Matheny Tract sits deep in the bowl of California’s Central Valley, an area that’s been hit hard by the prolonged drought. Like the nearby community of East Porterville, Matheny is seeing wells run dry, but before East Porterville became famous as the town that dried up, it shared a different kind of water problem with Matheny—one that also affects hundreds of other small, mostly Latino communities in the area.
The Flint lead crisis has made us think of tainted water as an urban problem, aging pipes slowly poisoning the children of poor communities. But a huge amount of America’s substandard drinking water is actually consumed in all but invisible rural areas like Matheny Tract. Roughly a third of the 1,200 or so people here live in poverty, some in tattered doublewides on the brink of collapse. Already in precarious financial circumstances, they find themselves paying twice for water—once for the tainted well water coming out of the tap, and then again for bottled water they can actually drink.
Both Matheny Tract and East Porterville suffered from water that’s not high in lead … it’s high in arsenic. Arsenic poisoning is one of the most widespread issues with drinking water. Around the world, more than 100 million people regularly drink from sources that are high in arsenic. Low levels of arsenic can cause behavioral change, headaches, and nausea. Longer term exposure is connected to heart disease, cancer, and eventually to coma and death. It is not something you want in your water.
But after decades of political neglect, Matheny Tract and similar communities are now at the forefront of legislation built on a legal idea that has gained increasing attention in the past decade in the developing world: the “human right to water.”
California’s “right to water” legislation elevates access to safe drinking water to a right shared by every human being. The bill was first passed by the California legislature seven years ago, but then-Gov. Schwarzenegger vetoed the act. It was finally passed in 2012 and signed by Jerry Brown.
Until now, that bill has been little more than symbolic. But thanks to follow-up legislation that includes an enforcement mechanism, that’s about to change.