Author:
Zoe Rosenberg
Published on
May 20, 2022

Tulare County Dairy Farms Are Poisoning Latino Communities

Over the last few decades, the Central Valley of California has become plagued by the crisis of dirty drinking water contaminated with nitrates. Latino communities have been disproportionately affected. In the heart of the valley lies Tulare County, a majority Latino district and the largest dairy producing county in the nation.

As you drive through Tulare County, a predominantly Latino district in the heart of California’s San Joaquin Valley, the smell of feces and urine wafts in and out of the air. If you look out the window, you’re likely to notice many massive dairy farms. You’ll see thousands of cows standing in filthy pens and newborn calves confined in tiny cages, all of them defecating on themselves. If you look closely, you might even spot a few manure lagoons, which are giant pools of stored animal waste that seep contaminants into the groundwater. 

Tulare County is the largest dairy county in the United States, with more dairy cows than humans (Geiger). It also happens to be considered one of the most polluted counties in the nation. This is not a coincidence, and as more and more residents of Tulare County are forced to live with polluted tap water, this connection begs to be addressed. Dairy farming in Tulare County is poisoning low-income Latino communities in the area by contaminating their drinking water supplies with unsafe levels of nitrates. 

The Pollution Crisis of Tulare County

For the residents of Tulare County, polluted air and water is a daily struggle. One of those residents is Maria Orozco. Orozco is a resident of East Orosi, an unincorporated community in Tulare County that resides at the base of the Sierra Nevadas. East Orosi has a population of 798, and 99.2% of those people are Latino like Orozco and her family (“East”). Orozco grew up in East Orosi and is now raising her own children in the same small community. Now in her early 30s, Orozco says she can’t recall a time when she felt she could safely drink the water from the faucets of her hometown. Like 5.25 million other Latinos living in the state of California, the water in her community is contaminated with unsafe levels of nitrates (Schechinger). Nitrates are organic compounds composed of oxygen and nitrogen that naturally reside in soil and water. In low concentrations, as they naturally occur, nitrates are perfectly safe. However, in high concentrations, nitrates can have deadly consequences. The risks of drinking water high in nitrates long-term include, but are not limited to, an increased probability of colon cancer, heart disease, thyroid disease, and birth defects (“Water and Health”). For newborn babies, drinking water with unsafe nitrate levels can lead to a sometimes fatal blood disorder called infant methemoglobinemia, more commonly known as blue baby syndrome, because nitrates damage the body's ability to transport oxygen (Burt, Heathwaite, and Trudgill). As a mother, Orozco lives in constant fear that her children could become sick. In an article by Vivian Ho published by The Guardian, Orozco shared that the constant worry she feels for the health of her family is “like a knot in your stomach and someone is putting a lot of pressure on it.” In a sense, Orozco’s children have 24/7 access to poison that she must constantly work to keep them from ingesting. 

Orozco is teaching her children not to drink the tap water in their home and to keep their mouths and eyes closed in the bath and shower, but it isn’t easy. Her daughters are young and they don’t understand why their mother is enforcing strict rules around water. For most families, bath time can be a time of fun, but for Orozco, it’s a time where she must watch her children closely. Even with the precautions she is taking, Orozco says that she and one of her daughters have begun to have unusually large amounts of their hair fall out in the shower. Her neighbors have reported skin rashes and general itchiness from showering, though it’s hard to prove with certainty that nitrates are the cause. 

In 2012, Jessica Sanchez, another East Orosi resident, gave birth to her son at the age of 19. When she was in high school, there were signs above the drinking fountains on her campus warning students not to drink the water and for a while, mail would regularly arrive at her family’s home that warned them of dangerous nitrate levels. Now a mother, Sanchez became passionate about fighting for clean drinking water after she learned about blue baby syndrome. When her son was born, she told Liza Gross with Environmental Health News that, “Now it really hits me, because now it’s my baby.” To keep herself and her son safe, Sanchez didn’t drink any tap water throughout her pregnancy and is raising her son not to drink the water, either. In fact, after he was born, she was afraid to even bathe him in the water from the faucets in her family’s home. Even though she’s taking proper precautions to keep her son safe, Sanchez says, “when I think about this whole water thing, it really brings me down, knowing he's going to have to deal with this problem, too." Like Orozco, Sanchez wants a future where her family doesn’t have to worry about nitrates in their tap water. 

