Reporting from Seville, Calif. — The beige notice appeared on Becky Quintana's doorstep one recent morning here in Seville, a century-old settlement nestled amid fruit and almond groves in the Central Valley.
"Boil your water," it warned in bold, capital letters. Alarming as that was, the blue "unsafe water alert" that came the next day was more worrisome: Don't drink, cook or even wash dishes with the water — and don't boil it, because that just concentrates the nitrates.
But, a day later, more pastel-colored circulars arrived. One canceled the do-not-boil alert. Another repeated the boil-it-first alert. A third said water pressure was so low that residents should use it only for the essentials.
Quintana, a school bus driver for disabled children, finished her morning rounds and headed for the Tulare County office building, where her white sneakers carried her purposefully to the Resource Management Agency.
"People are really confused," she told Britt Fussel, an agency engineer. "And not everybody got these notes."
"There must have been a miscommunication," Fussel said, promising to investigate. "But the water is safe to drink, as far as we know, today."
More than 1 million people in California live in places where tap water isn't reliably safe to drink, and about a third of them are in small, mostly Latino towns such as Seville in the San Joaquin Valley. Many residents of those communities — some of the state's poorest — ignore the often contradictory water-quality notices and spend extra money for bottled water for cooking and drinking.
The crisis has spawned a new group of activists, women like Quintana in Seville, who are leading efforts to pressure politicians to clean up the water. A generation ago, Quintana's father fought alongside Cesar Chavez for farmworkers' rights. These days, she takes those lessons of political activism into battle with county and state officials.
"People — even some in Seville — ask me, 'Why don't you move?'" said Quintana, 54. "But you know what? My parents raised me here, and my father and his generation sweated for our little house. This isn't about me. It's about our kids and grandkids."
A drive through the San Joaquin Valley, the southern stretch of the Central Valley from Bakersfield to Fresno, reveals the food-producing might of California. Dust devils dance across fields of citrus, nuts and vegetables — some of the more than 200 different crops grown here. Agriculture in these parts is a $28-billion-a-year business.
The small towns where many of the fieldworkers live, often below the poverty line, are far from the highways and major cities.
Much of the water contamination in those towns comes from the harmful levels of nitrates, which enter the groundwater from crop fertilizers, feedlot runoff and leaky septic tanks. The colorless and odorless nitrates pose a particular health threat to infants because they can cause "blue baby syndrome," a blood oxygen disorder that can be fatal. The long-term risk for adults is unclear.
Farmers started using nitrogen fertilizer to boost crop production four decades ago, and since then nitrate contamination in the valley has increased fivefold. The State Water Resources Control Board is writing new guidelines for fertilizer use, but it will take years, perhaps even decades, before groundwater pollution begins to ease, water experts say.
"I hear people in Hollywood talk about helping people in the Third World get clean water. Well, we need help in our own backyard first," Quintana said. "Farming is important. But in the end we can live without the fruit — not without water."
Susana De Anda, co-director of the Community Water Center, a Visalia organization that helps these small towns make their case to the authorities, says California "has clear and consistent policies: Clean water flows toward money and power. But we're making progress, because these women are moving their communities forward."
Seville, population 350, covers five square blocks in northeastern Tulare County, a half-hour's drive from the rolling mountains of Sequoia National Park. Pipes that deliver water from the lone well are riddled with leaks, and tall stands of tules sprout from the pooling water. A few leaks have been repaired with old inner tubes held in place with wire.
For years, low water pressure has left toilets and shower heads clogged with pebbles and rocks. Two years ago, though, the town learned it had a more serious problem: water contaminated by nitrates.
Quintana led a contingent to the Tulare County Board of Supervisors last year. "We're not asking for a handout," she told Supervisor Steve Worthley, whose region includes Seville. "But you've got to either help us or move out of the way."