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'It's a toxic blend': where the kids are warned not to swallow the bath water

Vivian Ho in East Orosi, California
·11-min read

An invisible line splits the rural road of Avenue 416 in California’s Tulare county, at the point where the nut trees stretch east toward the towering Sierra Nevada mountains in the distance.

On one side of the line, residents have clean water. On the other side, they do not.

On the other side lies East Orosi, an unincorporated community of about 700 where children grow up learning to never open their eyes or mouths while they shower. They know that what comes out of their faucets may harm them, and parents warn they must not swallow when they brush their teeth.

They spend their lives sustaining themselves on bottled water while just one mile down Avenue 416, the same children they go to school with in the community of Orosi can drink from their taps freely and bathe without a second thought.

East Orosi is one of many predominantly Latino communities that suffer from contaminated drinking water that has exceeded federal limits set by the Environmental Protection Agency, according to an extensive investigation by the Guardian. Systems serving Latino communities have twice as many strikes against them for drinking water violations as the national average, according to our analysis of more than 140,000 public water systems in the US and county-level demographic data.

This is an issue that affects 5.25m people across California, according to the Environmental Working Group, in largely small rural communities like East Orosi where there are fewer customers to charge for more advanced water filtration systems.

Maria Orozco, 30, doesn’t remember a time when she felt she could safely drink water from the faucet. When she was five, her mother began noticing residue when she boiled water. Then one day, a neighbor came to see her mother, frightened and desperate: her five-year-old son had developed a rash all over his body. The doctors told them it was just a rash, though the mothers believed it had to be something more.

Now a mother in East Orosi herself, Orozco is constantly concerned about watching over her daughters, seven-year-old Sheila and nine-year-old Viviana. For Orozco, bath time cannot be the gentle, fun-splashing experience that so many mothers get to share with their children; for her and the other parents of East Orosi, it’s a matter of their children’s health.

“They’re kids, they don’t listen,” Orozco said. “They open their mouths and I tell them to spit it out. They spit it out but sometimes they try to swallow. I tell them they have to stop playing around.”

Orozco tries to put on a brave face for her family, but she is worried. Recently, her daughters’ hair started falling out in the shower, more than usual. Her hair has begun falling out too. “It’s like a knot in your stomach,” she said, of this constant worry over the water and her family’s health. “It’s like a knot in your stomach and someone is putting a lot of pressure on it.”

Symptoms from water contamination are wide-ranging, and it is difficult to prove that a particular chemical or substance might cause a specific illness. In East Orosi, the main concern is nitrate levels that exceed the standard set by the EPA. Since 2015, the town’s water system has exceeded the federal legal limit for nitrates 15 times.

Nitrates make oxygen less available to the body. It’s an issue prevalent in the Central Valley, California’s breadbasket, where big agriculture reigns. Orchards and lush orange groves surround Orosi, where many work in the fields, planting and harvesting the fruit. Dairies line the road to Visalia, the closest city, the whiff of manure sharp at certain junctures.

The majority of residents of the Central Valley rely on groundwater for home use, drilling below ground into aquifers rather than sourcing from reservoirs. Advocates in the region believe that the fertilizer runoff and manure from all the large-scale farming operations and dairies have contaminated the groundwater. More than 90% of nitrates in all drinking water comes from agriculture, said Anne Schechinger, a senior economic analyst with the Environmental Working Group.

The biggest health risk when it comes to drinking nitrate-tainted water is to infants and pregnant women Nitrates can affect hemoglobin, the molecules that help move oxygen in the body, resulting in something called “blue baby syndrome,” when an infant’s skin turns blue. Nitrate contamination has also been linked to thyroid disease which can cause fatigue, weight gain and hair loss.

Too much exposure to nitrates can cause difficult breathing, nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, dehydration, dizziness, weakness and convulsions. Newer studies have shown that drinking water with lower nitrate levels than the federal threshold can still increase risks of colorectal cancer in adults.

“The EPA’s limit is really not protecting people enough, is what we believe,” Schechinger said.

Though nitrates are the primary concern in East Orosi, water advocates in the area are also anxious about other contaminants. “The Central Valley produces a variety of food from grapes, almonds, apricots, blueberries and we also create a variety of blended, toxic water,” said Susana de Anda, executive director of the Community Water Center. “Our groundwater is a toxic blend of nitrates, arsenic, 123TCP, chromium. Unfortunately, it’s not just nitrates.”

The East Orosi Community Service District did not return requests for comment.

The California state water board has documented violations with East Orosi’s water dating back to 2003, but residents remember it beginning earlier than that. Orozco believes it’s been at least 25 years. Felipe Gonzalez, 65, who has lived in East Orosi for 30 years, remembers the water was fine when he first moved there. Then the water in the ornate fountain in his front yard began growing algae and mold. When he washed his car, the water would leave a strange residue behind. Eventually, officials with the water district contacted them and told them they could no longer drink from their taps.

Through the years, he and his family learned to make do on bottled water, using what they now pay nearly $70 a month for only showers, watering the plants and dishes. His adult son with developmental disabilities cannot understand that he needs to close his eyes and mouth when he bathes, and has since had a series of eyes issues that they have no way of proving is connected to contaminated water exposure. When his youngest granddaughter visits from Orosi, she cannot understand why she cannot play in the fountain.