Unfortunately, Orozco, Sanchez and other members of East Orosi are far from the only Tulare County residents dealing with water that’s making them sick. In 2006, the State Water Board tested the water quality of 181 wells in Tulare County. Of those tested, 40% had nitrate levels so high that they were above the legal limit (“Groundwater Ambient”). The legal limit for nitrates in drinking water is 10 milligrams per liter (Canter). This limit was set by the federal Safe Drinking Water Act in 1962. However, more recent research suggests that levels significantly below 10 mg/l could be dangerous, especially for pregnant women and babies. A study published in 2021 that was conducted by researchers at the University of Illinois Chicago (UIC) and Aarhus University found that in households where the nitrate levels were approximately half of the legal limit, babies were, on average, born weighing 10 grams less than babies born in households with nitrate levels that were undetectable. According to Vanessa Coffman, PHD, a research specialist at UIC’s School of Public Health, “Birthweight is a critical marker for health, as it can have a life-long impact on health and development.” While 10 grams may seem like a small difference, it is significant to a child who only weighs a few pounds and could speak volumes about their physical state of being. 

Global research has even found deadly consequences from nitrate pollution at concentration levels as low as 0.87 mg/l. In Denmark, a study found that nitrate concentration of 0.87 mg/l and above was linked to an increased risk of bowel cancer (Schullehner). As more research is published, it is becoming more and more clear that the legal limit of 10 mg/l is severely out of date and many doctors are calling for it to be reviewed and updated so that communities, including many in Tulare County, that are dealing with dangerous levels below the current limit can get the help they need.

Tests of the community water system in East Orosi between 2003 and 2017 found that the average nitrate concentration was 9.3 mg/l. In Woodville, another town in Tulare County with a population that is 88.8% Latino, local community water systems in 2017 had an average nitrate concentration of 9.4 mg/l (Schechinger). Both of these communities' water systems may have an average nitrate concentration that is legal under federal regulations, but it is clearly not a nitrate concentration that is safe for these residents. 

The Dairy Industry as a Leading Nitrate Polluter in Tulare County

It is impossible to tackle the issue of nitrate pollution for Latino communities in Tulare County without addressing what is causing it. Researchers have long had their eyes set on the dairy industry as a leading contributor of nitrate contamination. A study was conducted by UC Davis in 2012 that took an in depth look at nitrate pollution in California. Their research found that 96% of nitrate pollution in California can be traced back to agriculture, specifically to the dairy industry and to fertilizers used on crops, which often includes manure from dairy farms and other concentrated animal feeding operations. It is also worth noting that much of the crops grown in California are grown to be fed to cattle on dairy operations. The remaining 4% of nitrate pollution in California that was not traced back to agriculture was traced to a variety of other sources including human waste management, water purification plants, and landscaping. However, compared to agriculture, other sources of nitrate contamination are miniscule. UC Davis’ research report, titled “Dairies and Other Sources of Nitrate Loading to Groundwater,” concluded that, “Animal agriculture, and particularly dairy production, is a dominant and widespread source of nitrogen in the environment” (10). It seems clear that the dairy industry needs to be a primary focus in the fight against toxic water.

Given the tie between the dairy industry and nitrate pollution, it is no surprise that Tulare County is facing severe nitrate contamination. Tulare County has more dairy cows than any other county in the U.S.. In fact, there are more cows in Tulare County than there are human residents. According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), Tulare County was home to 500,402 cows in 2017 (Geiger). In the same year, Tulare County had a human population of 462,308 (“Tulare”). According to the UC Davis report, “...the annual excretion rate is 198 kg N (437 lbs) [of nitrates] per adult dairy cow” (21). The amount of nitrogen produced at that rate by such a large number of cows is bound to add up fast. 

If it is correct that every adult dairy cow produces approximately 437 pounds of nitrates annually and Tulare County is home to around half a million cows, then dairy cows in Tulare County alone are producing about 220,000,000 pounds of nitrates every single year. Of course, not all of those nitrates end up draining into drinking water sources such as reservoirs, at least not immediately. But because feces produced by cattle in Tulare County, for the most part, stays in Tulare County, it’s just a matter of time before it works its way into water systems. Much of the nitrates end up trapped in top soil and over a period of decades leach down into the groundwater. The UC Davis report explains that this is bad news, because “the current average [nitrate] loading rate is three to five times greater than the recognized maximum contaminant levels for drinking water in California” (10). Their study found that between 2003 and 2007, dairy cows occupied around 10,300 acres in Tulare County and, using nitrate ground absorption data, this would mean that up to 4,600 tons (1 ton = 2,000 pounds) of nitrates are leached into the ground annually from dairy cows in Tulare County. Their study also found that manure lagoons, which are large, typically outdoor pools used to store manure, on dairy farms in Tulare County cover a combined total of 1,740 acres. They determined that up to 2,800 tons of nitrates leach below the lagoons annually. 

