Joy Njuguna is a UC Berkeley student.
"Her skin became red and itchy. Her eyes burned. Her hair started falling out. Her family had the same symptoms ... [others] were dying, " California Watch reports. This sounds like a tragic nightmare, but it was a reality for Sonia Lopez, a farmworker who lives in the Tulare Lake Basin and Salinas Valley area.
She and thousands of other farmworkers in this area have been unknowingly drinking nitrate-contaminated water, which has led to these severe symptoms.
These and other farmworkers have been neglected and allowed to suffer on their own. The state government needs to intervene and offer them some relief.
According to the California Department of Food and Agriculture, California is responsible for about 15 percent of the United States' fresh produce.
The farmworkers in the Tulare Lake Basin and the Salinas Valley work countless hours under the scorching sun picking this produce. More than anything, these people are dehydrated and in need of fresh water, but the water available to them is tainted with the chemical compound known as nitrate.
The nitrate has seeped into groundwater from fertilizers used in agriculture practices. We use groundwater as water resource. One of the prevalent dangers of nitrate is that it is colorless, odorless and tasteless. This is why most of the farmworkers like Lopez do not realize they are drinking contaminated water until they begin experiencing the ill side effects.
One may try to reduce these farmworkers' water dilemma by suggesting that they can easily purchase purified bottled water. However, as of now, buying bottled water is not very feasible for the farmworkers. They are paid less than minimum wage, and if they were to rely on purchasing bottled water, 10 percent of their meager income would -- literally -- go down the drain.
So what can be done for them? The state government should be pressed to deal with the farmworkers' situation with more urgency.
State officials have, for some time, known about the high levels of nitrate in the Tulare Lake Basin and Salinas Valley area. In fact, in 2008 these state officials monitored an extensive 20-month study done by UC Davis scientists that revealed about 96 percent of the groundwater available in the Tulare Lake Basin and Salinas Valley was tainted with nitrate.
Nonetheless, the state still neglected to respond effectively because the potential solutions to the water treatment -- which range from digging new wells to installing filtration systems -- are estimated to cost $36 million.
That is indeed a daunting sum of money, but for the sake of helping these despairing farmworkers, the state must find a way to cover the cost. One example would be to impose a fertilizer fee.
This fee would not only be effective in making available most of the money needed for water treatment, but it would also serve as an incentive for farmers to use less-dangerous alternatives to fertilizer.
Also, in taxing the farmers the government would by no means be taking advantage of any poor farmers; these farmers already make a lot of subsidies from the crops they sell. In 2009, the California Strawberry Commission reported that Salinas Valley farmers made three-quarters of a billion dollars in revenue just from selling strawberries.
On the other hand, others may question why the government should go through the trouble of providing clean water supply to the farmworkers when, according to the Migrant Farmworkers' Justice Program, approximately 90 percent of them are illegal immigrants. Why encourage more immigrants by offering them accommodations such as clean water? They're not American citizens and don't deserve such privileges.
While we do not want to encourage more undocumented immigrants, it is difficult to view clean water as an American citizen's privilege. Water is a necessity for life that all human beings deserve -- regardless their citizenship status.
State government, by all means, should work to ensure that the farmworkers' water supply is free of contaminants. Farmworkers, like Sonia Lopez, must not be drinking tainted water any longer; this ordeal must not be prolonged. It is time for the state government to free these farmworkers from their nightmare.
This op-ed piece originally appeared on the Contra Costa Times on Dec. 7, 2013.
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