Laura Bliss has been writing an excellent series on the struggles of unincorporated communities in the San Joaquin Valley. The latest is on the inability of many of these communities to access potable water. Effectively, what you see in many parts of the West and South are African-American and Latino communities pop up in relative proximity to larger and more white settlements, but they are outside urban boundaries. That means no or few services because cities neither want to incorporate these communities nor try to help them. Instead, they are seen as moochers, slackers, losers, i.e., white stereotypes of people of color. At the core of this is of course the structural racism that played a large role in the original building of many of these communities and why they remain marginalized today.
In Matheny Tract, Calif., the sour odor of sewage is especially strong in the morning — and so is the irony that residents can’t connect to the system it represents.
The poor, unincorporated community of roughly 300 homes sits adjacent to the city of Tulare, population 61,000. A single, dusty field is all that separates Matheny Tract’s mostly African-American and Latino residents from Tulare’s recently expanded wastewater treatment plant. Though Tulare’s sewer system is more robust than ever, Matheny Tract residents must use septic tanks, since they are not part of the city. For a dense settlement, this spells trouble.
“People can’t always afford to pump out their tanks, so sometimes they overflow,” says Vance McKinney, a 59-year-old truck driver and community leader. “I’ve watched children jump over ponds of sewage to get to school in the morning.”
The leaching tanks are likely responsible for the fecal bacteria that’s been found in the shallow community wells from which Matheny Tract gets its water. Nitrates, probably from fertilizer runoff from surrounding farms, have also been an issue. Right now, the biggest problem is naturally occurring arsenic, exacerbated by an ever-shrinking volume of groundwater — partly a result of excessive pumping by farmers in the midst of California’s record-breaking drought.
Though residents can shower and clean with the water, it is undrinkable. For McKinney and his wife, that translates to spending an average of $160 on bottled water every month.