Activists in the area aren’t ignorant to the dangers of this local industry. Susana De Anda, founder and director of the Community Water Center in Visalia, is greatly concerned about dairy farms, and particularly the improperly stored manure. While pointing to a particular factory farm on Route 63, she told Jeremy Miller of High Country News, “That Olympic-size lagoon has no proper liner, so you know it's trickling down to the ground water.” Anda is also concerned about what happens to the manure that doesn’t soak into the ground under the lagoons, stating that the farms “use that [manure] to irrigate the corn they feed to the cow. It's a dirty kitchen.” These factory farms have created a cycle of pollution,  but often the farms try to claim it’s sustainable, citing that using the manure on crops is promoting “sustainability” (“Our Sustainability”) . However, the issue is that putting manure on crops is just leading to even more groundwater leaching as the crops absorb less than 40% of the nitrates (Gross).  

Groundwater contamination aside, it’s also important to recognize that when you have a large number of heavy animals concentrated in a relatively small area of land, their feet pack down the soil and create a hard layer of soil mixed with feces and urine. When it rains, the water can’t quickly absorb into this hard layer. The water becomes contaminated with nitrates from landing on the layer of compacted feces and, since it doesn’t all absorb, it can run off into nearby water sources like streams and could then eventually end up in drinking water reservoirs. 

Why is Everyone Ignoring the “Cow in the Room?”

According to Dairy Program Subsidies receipts, dairy farms in Tulare County received a total of $110,926,000 in subsidies from the government between 1995 and 2020 (“EWG’s Farm”). The Tulare County government also continues to permit dairy industry expansion. The number of dairy cows in the county has nearly doubled since 1997 (Geiger). Given that the dairy industry is a major contributor of nitrate pollution and that nitrate contamination in drinking water has serious health consequences, a reasonable question one might ask is why this issue is rarely addressed and why the government continues to prop up the dairy industry. The answer could be that the dairy industry, armed with cash for political donations and lobbyists, works to suppress government action on this critical health issue.

Politicians claim to be concerned about the water crisis in the Central Valley, but few seem willing to address the “cow in the room.” One significant factor is the impact of dairy lobbyists. The dairy industry donates large amounts of money to political campaigns at all levels. According to Eliana Miller from the organization Open Secrets, which publicizes big campaign donations, “Individuals and PACs associated with the dairy industry made $5.1 million in federal contributions during the 2020 election cycle.” $256,000 of that $5.1 million specifically came from California. Devin Nunes, a former United States Representative who represented parts of Tulare County, received $121,654.00 from the dairy industry during the 2017-2018 election cycle (“Devin”). Nunes is well known as a defender of big dairy and even owns his own factory farm. During Tulare County’s 2014 sheriff election, candidate Dave Whaley was open about the fact that many of his donations were coming from the dairy industry (Woomer). One could easily speculate that the dairy industry donates heavily to politicians and law enforcement as a way to avoid facing repercussions for pollution and to continue to receive government subsidies. It’s also reasonable to speculate that because nitrate pollution is disproportionately impacting low-income, Latino communities, there may be racism and classism playing into politicians continuing to largely ignore this issue. Another factor is that 25% of Spanish-speaking households in the Central Valley do not have a household member who speaks fluent English, making it difficult for them to advocate for themselves and share their stories. 

Latino Communities are Disproportionately Impacted by Nitrates in Tulare County

Latino communities, particularly low-income Latino communities, appear to be more likely to face high levels of nitrate pollution in their drinking water. Until recently, the research on nitrate contamination largely ignored class and ethnicity. However, UC Berkeley researcher Carolina Balazs, a lead author on a water pollution study published in 2011, confirmed Latino communities are more likely to be living in households with nitrate-contaminated water. Balazs claims that she and her fellow researchers found that “it's small systems [serving] high percentages of Latinos that have the highest levels of nitrates.” Of the California community water systems tested between 2003 and 2017, four of the five communities depending on systems with the worst nitrate contamination were majority Latino. The water system with the worst nitrate levels, averaging at 27.3 mg/l between 2003 and 2017, was Rodriguez Camp, a census-designated place in Tulare County with a population that was 81.8% Latino as of census data from 2018. The water system with the fourth most severe levels of nitrate pollution was also in Tulare County. The Soults Mutual Water Company provides water to a community in the town of Tulare that is 73.3% Latino as of 2018. Between 2003 and 2017, that water system had nitrate levels averaging at 16.7 mg/l (Schechinger). A study performed by UC Davis student Sarah Brown Blake, which looked at 211 CA ZIP codes, found that “ZIP codes with dairies had a higher percentage of Hispanic births (p = .001). Spatial statistics revealed that ZIP codes with more dairy farms and a higher dairy cow density had higher levels of nitrate contamination.” Essentially, being located near dairy farms puts a person at greater risk of drinking nitrate contaminated water and Latinos are significantly more likely to live near dairy farms. But why are Latinos more likely to live in these areas?

