When I turn on the faucet at my home in Alpaugh, what comes out is dangerous to drink. The water is contaminated with unsafe levels of arsenic. Since I found out about the arsenic, I haven’t been cooking or drinking with Alpaugh water. It’s expensive to pay a water bill and also have to buy bottled water for cooking and drinking, but I don’t want to get sick.
Arsenic-contaminated water can cause rashes and vomiting in the short term, but what’s even more alarming is that it can cause cancer.
Too many people die of cancer in Alpaugh each year. Every time there is a funeral for someone who died of cancer, I’m forced to consider a horrible question - was it the water? It’s hard to say definitively, but that is a question no one should be forced to ask. Our town is only home to about 1,000 people, so when a dozen people died of cancer one year, that was really scary. I redoubled my efforts to make sure my community could get safe water.
Our families and school have gone more than a decade with toxic water because we couldn’t find a way to afford the expensive operation and maintenance costs of groundwater treatment. Alpaugh is working toward a solution by building an arsenic treatment plant, but without grant funding available to cover ongoing operation and maintenance expenses, the water district had to raise rates substantially. To pay for the plant, my monthly water bill increased. I think it will be $69 per month by 2019. We still don’t have safe water, so I’m spending money on bottled water until the treatment plant comes online. I’m living on a fixed income so it’s hard to spend so much money on water.
The higher rates are too expensive for the families in Alpaugh who are already struggling to pay rent and put food on the table. Earlier this year, several families in Alpaugh had their water shut off – just like in Detroit – because they couldn’t afford to pay the higher water bills. We know that a solution is on the way, but what good is safe water if you can’t afford it?
I worked hard in 2012 to make the human right to water part of California law. We won that fight when Assembly Bill 685 (by Assemblymember Eng) was passed into law. California water code now states that “it is the established policy of the state that every human being has the right to safe, clean, affordable, and accessible water adequate for human consumption, cooking, and sanitary purposes.”
It’s been five years since then and we are still waiting for safe water in Alpaugh, so I have been pounding the pavement to Sacramento once again this year.
Senator Bill Monning introduced Senate Bill 623 this year to establish a statewide Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Fund. This legislation would make short- and long-term drinking water solutions available to low-income Californians who lack safe and affordable drinking water. Most importantly to Alpaugh, it would also assist with operations and maintenance costs for low-income communities that can’t afford treatment for their drinking water.
This type of solution is vitally needed. My most recent trip to Sacramento was in July, when more than 100 individuals—from my community and elsewhere—gave public testimony at the Capitol to show their support for SB 623. This broad support is unsurprising given that 300 California communities are currently out of compliance with drinking water standards. In fact, more than one million Californians – far more than the population of Flint, Michigan – are impacted by unsafe drinking water each year.
The communities affected by this drinking water crisis have been fighting hard for safe and affordable drinking water, and we will continue that fight.
At home in Alpaugh, a solution is on the way. But it’s not a solution if it’s too expensive for communities to afford the safe water that will soon be flowing from the taps. We need help with operation and maintenance expenses, and that’s exactly what SB 623 would provide.
We fought hard for the human right to water to become the law of the land in California. That was five years ago. It’s time for the state legislature to finally invest in that promise.
Sandra Meraz has lived in Alpaugh since 1957.
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