Anthropology Beyond the Tap: From Flint, Michigan to California’s Central Valley

By Alexa Becerra-Almendarez, Emily Wolff, and Lemual Wheatley §

Imagine you are thirsty. You go to the sink to pour yourself a glass of water, but you stop abruptly; your drinking water is contaminated. Residents of Flint, Michigan have become all too familiar with this problem. Recently, their drinking water was found to contain levels of lead high  above the EPA acceptable level of 15 parts per billionThe Flint water crisis has brought national attention to water contamination. However, it is by no means the only region dealing with the undrinkable.

California’s Central Valley is an agricultural region rife with inequality and environmental injustices. Residents face variable access to clean drinking water, and a number of contaminants and issues, including drought, overdrafting of aquifers, groundwater salination, leftover heavy metals from the mining and railroad industries, nitrate and pesticide contamination from agriculture, and even, as we learned, rusting pipes and faulty infrastructure. All of these factorscombined jeopardize Central Valley drinking water quality and security.

Map of the cities whose water stories we explored. Photo Credit: Alexa Becerra-Almendarez, using Google Earth.

We explored some of the Central Valley’s water stories in the communities of Wishon, Parlier, and Northeast Fresno. We compared and contrasted regulator and community responses and perceptions with respect to drinking water safety. All three communities have experienced different water contamination issues but not all communities were taken seriously or received the same attention or resources to address their water issues.


A Tale of Three Towns: Wishon, California

In the small town of Wishon, located at 6,600 feet elevation in the Sierra Foothills of Central California, everyone knows everyone. Roughly 200 people call Wishon home, and all work for Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) or are family members of PG&E workers. This is a company town established in 1923 when A.G. Wishon and the San Joaquin Power Company. Eventually, the San Joaquin Power Company merged with PG&E (Westman 2012:n.p.).

Wishon features twenty-four two-story cookie-cutter homes clustered together down a single street. The surrounding landscape includes a dam-fed lake, coniferous forests, snow-capped mountains and massive glacial rock formations. It is about two hours northeast of Fresno, up the long and windy Highway 168. The community is very isolated, hosting one small convenience store. A gate closes it off to outside traffic during the winter months when heavy snows blanket the mountains and passes. Wishon residents get their water from a well system.

Emily drove up to Wishon to interview local resident Torey, who has been drinking Wishon well water for the past thirty-two years. In 2011, routine monitoring of Wishon water detected arsenic. In 2008, California water laws changed, reducing the amount of arsenic deemed legally safe for drinking from 50 micrograms per liter (μg/L) to 10 micrograms per liter (μg/L). Wishon’s arsenic levels were now higher than the state limit.

Residents received notification about the arsenic levels in Wishon’s water supply in three different ways: via email, hand delivered letters, and workplace announcements. The notices also stated that until arsenic levels lowered, residents would be supplied with free drinking water in bottles and five-gallon jugs.

Five-gallon jugs of water stored in a shed in Wishon, CA. Photo Credit: Emily Wolff.
Flats of bottled drinking water supplied free of charge by PG&E for Wishon residents. Photo credit: Emily Wolff.

Many of the residents switched to the bottled water, but some continued to drink from the tap. In 2016, the supply closet where the five-gallon jugs are stored is still kept full by PG&E. The door to the storage shed is always open and Wishon residents have not had to pay for this supply.

Interestingly, this is a stark contrast to how PG&E responded to residents of Hinkley, CA, a small town near the Mojave Desert. There, PG&E dumped toxics into unlined pits, permanently contaminating the grounding water. PG&E fought vehemently to not be held accountable for the contamination, which has displaced people from their homes and made many people sick. Furthermore, what happened in Wishon is very different from official responses to water issues in other Central Valley communities.


A Tale of Three Towns: Parlier, California

The drinking water story of Parlier, California is a stark contrast to Wishon’s. Parlier is an agricultural town, largely populated by low-income Latino farmworkers and their families. Many are monolingual Spanish speakers, or speak indigenous languages from Mexico. 15,000 people reside in the City of Parlier. This number does not include the thousands of farmworkers who migrate in an out of the region with changing harvesting seasons.

In November 2015, the City of Parlier water supply tested positive for E. Coli bacteria. However, residents were not notified until four months later, in March 2016.  The city mailed a letter in English to Parlier households. Unfortunately, language barriers and failures to convey information about potential hazards in culturally and linguistically appropriate ways are far too common in the Central Valley.

