Lack of Clean Water in Central Valley, CA, USA


In the Central Valley of California water is scarce and often diverted to agriculture and development rather than low income communities or minorities. Migrant farm workers and new immigrants have an especially difficult time getting fair access to water. Communities such as Seville in Tulare County are subject to nitrate contamination in their water from fertilizers and they cannot afford backup systems when their pipes are corroded.

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Basic Data
NameLack of Clean Water in Central Valley, CA, USA
CountryUnited States of America
SiteCentral Valley
Accuracy of LocationMEDIUM regional level
Source of Conflict
Type of Conflict (1st level)Water Management
Type of Conflict (2nd level)Water access rights and entitlements
Intensive food production (monoculture and livestock)
Specific CommoditiesWater
Project Details and Actors
Project DetailsOne school budgets $100-$500 a month for bottled water for students because the tap water isn't safe; many residents spend up to 10% of their income on water, and 1/5 residents in Central Valley live below federal poverty line [2]

Farms and dairies are responsible for 96 percent of the nitrates entering groundwater in the Central and Salinas valleys [3]

Over 635 miles of rivers and streams in the Central Valley, including the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers and Delta, are so polluted by agricultural pesticides that they are unsafe for uses such as fishing, swimming, and/or drinking [4]

Tulare County has the highest number of drinking water wells closed due to nitrate contamination and DBCP in the state, and over 20 percent of all community systems in Tulare County cannot meet basic safe drinking water laws. 75% of all the private wells in Tulare County tested by the State have contamination over the legal limits, and 40% of all wells had nitrate over legal limits (

Public funds subsidize many farmers to pay around $30/acre foot for water, yet most cities pay $200/acre foot for drinking water. This encourages farmers to use more water.

$ 4,000,000 have been spent for interim solutions like filters under sinks that can remove arsenic and nitrates (
Type of PopulationRural
Potential Affected Population254,000
Start Date1950
Relevant government actorsState legislature, Department of Water Resources, the State Water Resources Control Board and Department of Public Health, Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board, Tulare County Economic Development Office, U.S. Department of Agriculture Service Center
Environmental justice organisations and other supportersCommunity United in Lanare, Environmental Justice Coalition for water, Association of People United for Water, Committee for a Better Seville, Community Water Center
The Conflict and the Mobilization
Intensity of Conflict (at highest level)LOW (some local organising)
When did the mobilization beginIn REACTION to the implementation (during construction or operation)
Groups MobilizingNeighbours/citizens/communities
Ethnically/racially discriminated groups
Forms of MobilizationDevelopment of a network/collective action
Public campaigns
Street protest/marches
Environmental ImpactsVisible: Surface water pollution / Decreasing water (physico-chemical, biological) quality, Groundwater pollution or depletion
Health ImpactsVisible: Exposure to unknown or uncertain complex risks (radiation, etc…), Deaths
Socio-economic ImpactsVisible: Violations of human rights
OtherPrice of Water
Project StatusIn operation
Pathways for conflict outcome / responseNew legislation
Strengthening of participation
Development of AlternativesState tax on fertilizers to fund clean drinking water programs
Do you consider this as a success?No
Why? Explain briefly.Communities still lack access to clean, safe, and affordable water despite the passing of a bill ensuring the human right to water in California
Sources and Materials

Oct 2012 Human Right to Water Bill for State of California
[click to view]

Central Valley Water Board Adopts Program to Benefit Disadvantaged Communities
[click to view]


[1] Social Disparities in Nitrate-Contaminated Drinking Water in California’s San Joaquin Valley, Carolina Balazs, Rachel Morello-Frosch, [...], and Isha Ray, Environmental Health Perspectives
[click to view]

Human Costs of Nitrate-contaminated Drinking Water in the San Joaquin Valley
[click to view]

[5]Drinking Water Crisis in the Central Valley
[click to view]


Push for clean drinking water in the Valley continues, Vida en la Valle
[click to view]

[2] The Problem Is Clear: The Water Is Filthy, New York Times
[click to view]

[3] California farm communities suffer tainted drinking water
[click to view]

[4] Governor signs human right to water bill
[click to view]

Help us make farms – and farm communities – sustainable!
[click to view]

Partnership Brings Clean Drinking Water to Central Valley Schools, Programs
[click to view]

Community Water Center
[click to view]

Media Links

Couple without water after well dries up
[click to view]

Nitrate Contamination in the San Joaquin Valley
[click to view]

Other Documents

Sign above faucet "Water not for drinking"
[click to view]

Clean water is a human right
[click to view]

Water samples and corroded pipes
[click to view]

Central Valley on California map
[click to view]

Drinking water in schools
[click to view]

Spraying on farms
[click to view]

Woman getting drinking water for her home
[click to view]

Central Valley farmworkers and environmentalists protest pesticide spraying on farms near schools
[click to view]

Other CommentsThis is one of the top 40 influential environmental justice cases in the United States identified from a national survey of environmental activists, scholars and other leaders by graduate students at the University of Michigan

Many residents speak a language other than English so the language barrier makes it difficult for them to advocate for themselves and navigate the legal system
Meta Information
ContributorBernadette Grafton, [email protected], University of Michigan School of Natural Resources and Environment
Last update07/05/2015