Wells Are Running Dry in Rural Communities of Color. Is a Fix in Sight?

Photo of Amber X. Chen

By Amber X. Chen

Jul 12, 2023

Graphic by Ali Aas/AP Photos

Advocates say the Farm Bill can help address the racial water gap.

This article was produced in collaboration with Nexus Media News, part of a series on climate change and the 2023 Farm Bill.

For years, Michael Prado has provided bottled water to his neighbors in Sultana, a town of about 785 people in California’s Central Valley. That’s because most wells in town have been contaminated by runoff from agriculture, said Prado, who is president of the Sultana Community Services District. Only one meets state standards for safe drinking water — he’s glad they have it, but it’s not enough.

“We’ve been crossing our fingers and toes that this drought [wouldn’t] dry our well up. Due to the fact that we live in an agricultural area and this is a little community, we would be devastated,” he said. Prado worries that if the town’s remaining up-to-standard well gives out, even more residents would have to boil water before using it or rely on bottled water. “We are in dire need of a new well,” he said.

Millions of people in the U.S. lack access to safe drinking water. Rural communities of color like Sultana, which is majority Hispanic, are disproportionately affected by this crisis. There, some families spend up to 10% of their monthly income on water. And yet the federal government underfunds communities of color when it comes to water infrastructure, according to a recent report from the Community Water Center, a California advocacy group.

“These racialized disparities in access to safe drinking water and effective wastewater services are occurring because of decades of disinvestment,” said Jenny Rempel, co-author of the report and a Ph.D. candidate at the University of California, Berkeley. In California alone, 300 towns do not supply safe drinking water to residents, the report found.

Advocates say the Farm Bill, a massive piece of legislation that is voted on every five years and determines how the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) disburses billions in federal funding, is a chance to finally invest in these communities’ water systems.

“The Farm Bill has funding that can really help address a lot of these gaps,” said Susana de Anda, executive director of the Community Water Center. She said the legislation should increase investments, particularly grants, in rural Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) communities; fund an annual audit of the USDA to determine which communities actually receive water infrastructure funding; and push the agency to deepen relationships with community-based organizations to ensure long-neglected populations have a voice in the planning process.

“It’s clear that [low-income people of color] have been left out of water planning, and more importantly, they’ve been left out of intentional funding designed for them to really meet their needs and solve the issue,” de Anda added.

“The Farm Bill has funding that can really help address a lot of these gaps.”

When reached for comment, a USDA Rural Development spokesperson said that the administration is “committed to addressing the infrastructure needs of America’s most historically underserved communities” and added that the agency is “strengthening its efforts to provide technical and financial support to BIPOC communities and historically underserved areas that need it most.”

The racial and rural water gap has its roots in historic neglect. For decades, the Central Valley has attracted migrant farmworkers, many of whom were forced into temporary housing without basic resources like electricity or running water. Many of these settlements, like Sultana, became permanent, but never received municipal services.

Rural communities of color were historically excluded from being annexed into cities, where utilities were, a phenomenon known as “municipal underbounding,” said Camille Pannu, an associate clinical professor at Columbia Law School who has studied water access issues in California.

This has led to communities like Sultana remaining unincorporated and lacking many public services — like adequate wells and water treatment systems. “You end up having this upside-down water system where you have the lowest-income people paying the highest bills for terrible water,” Pannu said. She said that weak water infrastructure often forces residents to build their own private wells or purchase bottled water.

In agricultural communities like Sultana, water isn’t just hard to access. When it comes from the ground, it’s often contaminated with nitrates, arsenic, and pesticides; these contaminants are linked to cancer, lung, and heart disease, among other ailments. Treating that water can add hundreds of dollars to residents’ yearly water and sewer bills, according to a recent report from the Environmental Working Group.

“You end up having this upside-down water system where the lowest-income people pay the highest bills for terrible water.”

Federal funds can help ease the burden, but only if these communities are able to access them, said Rempel, the doctoral researcher. “Communities need a lot of capacity and resources to be able to apply for and access these federal funding programs,” Rempel said. “There’s a huge opportunity for technical assistance to start to close this gap.”

Even Prado, who has worked in community services for over 25 years, said he has struggled to navigate the system of applying for federal loans and grants. “Nobody really knows about USDA funding,” he said.

Despite these obstacles, Prado has seen the benefits of federal assistance. In 2017, the USDA helped to fund a $2.1 million project to drill a new community well for Monson — one of Sultana’s neighbors — supplying more than 200 homes with safe water. That same year, Prado, with help from a local nonprofit, applied for $7 million in funding for a well in his town.

Now, more than six years later, Sultana is slated to get the new well it so desperately needs. Construction crews broke ground in May, and the well is slated for completion in May 2024.

Prado said he’s excited about the new well — but access to clean water isn’t something he and his neighbors should have had to fight for.

“I keep telling the state: what they need to do is get off their chair, come to the valley, and see all the rural communities,” Prado said. “See what their needs are, hold outreach meetings, and start finding out what they need here. I don’t think there’s enough of that really going on.”

Write for Ambrook Research.


Photo of Amber X. Chen

Amber X. Chen

Amber X. Chen (she/her) is a freelance journalist who covers environmental justice. Her writing has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Teen Vogue, The Guardian, and other publications. You can find her on Instagram and Twitter @amberonradio. She is based in the Los Angeles area.

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