Advocates advise against hoarding bottled water for those who do not have access to clean water in California
SACRAMENTO – Within hours of the first COVID-19 diagnosis in Tulare County, bottled water started flying off the shelves everywhere. Preparing for what could be a long stay at home, and presumably a water shutoff, customers took more than their fair share of cases. However, that left communities with contaminated groundwater short on options.
“Over the last few weeks, we have all witnessed empty shelves where bottled water used to be stocked in grocery stores and corner markets,” said Michael Claiborne, Senior Attorney with Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability. “For those with safe tap water, this is a mere inconvenience. For the hundreds of thousands of Californians who lack access to safe tap water, the bottled water shortage is a crisis. The state must act now to make emergency water supplies available to those who need them.”
Claiborne had worked closely with the unincorporated community of Tooleville east of Exeter. In places like Tooleville, a town of about 200 people, the state began issuing water boil advisories in the 1990s due to a high level of nitrates, an odorless and tasteless contaminant which can cause blue baby disease if ingested at high levels by infants or pregnant women, aAnd have since been almost wholly reliant on bottled water.
Since the calamity of the novel coronavirus, safe water advocates have been working with many front-line communities with contaminated water. Currently an estimated one million Californians lack access to clean drinking water. And for those afflicted in rural Tulare County, the problem may only grow worse. Already, clean water advocates are reporting that some communities with contaminated water are finding it difficult to find bottled water. That spells bad news for the fight against the coronavirus.
“How can we stop the spread of COVID-19 and protect our communities if people don’t have access to clean water?” said Susana De Anda, Executive Director and Co-Founder of the Community Water Center, a non-profit agency that advocates for safe, clean, and affordable drinking water for all Californians. “We need immediate action—including a statewide ban on water shutoffs—to make sure everyone has access to safe and clean water during this COVID-19 crisis, regardless of their zip code or financial situation.”
Tulare County’s largest water service provider, California Water Service in Visalia, announced March 13 that it has temporarily suspended shutoffs for nonpayment, but reminded customers to call their office if they cannot pay their bills. CalWater also notified its customers that the World Health Organization (WHO), Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the CDC have all confirmed that water is safe to drink as normal because existing water quality treatment processes are sufficient to keep the virus out of the water system.
“While you may be stocking up on emergency supplies in case you need to stay home, please know that you do NOT need to worry about your tap water,” CalWater said in a released statement last month.
The message is especially important in Tulare County where residents living in small, unincorporated communities rely on bottled water because they are unable to drink water from their tap, which is contaminated beyond the level safe for human consumption.
“We applaud those utilities who have not only placed a moratorium on shutoffs during the pandemic, but which are turning the water back on for those whose water service was turned off prior to this crisis,” said Jennifer Clary, water program manager at Clean Water Action. “Those who were struggling before this emergency hit need help even more now. We urge the governor to ensure that all residential water providers follow this example.”
Other advocates have called for decisive state action from the Governor’s office.
“During this unprecedented crisis, it is imperative for all Californians to have access to water to meet basic needs and protect public health,” said Pablo Garza, state political director, Ecosystems for Environmental Defense Fund. “We appreciate Governor Newsom’s decisive action on numerous fronts and implore him to take this necessary step to protect the most vulnerable among us.”
The Sierra Club California, a grassroots environmental organization, said that ensuring clean water to communities without should be California’s priority to help fight the coronavirus.
“Protecting public health should be California’s top priority. The state can’t effectively protect against coronavirus if communities don’t have water to wash their hands and clean their homes,” said Brandon Dawson, policy advocate for Sierra Club California. “All families need access to clean water to help prevent the spread of this virus. Enacting a state-wide ban on water shutoffs will ensure that access.”