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Los Angeles’ Water Crisis: Hitting Close To Home

By Natalia Ruvalcaba

Accessible, clean water has not been made a reality for many Los Angeles County residents.  With climate change and a tenuous water system exacerbating matters, L.A. County has come to try and rectify the issues of water contamination and insecurity.  Imperative to note is the undeniable difference in the communities most affected by the lack of affordable, clean, and safe drinking water.  Like most environmental issues, the water problem in L.A. County cuts across racial, class, and geographic lines, affecting predominantly low-income communities of color.  In the county, specifically South and Southeast Los Angeles, Black and Latinx residents endure the harshest of water contamination and distrust.  A survey administered by American Housing in 2015 found that, “30 percent of Hispanic households and 25 percent of Black households in the Los Angeles-Long Beach Metro Area reported that their water is not safe to drink, compared to only 12 percent of Non-Hispanic White households”[1].  While this survey fundamentally measured individual opinions, rather than testing the water itself, the results indicate that there are substantial qualms about public health.  Whether or not the survey indicates the reality of unsafe drinking water, there is undeniable evidence that suggests a lack of concern for public health, particularly pertaining to low-income communities.  One particular community in Southeast Los Angeles has been failed by government and water officials to address water contamination issues.  Maywood, which is home to a majority Latino community, tested positive for lead, mercury, trichloroethylene, and several other toxic contaminants[2].  Community residents are unable to drink water from their own faucets as the toxins have produced the water to be discolored and fetid.  This outcome is the result of environmental racism, as intentional neglect of low-income water sources commonly harms communities of color as their resources lack funding and are the placements of toxic waste.   

Challenges arise in securing safe and affordable water for Los Angeles County residents, as the main supply sources, small water systems, are often subject to contamination and the violation of regulations[3].  Small water systems frequently depend on groundwater, which always requires costly treatments in order to ensure the water is safe to consume.  While these systems require customers to pay higher prices for their water, they also lack the funding from grants and loans that would enable greater function and compliance[4].   Further issues arise from contamination through pipes and industrial problems, which too require great financial strain in ensuring clean and safe drinking water. One UCLA report found that out, “Of every county in the state, Los Angeles County has the greatest number of community water systems that rely on contaminated groundwater sources; nearly 40 percent of community water providers in the county got their water from a groundwater source that exceeded drinking water maximum contaminant levels at least once durings the period of 2002–2010”[5].  Therefore, with Los Angeles water supply corporations depending on highly contaminated sources, financial costs are of concern.  These suppliers must put in the financial capital for the water supply to undergo treatment. However, many of the small water suppliers lack the financial resources to cover these costs and safeguard clean drinking water. Evidently, economic concerns are the principal threats to accessing clean water anywhere.

As a result of the environmental issues facing not only Los Angeles residents’ right to clean water but also the United States, the Clean Water Act of 1972 was established to regulate and reduce water pollution.  However, the standards of pollution are continually ignored and neglected, adding to the ongoing issue of clean water accessibility.  Specifically, the act fails to prioritize the banishment of agriculture runoff, in its exemption of regulating discharge and contaminants into the U.S. water system and modulating quality standards[6].  This will, in effect, cause pollution to persist and violations to arise, as the agricultural runoff that is exempted in the act is the main source of contamination to the Los Angeles water systems[7].  Thus, the standards set by the Clean Water Act have been insufficient in regulating contamination, and have in effect hurt low-income communities who bear the burden of unsafe drinking water. 

With detrimental and ongoing water issues, Los Angeles County has established the Safe Clean Water Program to dedicate funding and accountability in ameliorating the present conditions of the water system.  With the establishment of a small parcel tax of “2.5 cents per square foot of impermeable surface area — paved/built areas where rainfall cannot be absorbed into the ground and instead runs off as stormwater — on private property in the L.A. County Flood Control District” Los Angeles county is able to allocate roughly 300 million dollars to improve water quality and public health[8].  This program aims for the city to not only transfigure the current, failing water system, but also, with business, local, environmental, and community-based organizations, strategize new ideas to reimagine infrastructure and prepare for inevitable environmental concerns.  To ensure sustainability the program intends to capture rainfall much more now, in order to increase the water supply for L.A. county residents.  In their preventative measures, they will work to minimize the volume of trash in advance of it reaching the ocean.  Overall, the program’s efforts aim to address ways in which water suppliers capture water, as well as limiting imported water resources in order to protect and promote L.A. residents’ public health.

Citations

  1. “A Time of Opportunity: Water, Health, and Equity in the Los Angeles Region.” OurWaterLA, Feb. 2018, ourwaterla.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/Prevention-Institute-Report-on-Water-Health-and-Equity-in-LA-Exec-Summary_2.pdf.
  2. Wells, Marc. “Water Contamination in Maywood, California.” World Socialist Web Site, 2012, http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2012/05/mayw-m14.html.
  3. Gregory Pierce, Larry Lai & J.R. DeShazo (2019) Identifying and addressing drinking water system sprawl, its consequences, and the opportunity for planners’ intervention: evidence from Los Angeles County, Journal of Environmental Planning and Management, 62:12, 2080-2100, DOI: 10.1080/09640568.2018.1530889
  4. Barr, Keaton, et al. “Water in Los Angeles: Rethinking the Current Strategy.” 2020 Policy Memo Competition, vol. 17, no. 02, 2020, doi:10.38126/jspg170202. 
  5. Logar, Nathaniel, et al. “Ensuring Safe Drinking Water in Los Angeles County Small Water Systems.” UCLA School of Law, Dec. 2018, http://www.law.ucla.edu/news/ensuring-safe-drinking-water-los-angeles-countys-small-water-systems.
  6. David A Keiser, Joseph S Shapiro, Consequences of the Clean Water Act and the Demand for Water Quality, The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Volume 134, Issue 1, February 2019, Pages 349–396, https://doi.org/10.1093/qje/qjy019
  7. Bazel, Lawrence S. “The Clean Water Act at Thirty: A Failure After All These Years?” Natural Resources & Environment, vol. 18, no. 2, 2003, pp. 46–50. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/40924498. Accessed 8 July 2021.
  8. “Program Overview.” Safe Clean Water Program, 2021, safecleanwaterla.org/program-overview/#:~:text=The%20Safe%2C%20Clean%20Water%20Program%20will%20generate%20approximately%20%24300%20million,in%20the%20L.A.%20County%20Flood.

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