snowy origins in the Rocky Mountains.
Following the twists and turns of the Colorado River, Imperial County’s water comes within 20 miles (32km) of the Mexico border before it’s diverted into the All-American Canal, traveling 80 miles (129km) across the desert. In the Imperial Valley it will end up in one of three main canals which stretch 230 miles (370km) and then feed 1,400 miles (2,250km) of smaller canals.
Imperial Irrigation District, one of the largest public irrigation districts in the West, delivers most of this water to farmers, who irrigate half a million acres of farmland, and thanks to the mild climate, crops are grown – and irrigated – year-round. The valley is the source of much of the nation’s winter-grown vegetables, but throughout the year it also produces sugar beets, asparagus, broccoli, carrots, corn, melons, onions, chili peppers and alfalfa, and raises livestock.
Imperial Irrigation District doesn’t treat any of its water – about 95 percent of the district’s water goes to agriculture and most of the rest supplies municipal water agencies that then treat the water themselves for residents clustered in towns and small cities. Most of the county’s 180,000 people receive this treated water.
Despite the extent of the canal network, water-quality testing is done in only four locations, which are mostly in the main canals. Water-quality reports submitted to the state show trace amounts of pesticides such as atrazine and simazine, and other contaminants such as arsenic, uranium and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), although these are at or below the state’s maximum contaminant level.
“But the concern is downstream,” says Galaviz, where the water passes through more than 1,000 miles of smaller canals running alongside agricultural operations and feedlots.
Galaviz’s research project is beginning this month with community outreach and engagement to help map areas of concern and train residents in how to collect water samples. By next summer she says they will begin sampling for water quality in the smaller canals. After that the results will be analyzed, although the second year of the study is not yet funded. The University of Washington (where Galaviz is a faculty member) and the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment funded the first year of the program.
“There is a huge gap as to what the public health exposure is going on here,” she says. The results will be used to update Cal EnviroScreen, a statewide database that tracks environmental burdens in communities, and will also help inform culturally appropriate outreach and education to the community, says Galaviz. Data from Imperial County shows that that residents face high levels of health burdens from polluted air, pesticides and contaminated water, coupled with high rates of poverty, unemployment and linguistic isolation.
So far, little research has been done about the potential health impacts of canal water. A report in 2012 by the National Latino Research Center at California State University, San Marcos, sampled the water in 35 randomly selected homes that received canal water and found that water coming from the kitchen faucets in 14 percent tested positive for water contaminants such as pesticides and nitrates, while 70 percent contained bacterial pathogens.
“Study outcomes suggest water contamination is a prevalent silent health risk affecting thousands of individuals in Imperial County today,” the report concluded. It also found that some residents are “hesitant to call authorities and report water-related complaints for fear of being forced to repair an intake system or simply being evicted by landlords.” For some farmworkers, Olmedo says, landlords may also be employers, and residents can risk losing both their jobs and homes if they speak out about water problems.
Cultural and economic issues can also amplify environmental burdens. Countryside residents are isolated by culture, geography and language, says Galaviz. “This is a population with a high cumulative impact. That’s why it’s really important to try and address this issue.”
While the current system of supplying canal water to homes may be the most affordable way to get water to the homes, “it’s not the solution,” says Olmedo.
When it comes to better options, though, there seem to be few viable ones.
“It’s mentioned in our compliance agreement that [the Imperial Irrigation District is] supposed to get those accounts off canal water and hooked up to municipality whenever it’s reasonably available,” says the Water Board’s Sterchi. But most rural residents are out of reach of municipal water systems, unless new developments warrant an expansion of infrastructure. “Since 1993 I’ve seen it happen a few times, but it’s not a real active economy – development is really slow,” says Sterchi.
Perez says her family’s home is about 7 miles (11km) from the nearest town and 4 miles (6km) from the nearest water pipes. “I would love if they would expand it so we could have access to city water as well,” she says. “That would be a dream come true.”
But it can be prohibitively costly to extend water lines from municipalities, and most water systems won’t do so without having the unincorporated community annexed into the city, something that some rural residents may be reluctant to do.
That was the case for one community Sterchi saw. “They are afraid of the cost [of water] and of other services and taxes that come with the annexation process,” says Sterchi. “They want to stay unincorporated.”
Olmedo believes government needs to do more to respond to the problem or the conditions may create a public health crisis. But he questions whether the political will is there. “I think it really comes down to: is that human life important enough, are there enough people there to make it a matter of priority?” says Olmedo. “I think that threshold is a political decision and that means these communities need to be empowered enough to be able to be part of that discussion, to have a seat at the table.”