Reporting on Toxic Drinking Water in the Salinas Valley
My first visit to San Lucas, California, shocked me. I’d been up and down the Salinas Valley many times since moving to the area more than two years ago, and I’ve seen my fair share of small, poor communities. But initially it required some degree of cognitive dissonance to even comprehend that I was barely more than an hour from luxurious Pebble Beach—or even in the United States at all.
What got me interested in San Lucas was contaminated drinking water there, but my reporting revealed deeper issues like the ability of local government to function, how to do business in a town without water, and tense dynamics between government and the private sector.
In short, the story encompassed more than the water supply.
The idea for a story about contaminated drinking water in the Salinas Valley, a heavily agricultural area in Central California known as “the Salad Bowl of America,” originated with a state Assemblyman—but he wound up not being the protagonist of my story.
Luis Alejo, D-Salinas, was already organizing hearings as chair of the Assembly Environmental Safety and Toxic Materials Committee when I learned that San Lucas, an unincorporated town with a population of 450, had been trucking in bottled water for almost two years. Alejo has made the issue very public and has authored four bills as part of a 10-bill clean water package he’s been pushing.
The challenge of this story was looking into what the proposed legislation would accomplish versus what is actually happening on the ground. As it turns out in San Lucas, ironically, a private organic vegetable grower—the polluter—is the best hope the community has for getting drinkable water.
This story was helped in that the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board had identified a specific polluter as responsible for the unsafe nitrate levels in San Lucas, thanks to hydrologic analysis and a change in farming practices, from vineyards to row crops. To be able to identify a specific polluter rather than a more nebulous “agricultural industry” certainly helped the narrative flow of my story, and it also gave me a good lead-in to talk about the political/scientific confusion on nitrate pollution.
As I addressed in an earlier cover story on nitrates regulation, the jury’s still out on the science behind who’s responsible—at least according to the agricultural industry. Industry and environmental groups have each appealed the newest set of regulations, and the battle is still ongoing, though a draft decision on the appeals shows the State Water Resources Control Board leaning heavily in favor of stricter regulation.
In this story, because it was more about health, not politics and bureaucracy, I was able to lean more heavily on reports showing that nitrates are indeed present—and they’re toxic, and they’re produced overwhelmingly by agriculture.
In some ways, reporting on the science of nitrate pollution gives me the feeling of early news reports on climate change, which seemed obligated to offer up a few paragraphs to the deniers. In relying more heavily on the publicly produced reports (rather than industry-produced) in this story, and the Regional Board’s findings concerning the polluter, I felt more confident in reporting how nitrate pollution happens—even though the grower denies the water board’s findings.
In holding the science accountable, I also feel that I held Assemblyman Alejo accountable in this story. He did not support “upstream” regulation of nitrates (the same regulations under appeal), but instead has focused on far less politically volatile downstream solutions. That’s a point that made it prominently into my story, even though most people I interviewed wouldn’t speak directly to that point.
A key reporting lesson for that it’s worth making the effort to get out there and report on the ground. Some interviews seemed at first like they could be easily (and more efficiently) conducted over the phone, but it was only by spending an afternoon driving around the fields with the grower (the polluter) that he was willing to talk to me, and we had a candid, informative conversation.
He didn’t come across in a particularly flattering light in my story, but he is aiming for a solution. When he submits a permit application for a new well to the County Planning Department later this summer, I plan to follow up with a story on that process; he’s going to ask for expedited processing, a lot line adjustment and a fee waiver.
I also had a terrible time trying to get someone from the public water district to call me back. The office is open just a few hours a week, and I kept leaving messages. The phone numbers in the white pages to the board members were wrong, and none of them had fundraised for their elections so I couldn’t track down contact information on election papers.
But when I was with the photographer waiting for a water delivery one day, I started talking to one woman, who wound up in my story (she and her family are considering moving away from San Lucas; she’s pregnant and doesn’t want to raise another child there). She also mentioned that one of the water board members is her daughter’s babysitter. Weeks later, I found that fact in my notes and followed up to get a working phone number—from there, I was able to interview three of the five board members.
Similarly, it took some badgering to find the landlord of Camp 21, an old labor camp that still has people living there without access to potable drinking water. But the story was far enough along, based on data, a site visit and interviews with residents (some of whom who would not give full names or be in photographs due to their immigration status) that it wasn’t a necessity to talk to her by the time I finally did.
The cast of characters changed over the course of my reporting. I started with a visit to the San Lucas School, when Alejo went to see the shut-off water fountains. It’s a classically rural school, with just three classrooms for grades K-8. I talked extensively with the principal and an active school board member about the challenges and perks of getting bottled water in the school, but ultimately, just a quick mention made it into my story.
Overall, this was a great reporting experience for me, and a challenge. The sources were varied, from public health professionals to small-town water district candidates and residents to the regulators (with whom I did need to file one Public Records Act request to get the most accurate data on where polluters were located).
Feedback has been positive, mostly from readers on the Monterey Peninsula, who write in the say they’re surprised to learn about the severity of the pollution nearby, and how widespread it is.