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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Don’t Drink the Water

Air Date: Week of

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You don't have to go to a foreign country to find places where the water is undrinkable. Tamara Keith reports from a town in Central California where water is not only dirty and intermittent, but where the arsenic levels are a health threat.


CURWOOD: One Clean Water rollback the Bush administration decided not to pursue was to weaken the arsenic standard in drinking water. According to the EPA, as many as 11 million people nationwide are drinking water contaminated by arsenic. Among them, residents of the farming community of Alpaugh in central California. Six months ago they were told their town's well was contaminated. From member station KQED Tamara Keith reports on life without clean water.

KEITH: If you lived in tiny, dusty Alpaugh, California, you'd probably have to do what Maria Barajas and her family do – drive 15 miles to the closest large town twice a week to purchase water.


Four empty water jugs bump around in the family's 1987 Toyota Corolla. Outside it's stifling. The car doesn't have air conditioning, and Barajas, her husband, and two kids are baking in the cramped car.


Outside a gas station mini-mart, the Barajas kids feed coins into one of those big blue dispensing machines. At $1.40 a bottle, it costs about $55.00 a month to buy water for drinking, cooking, and brushing teeth.

VOICEOVER: We come here because we have to eat. We have to cook. Even if there is nothing else we have to buy here, we still have to come two or three times a week just to buy water.

KEITH: The family has been making this trek ever since Barajas received a health warning that Alpaugh’s water contained such high levels of the heavy metal arsenic that it was unsafe even to cook with it. One reading of the town's well showed arsenic levels at more than seven times the national standard. Barajas has a bubbly personality, but there is only so much she can take. Not only is the water contaminated, she says the supply is unreliable.

VOICEOVER: It contains bacteria, arsenic, it smells foul, there's no pressure, and they don't even tell you when they're shutting it off. You're left in the shower half-bathed.

KEITH: Since last Spring, virtually all of Alpaugh's 700 residents have relied on bottled water. Ironically, a recent study found some bottled water contains arsenic too. And Alpaugh isn't alone in its water problems. Last year, 9 percent of the nation's water suppliers reported violating at least one health standard. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that now that its new arsenic standard has gone into effect, 20 to 30 percent of water districts in the Southwest are probably out of compliance. The mineral occurs naturally here. Aaron Colangelo with the Natural Resources Defense Council says people shouldn't have to question the safety of their tap water.

COLANGELO: Everybody has a right to clean, quality, safe drinking water, and there are many places throughout the country – not just in the west, but throughout the country – where people don't have safe drinking water.

KEITH: Arsenic has been linked to several illnesses, including lung, skin and bladder cancer. It's also thought to cause diabetes, skin lesions, and other ailments.


KEITH: On the outskirts of town, I talked with Betty Kimball, who was very worried about the possible health effects. She said she'd been drinking the water for years until she happened upon a notice from the local water district.

KIMBALL: We knew it smelled bad, and you know, we had no water pressure, or anything like that. But we just kind of chalked it up to where we are, country living.

KEITH: After finding out about the arsenic, Kimball's doctor tested her and her husband, and both had elevated levels of the heavy metal in their urine. She showed me sores on her legs and said her skin itched constantly.

KIMBALL: Everything about this water is bad. If I had kids, I wouldn't give them this water, so I won't give my dogs this water either.

KEITH: Shortly after this interview, Kimball died suddenly at her home. Her husband tells friends when she passed, she was at her desk writing a letter to water officials saying she couldn't pay their bill.

Kimball wasn't the only one writing letters. Alpaugh's residents are furious that despite the fact their water is undrinkable, the local water district recently tripled their rates. Water district may sound official, but in small communities like Alpaugh, the people in charge of providing clean, safe water are often volunteers with no special training, and almost no money. Steve Martin, president of the Alpaugh Irrigation Board says the town's long-time rate of $20.00 a month just couldn't last.

MARTIN: This is based on 295 connections. That's not very many connections to cover all the cost. We cannot collect enough money out of the $20.00 to pay our bills is what it amounts to.

KEITH: The rate increase covers operating costs and past debts, but does little to tackle Alpaugh's primary problem, arsenic contamination. Some residents are so angry about the increase, they're refusing to pay. Mariana Astorga and three other residents have gone to court, not for damages, just to stop the rate increase. She says she can't afford to pay for both bottled water and tap water.

VOICEOVER: I'd rather have my water service cut-off than have to stop buying the clean water I am giving to my children.


KIMBALL: But at least in this one community, things are beginning to look up. Governor Gray Davis just signed a bill that will give Alpaugh two million dollars to drill new wells. Even so, improvements are still months away. And that means many more trips to town to buy clean water, spending scarce cash on what others take for granted.
For Living on Earth, I'm Tamara Keith in Alpaugh.

[MUSIC: Balkan Tribes, "Zurle" BALKANS WITHOUT BORDERS (Omnium, 1999)]



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