In California, 92% of farmworkers are Latino (“Farmworkers”). It makes sense, then, that Latinos would make up the majority of the population in farm communities like East Orosi. As I’ve previously established, agriculture, especially dairy farming, accounts for the vast majority of nitrate pollution, so communities living near farms are naturally going to be at higher risk of groundwater contamination. For example, Seville, another small, Latino-majority community in Tulare County with unsafe nitrate levels, is surrounded by massive dairy farms and their large lagoons of toxic manure. The reason why so many farmworkers are Latino and, subsequently, many Latinos have located themselves in farm communities, is because farm work remains one of the primary sources of work for immigrants from Mexico, Central America, and South America. Due to language barriers, even immigrants who are highly educated find that farm work is sometimes their only option. Additionally, farms tend to be some of the only businesses willing to hire immigrants who are undocumented. In fact, it’s estimated that half of Latino farmworkers in California are not legal residents (Mitric). Unfortunately, immigrants, and especially undocumented immigrants, are often underpaid by farms. This is partly because farms know that undocumented immigrants likely won’t report illegal wages due to their fear of deportation. These factors all contribute to poverty in Latino farm communities in Tulare County. 

According to data from 2020, all of Tulare County has a population that is 65.6% Latino and 23.8% of the total population is living below the poverty line (“Tulare”). This means that the rate of people living below the poverty line in Tulare County is around 7.4% higher than the poverty rate in California, which is 16.4% (Bohn, Danielson, and Malagon). And because there are expenses associated with water contamination in Tulare County, this is worsening the already high rates of poverty. 

Bertha Dias, mother of Jessica Sanchez, works in a citrus orchard picking lemons and oranges. She and her family don’t have much money and the nitrate crisis has forced her to sometimes choose between food and water. Dias spends nearly $1,000 every year to buy water that is safe to drink in addition to paying $60 every month for the water in her faucets that is unsafe. She only makes $7.50 an hour. In order to afford the cost of clean water, she often skips lunch at work (Gross). She is forced to make this sacrifice so her family can have clean water, which many human rights and environmental justice advocates believe should be a given.

Thirty miles away in Tulare County’s Tonyville, which has a population of 388 that is 100% Latino, 71-year-old Senaida Aguilar faces similar struggles (“Tonyville”). She also works in an orchard picking citrus and is only paid $14.50 for every 1,600 pounds of fruit that she picks. She’s expected to pick 12,800 pounds of fruit each day, a task that is becoming difficult to complete as she gets older. Aguilar pays $50 a month for the water she can’t drink and up to $100 a month on jugs of clean drinking water (Miller). Given the small wage she earns, this is a huge blow to her financial security. However, to some Tulare County residents, Aguilar is lucky. 

Becky Quintana, a Seville resident and an outspoken advocate for clean water rights, has been paying around $60 every month on bottled water for several years. Unfortunately, she says that many of her neighbors can’t afford to pay such a price on top of their other living expenses. The state has now started supplying bottled water to people in Seville, but Quintana says that historically her neighbors would “only buy water for infants, and the rest of [the] family would drink the tainted water” (Lohan and Gies). The situation is quite frustrating for Quintana, because right next to Seville is the Kaweah River, flowing with mostly clean and uncontaminated fresh water. However, none of that water is going to Seville or the other small Latino communities in Tulare County. Instead, the water is being diverted and delivered to wealthier cities and communities, leaving Quintana and others with the polluted groundwater. 

Finding a Solution

A massive amount of nitrates are slowly leaching into the groundwater in Tulare County. Even if every industry that contributes to nitrate pollution stopped immediately, groundwater in polluted areas would still be unsafe for decades to come due to the slow rate of nitrate leaching and the amount of nitrates being held in the soil. Short-term solutions are needed to ensure communities have access to clean water and long-term solutions are needed to reduce and stop future nitrate leaching and runoff. 

