Katya Cengel

Not a drop (of tap water) to drink in San Lucas, California

San Lucas is one of many small towns in Central California where the community’s water has been polluted by agriculture


SAN LUCAS, California — Posted in the front office of the San Lucas elementary school are the usual notices — a newspaper clipping about a local boy playing college football, an autism flier, a calendar. The warning about nitrate contamination in the drinking water is to the right of the cafeteria menu (Fridays are always pizza) and directly below the note about the sale of school “spirit paws.”

For three years, residents of this unincorporated farming community of about 80 homes in California’s agriculturally rich Salinas Valley have not been able to drink the water. It may seem remarkable that a community in California, one of the wealthiest states in one of the wealthiest countries, does not have safe drinking water. But for the residents of San Lucas, water problems are nothing new.

When she was a child, remembered Lucia Velazquez, now 31, there was black sediment in the water. More recently, residents describe the water as milky white. One thing it has never been? “It’s never, ever been clear water,” she said.

In 2012, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed Assembly Bill 685, establishing every Californian’s right to “safe, clean, affordable and accessible” drinking water. Assembly Member Luis Alejo, a descendant of some of the first farmworkers to join Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers in Watsonville, California, in the 1970s, is among those trying to make this a reality through legislation, such as the Safe Drinking Water Small Community Emergency Grant Fund, which was approved by Brown in October 2013.

About 25 to 30 five gallon bottles of water are delivered to the San Lucas elementary school every Friday. Students call the water that comes out of the tap "dirty water" or "milk water."
Katya Cengel

Alejo said that over 2 million Californians might not have safe drinking water because they use water from a private well or small water systems not regulated by the government.

“When they turn on their faucets at home, they cannot use it for drinking or cooking because it has a high level of toxic contaminant in their water," said Alejo.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 15 million U.S. households rely on private, household wells for drinking water. The Federal Safe Drinking Water Act requires the regulation of any public water system that serves more than 25 people more than 60 days per year or more than 15 service connections, so systems that do not clear those thresholds aren’t regulated, according to Timothy Moran, a California State Water Resources Control Board spokesman. Any source could be contaminated by agriculture, but the Salinas and Santa Maria valleys in California are among the most intensely farmed areas in the world.

Moran added, “The state’s ongoing programs to protect and improve surface and groundwater quality benefit all Californians, not just those served by regulated public water systems.”

However, there are major obstacles to providing clean water to small rural communities, according to Michael Thomas, ombudsman for the Central Coast Water Board.

The first obstacle is money, and even when money is available through grants, many communities lack the time, money or expertise to apply for or utilize grants and the legal standing to own and operate drinking water systems.

There is no incentive for municipalities to provide institutional capacity because the long-term cost of doing so is high, said Thomas. 

The problem is particularly bad in the agriculturally rich Central Valley and Central Coast, where much of the nation’s produce is grown and the majority of the population relies on groundwater. According to a 2012 study by the University of California at Davis, nitrate — mainly due to nitrogen in fertilizer — is one of the state’s most widespread groundwater contaminants.

In the Central Coast’s Salinas Valley and the Central Valley’s Tulare Lake Basin, as many as 254,000 people are at risk of nitrate contamination in their drinking water. Nitrate concentrations have exceeded the maximum permissible level in the water systems of more than 50 percent of the population at least once from 2006 to 2010. Most are protected by water system treatment, but about 10 percent are not.

The problem is expected to only get worse as more than 50 years of nitrogen from animal waste and fertilizer use continues to make its way into aquifers. Those most affected are those least equipped to handle the problem: small farming communities like San Lucas, with limited resources for drinking water treatment and infrastructure adaptations.

There isn’t much to the San Lucas County Water District, just a few employees who staff the office, a rented house on Main Street, a couple times a week. Phone messages go unanswered for days, and emails are problematic. (The district relies on dial-up Internet service.) Formed in 1965, the district does not have anywhere near the funds or resources of its counterparts in larger cities and towns. It has never had high quality water.

Two girls drink bottled water during lunch break at San Lucas elementary school.
Katya Cengel

Sheri Braden, a member of the San Lucas County Water District Board, said, “Before the nitrates, there was bad water.”

In 1968 the district, in Monterey County, constructed a well, pump, filter system and 78,000-gallon redwood tank for the community. It is believed the well was decommissioned because of water quality issues, according to a 2014 report by engineering consultancy group AMEC. Water quality problems were the reason another well, drilled in 1980, was replaced by a third well in 1981.

Various studies have cited marine sediment as one reason for the poor mineral quality and relatively high concentrations of inorganic salts and organic matter, called total dissolved solids (TDS), in San Lucas’ groundwater.

Good news finally came in 2005 when, thanks to a grant, the water district was able to replace the redwood tank with a 300,000-gallon steel belted tank and put in new water lines, said San Lucas County Water District manager Susan Madson.

But in 2006 the TDS levels were found to have significantly increased and have remained high ever since, according to the AMEC report. In March 2011, the Monterey County Environmental Health Bureau issued a do-not-drink order after nitrate levels were found to be elevated. Bottled water became the norm for cooking and drinking as those involved scrambled to find a longer-term solution.

“Ever since then, this is what we’re doing — treading water,” said Madson.

