California’s rural poor hit hardest as groundwater vanishes in long drought

Whenever her sons rush indoors after playing under the broiling desert sun, Guadalupe Rosales worries. They rarely heed her constant warning: Don’t drink the water. It’s not safe. The 8- and 10-year-olds stick their mouths under a kitchen faucet and gulp anyway.

There is arsenic in the groundwater feeding their community well at St. Anthony Trailer Park, 40 miles south of Palm Springs. In ordinary times, the concentration of naturally occurring arsenic is low, and the water safe to drink. But during California’s unrelenting drought, as municipalities join farmers in sucking larger quantities of water from the ground, the concentration of arsenic is becoming more potent.

A recent laboratory test found that water in St. Anthony’s shallow well has twice the concentration of arsenic considered safe.

Amalia Ceja, who lives nearby, will not drink the water, but she said she uses it to bathe herself and her 4-year-old son. He developed “bumps on his head,” Ceja said. “At first, we thought it was dandruff. After a doctor visit, they said it was arsenic.”

Arsenic, natural or not, can be frightening. It has been linked to various cancers of the bladder, lungs and skin when consumed in high doses. It is also known to cause birth defects and attack the nervous system.

Near agricultural fields, its levels can be increased by fertilizers and animal waste that run off farms. Mineral mining operations in the area contribute to the problem.

Three years ago, officials in Riverside County helped a community nonprofit group, Pueblo Unido, take ownership of St. Anthony Trailer Park and its toxic well after a business that owned it went bankrupt.

The county also provided funds for Pueblo Unido to build a ­reverse-osmosis water-treatment facility that filters water through a membrane to remove arsenic for the park’s 850 residents. Pueblo Unido took the additional step of providing filters that remove arsenic from water directly at the faucets of some trailers.

A sign wired to a gate at the treatment center by Pueblo Unido says the water is safe to consume. But it offers no proof from a lab test.

As sweat beaded on his head under a late-afternoon sun, Boykin Witherspoon III, director of the Water Resources Institute at California State University at San Bernardino, read the sign with skepticism.

“A notice like that is usually from the department of health, but this is something the owner put up,” Witherspoon said. “I couldn’t get away with doing that at the university. I have to produce proof, based on peer-reviewed science.”

A lab report ordered by the county in May found no arsenic in groundwater treated at the ­reverse-osmosis plant, but Rosales and other residents did not know that. A Web site for the Department of Environmental Health says the information is available upon request.

The treated groundwater sits under the sun in large, milky-white plastic water tanks. “It smells like plastic, like it’s been stored there forever,” Rosales said. “It foams a lot when you pour it out, and that concerns us.”

Rosales said her trailer is not among those that received a filter for its faucet. Pueblo Unido’s director, Sergio Carranza, declined to return several e-mails and telephone calls to his office requesting an interview.

“We don’t have confidence in [the water],” said Rosa Magullon, who has lived at the park 20 years. “It was never great,” she said, but after three full years of drought, “it’s even worse.”

The women said they drive 10 miles to a grocery store to buy bottled water rather than walk a few hundred yards from the trailer to the treatment plant to fill five-gallon containers with water they do not trust.

Witherspoon’s eyes darted from the plastic tanks that hold the water to Pueblo Unido’s sign saying it was safe, without proof.

“I wouldn’t trust it either,” he said.

Full article: California’s rural poor hit hardest as groundwater vanishes in long drought (Washington Post)

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