Just Water? Environmental Justice and Drinking Water Quality in California?s Central Valley
University of California, Berkeley
Preliminary policy reports have found that California counties with higher rates of poverty and greater percentages of people of color have a disproportionate rate (i.e. almost twenty-fold higher) of violations of the Safe Drinking Water Act. Such reports suggest a case of environmental injustice in these communities. However, there is little rigorous research on the intersection of drinking water quality, environmental justice (EJ) and environmental health at the community scale in California. We examine the relationship between race, class (i.e. poverty level and home ownership), and exposure to nitrate in community water systems (CWS) in the entire San Joaquin Valley. Combining datasets on water quality monitoring results, CWS characteristics and customer demographics, we hypothesize that: 1) CWS that serve a higher proportion of people of color, higher poverty residents, and/or greater fractions of renters (vs. those that serve higher proportions of whites, residents above the poverty line, and/or residents with higher rates of home ownership) have higher concentrations of nitrates. We use a hierarchical, longitudinal statistical model to analyze these relationships for data from 1999 to 2001. Our hierarchical model indicates that race and home ownership are more significant (p<.05) than poverty level in predicting concentration levels. These disproportionate impacts create an economic burden: customers and systems with the worst water quality have the least economic means by which to fix the problems. Two key health risks emerge; one of exposure to high levels of nitrates, and a second of a lack of informing customers of risks of consuming high nitrate levels. These findings suggest that California?s drinking water laws are not equally protective, and that water policy reforms should focus on this issue.