Nitrate binds to the hemoglobin that oxygen needs to access in order to circulate in the blood, said Richard LeWarne, assistant director of the Monterey County Health Department’s environmental health bureau. Because nitrates are chemicals, boiling the water just concentrates them. While other contaminants like arsenic are more chronic — people usually must have a long exposure to them before they start feeling effects — nitrate is acute. If levels are high enough, you will immediately feel the effect, said LeWarne.  

“Your cells are not getting the oxygen needed for them, so it’s like you are starting to suffocate,” he said.

It is particularly dangerous for infants under 6 months old and pregnant women because infants and fetuses typically do not have as many hemoglobin receptor sites for oxygen as adults do. Several years ago there was a very serious case, believed related to nitrate in the water, in Monterey County of blue baby syndrome, so named because infants turn blue from lack of oxygen, said LeWarne. 

Velazquez stopped giving baths to her youngest daughter, Lily, out of fear for her health. “Even though she is not 3 yet, I give her showers,” said Velazquez. “No baths anymore. I don’t want her to drink the water.”

Javier Cervantes shows the log book where he keeps track of San Lucas residents who have picked up their allotment of bottled water.
Katya Cengel

San Lucas is the kind of sleepy community where dogs, chickens, goats and even the occasional horse have been known to follow students to school. Mothers and younger siblings regularly join school-age children in the cafeteria for lunch, and wandering dogs seem more common on the streets than moving vehicles.

In some ways, San Lucas was fortunate because specific parties found responsible for the contamination. The well that supplies the community is on property owned by the Naraghi family and farmed by the Mission Ranches Co. In 2006, Mission Ranches began converting irrigated vineyards to row crops, “a process that caused or allowed nitrate containing wastes to be discharged to groundwater,” according to a 2013 cleanup and abatement order issued by the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board.

As the responsible parties, the Naraghi family and Mission Ranches are required to provide safe drinking water to residents until a permanent solution is found. In other communities, residents sometimes have to buy their own bottled water or rely on limited supplies from other sources. In San Lucas, where residents pay monthly water bills of about $50, each home receives 25 gallons a week.

Everyone here knows when the water truck arrives, Tuesdays and Fridays from 11 a.m. and noon, with an evening pick-up available from 6 to 8 p.m.

“Fortunate” is relative, though. For Bert Moreno, the water situation in San Lucas is “horrible, a nightmare.” At a little before 11 a.m. on a Friday in late September, he was waiting at the water district to talk to someone about water safety. A resident of San Lucas since 1992, he has several rental properties in the community and wanted to make sure he gave his tenants the correct information. Although he showers in the water, he said it leaves his skin itchy, and he didn’t think it was safe to bathe infants with it. When he washes his clothes, he said, they become discolored and smelly.

“What you can use it for is to flush the toilets. That’s about it,” said Moreno, 65.

The bad water has been blamed for everything from ruining clothes and killing parakeets to preventing community growth. At one time, there were plans to build low-income housing in San Lucas and bring children from an adjacent district to the school. That came to a halt when the quality of the water was called into question, said Kenia Acevedo, part of the Salinas Valley Safe Drinking Water Project for the nonprofit California Rural Legal Assistance.

“It really hurt the development overall of the community, bringing funding sources and having more resources coming into their community,” she said.

The San Lucas Pit Stop is the community’s sole restaurant. It has its own well that does not have nitrate contamination.
Katya Cengel

San Lucas’ sole general store burned down years ago, and the library was shuttered and later demolished after asbestos was exposed in its structure in 2010. One restaurant that has its own well has managed to stay in business — a small place with a couple of tables and bright pink walls on the other side of the train tracks from the community, just past the grain silos. The jukebox at the San Lucas Pit Stop plays Mexican ballads, and sombreros are piled high on the counter. The San Lucas School, which underwent a costly modernization last summer, is another bright spot. It boasts a relatively new playground, shade structure, library and computer lab. Water deliveries are made there on Fridays.

John Romans, owner of Mission Ranches, does not accept responsibility for the nitrate contamination. But he is proud of the way the water district, the community, the Naraghi family and his business have worked together to make sure the community is supplied with bottled drinking water.

“It’s been a good deal,” said Romans. “Too long, but it’s been OK.”

If all goes as planned, the deliveries will end Nov. 1 when a replacement well, proposed by Mission Ranches and the Naraghi family — who will pay for it — along with the water district, is expected to begin operating.

Test data show the well to be productive and meet drinking water standards, according to a June 2014 quarterly report from Horan Lloyd Attorneys at Law, which represents Mission Ranches. The new well is some 1,000 feet from the existing well and is about 110 feet deep, compared with the previous well’s 70 feet depth — factors that should improve water quality. Whether nitrates could be a problem in the future is something “one can never tell,” said Romans.

Most believe the well is an interim solution, and a feasibility study is being conducted to weigh longer-term solutions, including installing water lines to hook up to King City, about eight miles away. For now, residents seem happy to hear they may finally be able to drink the water that comes from their taps.

“Oh, wow,” Lucia Velazquez’s mother, Maria Velazquez, said when she heard the news. “That’s an achievement for San Lucas.”

When asked if she thought the water would be safe to drink, Lucia remained skeptical.

“I don’t know, because they have said that so many times.”