The price of safe drinking water in farmworker communties

May 5, 2017

Horacio Amezquita has lived at the San Jerardo Cooperative, just southeast of Salinas, since 1979, when he was 18 years old.

He had immigrated to the United States from Mexico about five years earlier. Amezquita, his parents, and his 8 brothers and sisters were excited to move into house that had more than two bedrooms when they moved to San Jerardo. 

Horacio Amezquita gives a tour of the San Jerardo Cooperative.
Credit Bree Zender

The co-op property was once barrack-style housing for the Bracero program, a WWII-era agreement between the US and Mexico to bring workers north to fill labor shortages in return for decent living conditions and a minimum wage. Amezquita and his family remodeled the barracks and helped transform the property for a colorful community of immigrants from Mexico, many of whom work in the neighboring farmlands. There’s about 250 people living there now. 

Amezquita is the manager of the Co-op. But he’s really like the mayor. He knows everyone, and stops to say hello to every person that walks down the street.

“It [is]l much more personal than just a job for me,” Amezquita said. “It was about my father and all the farm workers that that were struggling to have a home.”

But Amezquita said the surrounding farmlands that bring income to the many in the community are also

Nitrates have formed over the years from the nitrogen used to fertilize the farmlands that border the San Jerardo Co-op. It's caused the co-op to rebuild wells three times in the past four decades.
Credit Bree Zender

what breaks the community down. The rotating farms that use the fields for farming use nitrogen in their fertilizers. The nitrogen turns into nitrates, which have contaminated the wells in San Jerardo for years. They’re on their fourth well in four decades.

The community had lots of health problems that went away for a bit when they had brand new wells, but returned again when each well was contaminated.

“Most of the people were having a lot of problems with rashes. And their hair was falling [out]. Red spots on their skin. Their eyes [were] very red,” Amezquita said.

Since the newest well was installed in October of 2010, the water has been clean. But many people in the community still don’t trust it, and use bottled water.

The new well is run by Monterey County. It pumps from uncontaminated groundwater in a 6-inch thick pipe from two miles away, instead of on or near San Jerardo. Because of this, water bills have risen to the point where many can’t afford to pay, according to Amezquita.

“They started raising their rates. Which before they used to pay $10, $15, $20 a month,” Amezquita. “And now they're paying $80, $90, $100, $115. Depends on the size of the family.”

New reports from water advocacy groups have found that 300 California communities are not meeting primary drinking water standards. They say many of these communities are near farmlands and are majority low-income and Latino. But some communities, like San Jerardo, have been experiencing a surge in the price of their clean water since the new water systems were installed.

Monterey County’s Lynette Redman is in charge of helping San Jerardo operate their water system. She said San Jerardo only serves 66 residences, a much smaller operation than most water systems--and that’s why it’s so expensive.

“And so unfortunately, you know, there is a cost associated with that,” Redman said.

Simón Salinas is the Monterey County supervisor for District 3, where San Jerardo is. Supervisor Salinas has been working with Amezquita to build a better water system for them for the past two decades.

“The county is not in the water business, you know,” Salinas said. “It’s usually cities, municipalities that have their system. You have the private water companies that provide the water.”

Multiple officials from Monterey County said they would like to see the County turn over operation of the well to San Jerardo, so that they could cut costs. Amezquita said he’s up for the job.

“We can make it more affordable,” Amezquita said. “That's why we have so many problems in California. Because companies are running the system so that people and when you have people that can pay it is fine. But when you start getting people that cannot pay their water bills it's not fine. Because somebody else is running it for them."

Supervisor Salinas said in the meantime, Monterey County has been working on bringing stronger regulations on farms who use nitrogen, so they can prevent the development of nitrates in the first place.