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Central Valley residents rally for clean drinking water in Sacramento. ‘This is your fight’

Araceli Sanabria with a poster that reads "Water is Life" in English, Spanish and Vietnamese
Esther Quintanilla
Fresno resident Araceli Sanabria protests at the steps of the state capitol to demand better access to affordable, clean water.

Araceli Sanabria migrated to the United States 16 years ago from Michoacan, Mexico. She says the water in Fresno is worse than that of her hometown. Here, her hair falls out when she washes it in the shower. But, she continues to pay a high price for it.

“We are paying more than $120 a month for our water bill even though we can’t drink from our taps,” she says in Spanish. Sanabria has no choice but to continuously purchase water bottles, which is an added cost that her family can barely afford. “Honestly, we don’t keep track of how many [water] bottles we buy. But 40 gallons of water goes quickly, especially in the summer.”

California enshrined the right to clean and affordable water a decade ago, but Sanabria is just one in a million Californians who don’t have access to clean water in their homes. Earlier this month, she and about 50 other Valley residents traveled to Sacramento to pressure lawmakers to strengthen their access to water. They were led by Susana de Anda, the cofounder of the Community Water Center.

“Our hardworking families are paying twice for water,” De Anda said in a speech at the steps of the state capitol.

The protestors support three bills, including one that would establish a water rate assistance program to help low-income families, like Sanabria’s, pay their monthly bills.

“On top of that, families have to worry that their children do not swallow the water they use to brush their teeth because they can get sick, that is not okay,” De Anda said.

Some Central Valley wells are running dry

A recent audit by the California State Water Resources Control Board found that much of the water in rural areas is contaminated with nitrates and other harmful chemicals. Sanabria knows this all too well.

“Lead appeared in my children’s blood tests because of the water quality in our home,” Sanabria says. “We can’t drink from our faucet because it’s not safe. It reeks of chlorine.”

Other protestors spoke about their wells running dry. Michael Torres lives in Tombstone Territory, a small community outside of Sanger. He says he and his neighbors first noticed their wells running low when growers started pumping their water in 2016.

“They're pumping everybody's water to plant their vegetables and their trees and everything,” Torres says.

When his pump went out a few years ago, he got his well checked and was told there was enough water to last him years. But it ran dry 10 months later. Since then, he’s had 2,500 gallons of water delivered to his home each week.

“That’s how we’re surviving right now,” he says. “Without that, we would not have water.”

Torres could dig a new well, as a couple of his neighbors have, but it would cost him the steep price of $35,000.

“Do you want to spend all that money?” Torres says. “And then a year, year and a half later, it goes dry and you're in the hole?”

Valley protestors support three water-related bills

Assemblymember Steve Bennett introduced Assembly Bill 2201, which would help out residents like Torres.

“My bill requires the counties to go to the groundwater agencies and make sure that wells will not hurt other domestic neighboring wells,” Bennet said to the protesters at the rally.

Many agricultural organizations are against this bill. Danny Merkeley at the California Farm Bureau says that because the bill primarily regulates new well permits, it wouldn’t help rural communities that are seeing their existing wells run dry.

“The people that are going to be impacted the very most by this are the smallest growers, the smallest farmers and ranchers,” Merkeley says of AB 2201.

The solution, he says, already exists. The Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, or SGMA, aims to stop groundwater pumping in overdrafted wells by 2040.

“If somebody is pumping and it's impacting a community's drinking water, then that's another issue that needs to be dealt with. And SGMA will over time,” Merkeley says.

But De Anda with the Community Water Center says residents can’t wait.

“If you also believe clean water is a basic human right, that should never be a privilege. If you yourself need to have safe drinking water to survive. This is your fight. We're fighting your fight,” De Anda said at the rally.

Lawmakers are expected to vote on this legislation at the end of the month.

This story is part of the Central Valley News Collaborative, which is supported by the Central Valley Community Foundation with technology and training support by Microsoft Corp.

Esther Quintanilla reports on diverse communities for KVPR through the Central Valley News Collaborative, which includes The Fresno Bee, Vida en el Valle, KVPR and Radio Bilingüe.