One potential short-term solution is installing special filtration systems which can help remove nitrates from drinking water. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) says that the only way to remove nitrates from water is through reverse osmosis, ion exchange, and distillation (“Nitrate and Drinking”). Ion exchange is considered the most affordable option. Unfortunately, higher concentrations of nitrates means the cost of nitrate removal will be higher as well. The size of the water system also factors into the price. In a small community like East Orosi, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) estimates it would cost approximately $378.00 per-person annually to maintain a water filtration system using ion exchange. For an even smaller community like Tonyville, it could cost up to $666.00 per-person (Schechinger). The reality is that installing these filtration systems could end up costing families more than what they’re currently paying for bottled water. There are also other contaminants impacting the water quality in many of the same communities dealing with nitrate contamination. To remove nitrates and the other contaminants, communities would have to look to reverse osmosis, which is significantly more expensive (Schechinger). It’s also worth noting that many people rely on private wells that would need their own, separate filtration systems installed. Due to the cost and these other factors, some jurisdictions have ruled filtration systems unfeasible. 

Small communities like East Orosi have had luck building pipes to connect to the water systems of larger, neighboring towns that have more resources. This has proven to be a promising solution short-term for those who use public wells, though it’s likely that larger towns will not be unaffected by nitrate pollution forever. In a similar spirit, communities like Seville have joined forces with larger towns to dig new wells. Seville is collaborating with Yettem to create a new source of clean water (Lohan and Gies). This is only a short-term solution as eventually even the new well being built between Seville and Yettem will likely be contaminated with nitrates. In other Tulare County communities, the California government has begun buying residents bottled water. For example, while residents are waiting for the new well to be completed, the community of Seville has been receiving government-provided bottled water (Lohan and Gias). This has been a great relief, especially to those who were previously forced to ration the resource. However, it’s understandable to look at these solutions and feel a bit hopeless, considering none of them will sustain Tulare County residents long-term. So, what can be done to stop nitrate pollution in its tracks? 

Many people are turning to community activism. For several years now, residents in Tulare County have been mobilizing and holding meetings to brainstorm solutions. One effort that has been made is to call on government water boards to provide accessible information to Spanish-speaking residents (Cashmere). Some residents have even mustered up the courage to call out the local dairy industry for polluting their water, which has led to dairy farmers coming to meetings to defend themselves. In “Farmageddon,” a book authored by Philip Lymbery, Maria Herrera, who works for Visalia’s Community Water Center, is quoted as saying, “The meetings we hold with residents are always packed. The dairy farmers and their lobbyists come along and deny it has anything to do with them, but the evidence proves otherwise” (22). Unfortunately, the dairy industry holds so much power in Tulare County that standing up to them is hard. Like Herrera and other residents have found, the industry has so much money that they can afford to send lobbyists to community meetings. However, as the evidence becomes more and more clear that the dairy industry is a root cause of water pollution, more and more people are willing to raise their voices. 

One long-term solution proposed by some is to limit nitrate pollution from dairy farms to prevent future groundwater contamination. However, how this should happen remains a point of contention. More radical activists have called on the government to shut down dairy farms entirely, or at least put a strict limit on the number of cows they can have on one property. The organization Direct Action Everywhere recently campaigned for the entire state of California to prohibit all factory farms from expanding, largely in order to prevent more environmental pollution. Despite having support from thousands of Californians and hundreds of organizations, the state's agriculture committee reportedly chose to kill the bill before it could even go for a vote (“Protester”). Other proposed solutions include taxing dairy farms when groundwater tests show their pollution levels to be particularly high, working with dairy farms to establish better manure storage systems, and avoiding locating dairy farms in close proximity to wells (“Remedies for”). Unfortunately, solving this problem will require time, effort and money, and the dairy industry has and will likely continue to fight any regulations that negatively impact their financial returns. De Anda isn’t willing to let the greed of the powerful stand in her way. She told Renee Cashmere of The New Humanitarian that, “Actions have consequences, and we need to prioritize health over power and greed and understand the impacts of our actions. We need to share our resources.” Activists in Tulare County are continuing to search for ways to change the system so that everyone can have clean water, a resource that they believe is a human right. 

Conclusion

While the battle against deadly nitrate pollution in Tulare County is likely to be long and challenging, hope is what keeps communities going. Residents on the frontlines of water pollution are continuing to fight for their right to have clean drinking water and more people are becoming educated about the issues facing vulnerable people and the environment. The Sustainable Groundwater Management Act passed in 2014, reinvigorating advocates and giving new funding and government attention to the crisis in Tulare County (Cashmere). Fighting the power of big corporations like the dairy industry remains one of the biggest hurdles, but, eventually, the power of the people will always triumph over greed. 

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