As a result, thousands of Parlier residents like 44 year-old Isabel Cazares-Navarro, had no idea that they were possibly being exposed to E. coli through the tap water. During a conversation between Alexa and Isabel, Isabel expressed a sense of betrayal. The City of Parlier could have informed residents of the contamination via a bilingual phone message in November 2015 when E. Coli was first detected.

City of Parlier E.coli contamination notice. Photo Credit: Alexa Becerra-Almendarez.

Potential health effects of E. coli exposure include diarrhea, cramps, nausea, reproductive health hazards and developmental problems in fetuses and infants, decreased immunity, and death. These possibilities, however, were not mentioned in the notification letter.

Isabel is a single mother of two young children. She works two jobs, and has limited English language comprehension. She feels, “extremely paranoid about the situation to the point where I would rather wait [until the morning after coming home from working the long night shift] to go out to buy a pack of water bottles than use the water in my house when I am really thirsty” [translated from Spanish by Alexa Becerra-Almendarez]. She now takes extra precautions, relying on bottled water that she purchases herself for drinking, cooking, and personal hygiene. She even puts bottled water in her dog’s drinking bowl. The way she sees it, the bottled water saves her more money  than potentially paying for a visit to the vet and clinic for  serious health problems.

The switch to bottled water has definitely impacted Isabel’s tight budget. She tries to buy in bulk in order to save as much as she can. To further compensate for the money she loses buying water, she takes the empty bottles to a recycling center and receives a 5-cents per bottle rebate. However, with her jobs and childcare responsibilities, it is difficult to find time to go to the store.

Isabel prepares meals for herself, her children, and their pet dog using bottled water or canned chicken broth, instead of tap water. Photo credit: Alexa Becerra-Almendarez.

As Mother Jones writer Laura Bliss observes, water shortages and contamination are having more devastating affects on the Central Valley’s poorest and most marginalized residents and communities. Researchers Schwartz and Pepper (2009) further examine the social neglect lower income Latino families face when dealing with their health. People in Parlier feel forgotten and neglected. Ignoring people and their concerns, as Schwartz and Pepper (2009) observed, can also have health impacts beyond asthma and E. coli contamination. Isabel and others are not alone in their geographic and social isolation.

Thus far, the City of Parlier has responded to the E. Coli contamination by replacing leaky sample taps. They claim that this has resolved the problem. Still, Isabel feels unsure: “The people in charge of the city are not there for the people’s best interests,” she says [translated from Spanish by Alexa Becerra-Almendarez].

Residents in Northeast Fresno have also expressed distrust and outrage. Several residents are experiencing discolored and potentially lead contaminated water coming from their taps. The water story of Northeast Fresno, however illustrates how knowing one’s rights, coming from a  higher socioeconomic class, and having the ability to navigate political and legal systems can impact the ways in which individuals, officials and agencies respond to water crises.


A Tale of Three Towns: Northeast Fresno

The City of Fresno is  in the center of California, located 180 miles south of San Francisco and 180 north of Los Angeles. Over half a million people live in Fresno, making it the largest city in the Central Valley and the 5th largest city in California. It is comprised of seven political districts. District 6 is largely composed of middle and upper-middle class households, and includes the high-end Fort Washington neighborhood.

Approximately 37 households in this elite district have been experiencing water contamination from lead and other heavy metals. Reports of rusty-colored water have been made for over ten years but only recently have received increased attention from city and state officials, journalists, and alarmed residents.

The color of the water coming out of the tap caused some residents to question the quality of water. City health and environmental scientists ran tests, and have preliminary conclusions that the discolored and contaminated water is possibly the result of corroded galvanized pipes.

Corroded galvanized pipes unearthed and studied in Fresno. Photo credit: Dvera Saxton.

Still, the source, cause, and degree of the problem are heavily contested by residents and city and state officials, as well as by property developers who may be partly responsible if they installed piping that did not meet building code requirements.

Residents are extremely frustrated with the inconclusiveness of the City’s official response, and expressed their anger at a community forum held to address their concerns. Mayoral candidate and District-6 city council member Lee Brand organized and hosted the meeting on April 26th, 2016 at Kastner Elementary School. There, the city acknowledged the problem but could not pinpoint the source or identify any concrete solutions.

Sign directing residents to community meeting, hosted in English only at Kastner Elementary School in Northeast Fresno. Photo Credit: Dvera Saxton.

The Centers for Disease Control and the National Institutes of Environmental Health Sciences now assert that no amount of lead exposure is safe for children. The World Health Organization agrees: “There is no known level of lead exposure that is considered safe.” The City of Fresno plans to continue water testing and monitoring. Substantial  effort and study has gone into reassuring Northeast Fresno residents that their drinking water is safe, or can be made safe with household infrastructural upgrades.

