The Importance of Rural, Farmworking Communities in Advancing Policy Solutions that Address Agricultural Pollution of Groundwater
Community Water Center
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Access to safe drinking water is a guaranteed right under California law (AB 685) that many Californians are still waiting to access, in part due to inadequate regulatory programs protecting groundwater from nonpoint source contamination. Unsafe drinking water impacts over one million Californians annually, and over 10,000 Californians have recently experienced complete household water loss as wells dried up in the drought. The communities forced to deal with unreliable, unaffordable, and unsafe water are disproportionately Latino and disproportionately low-income. They are concentrated geographically in the state’s agricultural regions, where nitrates, pesticides, and other nonpoint source contaminants enter groundwater due to current farming practices. The poorest rural, agricultural communities are not only most impacted by unsafe water; they are also driving solutions to the drinking water crisis facing California by advancing unprecedented campaigns for groundwater protection.Ninety percent of communities in the agriculturally rich San Joaquin Valley rely on groundwater for their drinking water sources. In 2014, the San Joaquin Valley was home to 432 community water systems with maximum contaminant level violations. Thus, 30 percent of the community water systems statewide that were out of compliance with drinking water standards were located in this agricultural region that is heavily reliant on groundwater for its drinking water supplies. Not all drinking water violations are due to agriculture, but many of these community water systems have had to close wells, drill new wells, or install treatment facilities to address nitrate and pesticide pollution from agriculture. Nitrate contamination alone is costing families, local governments and the state tens of millions of dollars a year. These drinking water problems will only get worse unless regulatory programs secure significant changes in current agricultural practices. In fact, if nothing is done to prevent it, by 2050, nearly 80 percent of the residents in the Tulare Lake Basin and Salinas Valley will be impacted.The AGUA Coalition was formed as a regional, grassroots coalition of impacted community residents and allied nonprofit organizations dedicated to securing safe, clean, and affordable drinking water for the San Joaquin Valley. Through community organizing and policy advocacy, the AGUA Coalition and its partners have advanced critical policies to promote drinking water solutions and address regulatory gaps that have left groundwater in the region unprotected from nonpoint source pollution. Due to the AGUA Coalition’s advocacy and stakeholder engagement, the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board has begun to implement the Irrigated Lands Regulatory Program and the Dairies Program to protect groundwater sources from agricultural nonpoint source pollution. These innovative regulatory programs will not remain successful without continued outreach to and engagement with the agricultural communities impacted by unsafe water. We share lessons learned from working with the AGUA Coalition for over a decade toward the goal of protecting groundwater from nonpoint source pollution.