“You get tired of the challenges,” Gonzalez said. “I and the others feel like losing hope that this will ever be resolved and they will change the water. So, we can only get used to the idea and learn to live like this.”

Some areas, like East Orosi, are worse affected than others, just given the geography, said Community Water Center solutions manager Ryan Jensen. The closer a community is to the Sierra Nevada mountains, the shallower the aquifer and the water less diluted.

East Orosi has just two wells serving its community, while Orosi has five for its community of 8,770. The cost of getting a water filtration system advanced enough to clean East Orosi’s water – a cost that would be pushed on to the consumers – would be far too much for a community so small that it takes just five minutes to drive around the entire perimeter.

Holding the agriculture industry accountable for its role in polluting the groundwater is a complicated and lofty endeavor. Elizabeth Lopez, 17, who moved to East Orosi a year ago, is fed up with having to keep driving into Orosi or Cutler to refill their five-gallon jugs of water. But like so many others in East Orosi, her mother works in the fields. Her father works at a dairy. The very industry that is impacting their water is also keeping a roof over their heads.

Clean water advocates believe the solution lies in consolidation. In 2015, the Community Water Center helped pass legislation that gave the state water board authority to force one community water system to join with a smaller community’s water system. Orosi would take on East Orosi.

It seemed like the perfect answer. East Orosi and Orosi were already one community, with their children going to the same schools and their residents shopping in the same shops. Advocates have identified a spot for a new well in Orosi to serve the new customers, and all that would be left is the installation of piping down three-quarters of a mile of highway down Avenue 416. In the process, they could even connect a stretch of households that were using contaminated private wells to the new consolidated public water system, Jensen said.

But it appears that Orosi doesn’t want to consolidate, according to local officials and advocates working on the issue. The state water resources control board first ordered a voluntary consolidation with the Orosi Public Utilities District in July 2018. More than two years later, the state board ordered a mandatory consolidation, with the requirement that the two systems merge by the end of 2024.

It’s not a matter of community rivalry, or neighbors hating neighbors. “East Orosi, those residents are our neighbors, they’re our relatives, they’re the students that also attend Orosi high school and Orosi elementary school,” said local lawmaker Eddie Valero, who grew up in Orosi. “They are a part of our community and I would say if you would ask someone in Orosi, ‘Hey, do you want to give people in East Orosi water from our piping system?’ Overwhelmingly, they would say yes.”

But in California – and in the Central Valley, especially – water is more precious than gold. It is the lifeline of the valley, a necessary resource for the $50bn agriculture industry that keeps the region afloat. Water means jobs, it means food on the table, it means the ability to pay next month’s rent. The 2015 drought that choked the state still haunts the Central Valley, with political billboards of “Save California’s Water” dotting its main freeways and political ads about Democrats wasting California’s water blaring on its radio stations.

“It’s a scarcity mentality that causes communities that are doing all right to be hesitant to help out other communities,” Jensen said. “On a larger scale, it’s not a problem unique just to Orosi. The city of the city of Tulare didn’t want to connect with Matheny Tract. Up and down the Central Valley, there’s these stories of small communities that would like to be connected to a larger community but the larger community is resistant.”

In an email, Mose Diaz, an attorney for Orosi Public Utility District (OPUD), denied that the board of directors was against consolidation. OPUD had been working to negotiate a voluntary consolidation before the state water board “hastily issued a forced consolidation order,” Diaz said.

He did not respond to questions about why a 2017 engineering report prepared for the East Orosi Community Services District stated that OPUD was “opposed to consolidation of EOCSD and OPUD” and had “directed its staff not to furnish information” regarding connections to Orosi well sites.

Diaz also made a point to state that the state water board’s mandatory consolidation order was “based on the erroneous premise that the EOCSD’s groundwater wells exceed the State’s maximum contaminant level” of 10 milligrams per liter. Indeed, for the last four quarters, East Orosi’s water just barely tested within standards: 9.2 and 9.5 milligrams in 2019 and the first quarter of 2020, and then exactly 10 for two more quarters in 2020. Asked if he would recommend that the children Orosi drink this water – or, if he would allow his own children to drink this water – he did not respond.

With nitrates, it’s also important to note that it’s not uncommon for levels to fluctuate because of rainfall or drought, especially in a region with a long history of contamination like East Orosi, Jensen said.

Local advocates are anticipating a legal battle. Diaz said he thought that the state water board exceeded its legal authority in issuing the mandatory order. For the residents of East Orosi, this would only further prolong a process that has already taken too long.

Maria Orozco, the young East Orosi mother, grew up going to meetings with her mother, Maria Elena Orozco, who made the issue of getting clean water to their community her passion in life.

Her mother died in 2018, unable to see her dream fulfilled. Orozco broke down in tears when she talked about her mother, and the thought that someone could fight so hard and still, after all this time, their home would not have clean water.

“Every time we’d go to the water meetings, she would talk right there and tell us our dream was to have clean water, so our kids would have clean water, and our grandkids,” Orozco said. “I want my mom’s dream to come true.”