Unequal access to safe drinking water in San Joaquin Valley, USA


San Joaquin Valley is one of the most productive agricultural regions in the United States. The estimated annual gross value of of agriculture in the Valley is more than $25 billion [1] For many years the region has dealt with water shortages and ground water contamination from pesticides, arsenic, and nitrate as a result of intensive agricultural production.

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Basic Data
NameUnequal access to safe drinking water in San Joaquin Valley, USA
CountryUnited States of America
SiteSan Joaquin Valley
Accuracy of LocationMEDIUM regional level
Source of Conflict
Type of Conflict (1st level)Water Management
Type of Conflict (2nd level)Intensive food production (monoculture and livestock)
Climate change related conflicts (glaciers and small islands)
Specific CommoditiesWater
Project Details and Actors
Project DetailsAn estimated 10% of total pesticide use in the Unites States occurs in San Joaquin Valley [3]. An estimated 25% of the small community water systems in the valley violate one or more drinking water standard including for arsenic and nitrate levels (http://www.epa.gov/region9/strategicplan/sanjoaquin.html).
Project Area (in hectares)6,400,000
Type of PopulationRural
Potential Affected Population3971659 population of the counties comprising San Joaquin Valley
Relevant government actorsEPA, California Department of Public Health
Environmental justice organisations and other supporters"United Farm Workers of America (working to ensure that farm laborers have access to water during work hours). Fresno Metro Ministry. Central California Environmental Justice Network. California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation. Clean Water Action. Community Water Center. Pacific Institute.
The Conflict and the Mobilization
Intensity of Conflict (at highest level)MEDIUM (street protests, visible mobilization)
When did the mobilization beginIn REACTION to the implementation (during construction or operation)
Groups MobilizingFarmers
Informal workers
Trade unions
Ethnically/racially discriminated groups
Forms of MobilizationCreation of alternative reports/knowledge
Development of a network/collective action
Lawsuits, court cases, judicial activism
Public campaigns
Environmental ImpactsVisible: Surface water pollution / Decreasing water (physico-chemical, biological) quality, Groundwater pollution or depletion, Large-scale disturbance of hydro and geological systems, Reduced ecological / hydrological connectivity
Potential: Desertification/Drought, Biodiversity loss (wildlife, agro-diversity), Food insecurity (crop damage)
Health ImpactsVisible: Other Health impacts
Potential: Other environmental related diseases
Project StatusUnknown
Pathways for conflict outcome / responseEnvironmental improvements, rehabilitation/restoration of area
Institutional changes
New legislation
Application of existing regulations
Development of AlternativesEPA is making small grants to local communities in working on water safety and equity issues. Some involvement of research institutions and local NGOs but national recognition of the issue is limited.

New legislative approaches to water distribution have been implemented:

-Innovative forms of dealing with contaminated agriculture runoff

-improved monitoring of water quality

-Agricultural innovations that use less chemicals and less heavy water usage.
Do you consider this as a success?No
Why? Explain briefly.There is still a serious inequity of access to green spaces for minority communities and the problem will likely only get worse with increase drought due to climate changes.
Sources and Materials

San Joaquin Valley Water Reliability Act
[click to view]

Central Valley Project Improvement Act
[click to view]


Domagalski, Joseph L., and Neil M. Dubrovsky. "Pesticide residues in ground water of the San Joaquin Valley, California." Journal of Hydrology 130, no. 1-4 (1992): 299-338.

Balazs, Carolina, Rachel Morello-Frosch, Alan Hubbard, and Isha Ray. "Social Disparities In Nitrate-Contaminated Drinking Water In California’s San Joaquin Valley." Environmental Health Perspectives 119, no. 9 (2011): 1272-1278.


[1] EPA - Geographic Area of Focus: San Joaquin Valley
[click to view]

Other CommentsThis is one of the top 40 influential environmental justice cases in the United States identified from a national survey of environmental activists, scholars and other leaders by graduate students at the University of Michigan
Meta Information
ContributorKaty Hintzen, [email protected], University of Michigan School of Natural Resources and Environment
Last update07/05/2015