Still, it is troubling that some city and state officials at the April 26th, 2016 meeting encouraged residents to take matters into their own hands, and to pay for remedies out of their own pockets. Some NE Fresno residents have responded to their water troubles using their own financial resources. Many present at the April 26th community meeting talked about purchasing high-end filtration and water softening systems. These start at $5,000 and do not include the routine costs of changing filters every couple of years. Some replaced older fixtures with new lead-free faucets, flushed their systems by running their water for several hours, or replaced the corroded portions of their piping. Some went as far as renovating their entire plumbing systems with copper or plastic pipes, which can cost up to $30,000. Not all Fresno residents are financially able to make such changes on their own.

A follow up meeting in NE Fresno took place on June 14th, 2016. There, officials announced that the problem likely has to do with faulty pipes manufactured in Asia. Efforts are underway to change building codes to prevent newer homes from being built with these materials, and residents continue to explore and contemplate their options.

Map of NE Fresno households with discolored water. Photo credit: City of Fresno.
Map of Fresno households with lead contaminated tap water. Photo credit: City of Fresno.

It has been difficult to determine where Northeast Fresno’s water problem started because not all homes in Northeast Fresno report discolored water. Further still, relying solely on the reports of discolored water could be misleading. There are many water contaminants that are invisible, odorless, colorless, and tasteless, such as 123-TCP, an ingredient in a formerly used soil fumigant pesticide used to sterilize the soils prior to planting crops that is found in several California water systems, including the City of Fresno’s.

In addition, lead and many other water contaminants are invisible, and often odorless and tasteless. The rust in some Northeast Fresno samples is a haphazard sentinel. It is possible that more people throughout the City of Fresno are affected by contaminated water and do not even know it. This is especially concerning for people who cannot read the fine print mailers that are sent to households linked to affected wells, such as this one alerting residents to the presence of 123-TCP.

There are other many other possible contaminants in city and rural drinking water supplies. Yet, it is rare that city and state officials organize community meetings to inform residents in poorer parts of the city or County, as we observed in Parlier with the E. Coli incident and in the case of 123-TCP.


Water as a Human Right

Central Valley residents face many challenges, including uncooperative, dismissive, and combative elected officials, when it comes to addressing contentious water quality and access issues. However, our anthropological explorations of different experiences and responses to water problems in the Central Valley illustrate that the concerns of wealthier residents are taken more seriously than those of impoverished non-white residents.

The water scare in northeast Fresno was featured on the local news stations, including ABC, Univision, and the Community Media Access Partnership. The story of E. coli contamination in Parlier, on the other hand, has not been reported on, nor have the Latino residents’ concerns been addressed adequately. Low-income farmworkers in Parlier are not considered to have the same perceived expertise as officials or people with a scientific background (Peña 2011). But, as we found, they are knowledgeable through  their experiences of being perpetually exposed to toxins at work, at home, and at school.

What can people do when they are ignored or neglected by their elected representatives, landlords, or state and federal monitoring agencies? Some organizations and individuals in the Central Valley are conducting their own citizen science projects on water quality, and fighting for water for the people versus water rights solely for the benefit of industry. In the meantime, it is important for us, as anthropology students, to attend to these water inequities, and to contribute to the conversations going on in our home communities.

Works Cited

Bliss, L. (2015). California’s Drought is about Economic Inequality. Mother Jones. Accessed 12 June 2016.
Peña, D. 2011. Structural Violence, Historical Trauma, and Public Health: The Environmental Justice Critique of Contemporary Risk Science and Practice. In L.M. Burton et al. (eds.), Communities, Neighborhoods, and Health: Expanding the Boundaries of Place, pp. 203-218. New York: Springer.
Schwartz, N.A. and D. Pepper. 2009. Social Suffering Among Mexican Americans in California’s San Joaquin Valley: “Nobody Talks to Us Here.” Medical Anthropology 28(4):336-367.
Westman, R. 2012. PG&E in the Sierras. Central Sierra Historical Society. Accessed 12 June 2016.

Alexa Becerra-Almendarez is a junior at California State University, Fresno, double majoring in anthropology and biology. She plans on entering medical school after graduation.

Emily Wolff is a philosophy major and anthropology minor at California State University, Fresno. She grew up in the Sierra Foothills.

Lemual Wheatley recently graduated from California State University, Fresno with a B.A. in anthropology. He plans on finding a career that will allow him to teach and work with youth.

This post is part of the series: Student Environmental Ethnographic Journalism.