Reporting from Seville, Calif. — On a chilly day in March, a U.N. human rights lawyer came to this tiny farm town to investigate unsafe drinking water — part of a world tour that also included Bangladesh and Namibia.
Advocates who had long been trying to call attention to Central California's increasingly tainted groundwater were elated. Ruben Tavarez, a school board member, was miffed.
"It makes it sound like Seville is a Third World country!" he said. "There's nothing wrong with the water. The pipes are just bad."
Indeed, when students in the city of Visalia, where Tavarez works as a substitute teacher, asked about nitrate contamination in Seville, he drank a big bottle of water in front of them, making a point of telling them he'd filled it from his tap at home.
Such are the divided reactions to an environmental threat whose consequences might not be immediately known. A far-off threat you can't see or taste or smell.
Recently, Tulare County Supervisor Steve Worthley stood outside a Seville community water meeting chatting with residents about the town's nitrate levels, which continually fluctuate just above and below public health limits.
"The problem with the environmentalists is they don't understand the legal limits are here," said Worthley, a rancher, holding a hand at chest level.
"And poison is way up here," he said, raising his hand high over his head.
The day the U.N. lawyer came to Seville, residents — mostly women, mostly mothers — from 17 other San Joaquin Valley communities that lack safe water because of nitrates, pesticides and arsenic came to tell Portugal's Catarina de Albuquerque their stories. They spend much of their meager incomes on bottled water and receive confusing health warnings.
In the neighboring town of Cutler, Spanish-speaking farm workers received notes in English that their pesticide-laced water is safe to drink, but that long-term consumption could put them at risk of cancer.
Tainted water — especially nitrate contamination— is a part of life in California's richest agricultural region.
Nitrates in the water
Some 40 years ago, farmers started using nitrogen fertilizer to boost crops. Septic tanks and runoff from dairies also leak nitrates. Now, much of the San Joaquin Valley sits on nitrate-polluted groundwater.
A recent study by Pacific Institute, an Oakland water policy research center, estimated that 1 million Central Valley residents at times have harmful levels of nitrates in their water, and the cost of cleanup would be at least $150 million.
High nitrate levels are linked to blue baby syndrome, which cuts off an infant's oxygen supply. In adults, nitrates are suspected of contributing to miscarriages, stomach disorders and certain cancers.
There has been no regulation of how much fertilizer farmers can use or how close fertilizers and feed lots can be to wells.
In June, for the first time, the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board will consider guidelines requiring farming operations most likely to pollute groundwater to reduce and monitor how much nitrogen they're putting into the soil.
Even if the guidelines are passed, it will be several years until specific rules are in place. Water experts say that even with perfect compliance, it could be decades before already polluted groundwater improves.
Marina Gallo, 50, can't believe such high-level policy issues have zeroed in on little Seville, a century-old, close-knit community of about 400.
She cuts from her house through a grass field to the town's one well. The pipes carrying drinking water from the well run through a muddy irrigation ditch. On top of the pump is a phone number hand-painted on a scrap of wood.
"That's the number you're supposed to call when something's wrong with the water, but that guy died," she said about the system's latest private owner.
Once, Phillip G.H. Benzenberg owned Seville's water system. Residents recalled how he walked door to door to collect the monthly $20 water bill. If the town's water looked cloudy, he'd dump some bleach in the pump. When there were cracks in the pipes, he'd tie them up with old bicycle inner tubes.
"All us kids loved old man Benzenberg," said Gallo's neighbor, 56-year-old Alan Medina. "We'd see him coming and run to the water tank. When he left, he always took a couple of big jars of water with him. He said Seville had the best-tasting water of anywhere."
Becky Quintana, Seville's most tireless clean-water advocate, said that in the 1960s and '70s her farmworker activist father went to the public health department with concerns about the water, but nothing was done. Nitrate levels were secretly climbing the entire time.
After Benzenberg died, the system passed through a couple of more hands. Two years ago, after repeated pleas by residents, the county took the system into receivership. Now residents pay $60 a month for water that frequently fails public health standards for drinking.