california pipes

How Racism Ripples Through Rural California’s Pipes

In the 20th century, California’s black farmworkers settled in waterless colonies. The history endures underground, through old pipes, dry wells and shoddy septic tanks.

Teviston, Calif., was once an all-black community in the Central Valley that did not have running water. Credit. Ryan Christopher Jones for The New York Times

    Published Nov. 29, 2019 Updated Nov. 30, 2019

TEVISTON, Calif. — Bertha Mae Beavers remembers hearing stories as a child about the promises of California, a place so rich with jobs and opportunity that money, she was told, “grew on trees.” So in the summer of 1946 she said goodbye to her family of sharecroppers in Oklahoma and set out for a piece of it.

For decades she labored in the Central Valley’s vast cotton and grape fields, where eventually her children joined her. Looking back, Ms. Beavers, who turned 90 this year, has sometimes wondered why she left home at all. It was all the same trouble, she said.

Amid a vast migration during the early 20th century, tens of thousands of black people like Ms. Beavers came to California’s farm country from far-off states in the Cotton Belt and the Dust Bowl.

And as in other parts of the United States, black migrants were met with Jim Crow-style racism: “Whites Only” signs, curfews and discriminatory practices by banks. Often, the only places black families could settle were on arid acres on the outskirts of cultivated farmland — places like Teviston, the all-black colony where Ms. Beavers raised 12 children in “a two-bedroom shack” with no bathrooms or running water.

“When we came out here, there were just about two houses and the rest were in tents, just tents, and no water, we had no water for years,” Ms. Beavers said one recent evening , surrounded by several of her adult children.

Today, the legacy of segregation in the Central Valley reverberates underground, through old pipes, dry wells and soil tainted by shoddy septic systems.

Lack of access to clean drinking water remains a problem across California today and low-income communities are disproportionately affected. A s many as 350,000 people lack access to potable water in the San Joaquin Valley alone , according to a 2018 report by the University of California Davis Center for Regional Change. Many people say the conditions resemble the developing world; others call it the Appalachia of the West.

Many labor settlements and rural communities that formed as nonwhite enclaves are today just miles away from more reliable water systems, and yet they remain without access.

The lingering effects of such isolation are especially clear in the handful of rural colonies that once provided refuge for thousands of black farmworkers — from Lanare in Fresno County to Matheny Tract in Tulare County to Fairmead in Madera County. These small towns are now predominantly Latino and are among the very first to lose water when drought comes. When water does flow, it is often tainted by arsenic or other chemicals.

California is not the only state facing problems with drinking water supplies. Nationwide, approximately two million Americans lack access to running water or indoor plumbing, according to a recent report by the nonprofit organizations DigDeep and the US Water Alliance.

The report found race and poverty were key variables in predicting access to clean drinking water and sanitation. “The United States is home to some of the most reliable water and wastewater systems on earth, and many Americans believe access is universal,” the authors wrote. “But in fact, millions of the most vulnerable people in the country — low-income people in rural areas, people of color, tribal communities, immigrants — have fallen through the cracks.”

In July, Gov. Gavin Newsom of California signed into a law a measure to provide $130 million annually for the next decade to rebuild water infrastructure in many of the poorest communities around the state. The money, say activists and water policy experts, will finally provide an opportunity to consolidate many small water systems with larger municipal systems nearby that are more resilient.

Local governments and nonprofits are waiting to see which of them will be the first to receive infrastructure money from the new fund .

And now, some in the state say the money should explicitly account for the way communities of color in the Valley have been neglected by county and municipal governments. Such “utility reparations” can become an instrument for justice, said Camille Pannu, a water policy expert and the former director of the Aoki Water Justice Clinic at the University of California, Davis.

As part of the process, they say, Californians must confront the largely forgotten history of segregation in the state.

The first black farm workers came to the San Joaquin Valley in the late 1800s following the Chinese Exclusion Act. At the time, cotton was becoming a crucial crop in the region, and local farmers recruited black farmworkers from the South. As more black people moved to the Valley, many cities responded with racist policies which segregated black people either through laws or outright violence.

It was precisely the lack of water which made it possible for black people to buy property and homes in places like Teviston. Nobody else wanted to live there.

“That’s why these communities exist,” said Michael Eissinger, a lecturer in history at Fresno City College. “They are the direct response to Jim Crow practices in the San Joaquin Valley going back to the 19th century.”

In the 1920s, Albert and Alberta Curry moved from Chicago to Fairmead, where they built a house and began to farm cotton and alfalfa on a parcel of land, according to their granddaughter, Nettie Amey, 66.

“They came out here to start their own life, to thrive, to make their own way,” she said.

Ms. Amey, who now lives in nearby Madera, has happy memories of growing up in Fairmead. But she also remembers the community relied on outhouses and drinking water that was not always safe.

The new state funding and consolidation, community organizers say, can be used to heal these past wrongs.

“There’s a history of discrimination here and we have to right those wrongs,” said Veronica Garibay, co-director of the Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability, a public policy organization based in Fresno that works with rural communities.

Some may call that “reparations,” but others resist the term. The national debate over reparations has focused largely on direct restitution to descendants of slaves. Broad infrastructure programs to redevelop communities that were shaped by segregation are less commonly discussed.

But even as questions about water infrastructure and segregation resurface, black families have largely moved on from these rural California farming communities and Latinos have taken their place.

The infrastructure isolation continues as new families move in.

In Teviston today, one shallow well contaminated with cancer-causing chemicals provides water for 350 people, according to Juan Carlos Mariano, who manages the town’s water district.

Residents are told not to drink the water but, Mr. Mariano said, it is likely people still do so because they cannot afford enough bottled water to get by. Consolidating with the nearby town of Pixley could benefit everyone, but old demarcations have proven hard to break.

Through a process called “selective annexation,” many low-income communities are excluded from the city limits of expanding towns. Ms. Amey marvels that the city of Chowchilla annexed land “in Fairmead’s backyard” on which two prisons stand — but not in Fairmead itself.

Tax money from those prisons, the community was promised in the 1980s and ’90s, would help develop Fairmead’s infrastructure. Instead, Chowchilla received the funds.

Still, more money is not always the solution.

Sometimes, despite state grants and incentives, many residents in the communities with safe drinking water resist consolidation.

In 2016, the state was forced to intervene when the City of Tulare reneged on a binding legal commitment to provide drinking water to Matheny Tract, a small farmworker community of 1,500 that was once predominantly black. Matheny, just one mile away from Tulare, was plagued with unsafe levels of arsenic in its drinking water, according to health inspections and local news reports.

As the drought intensified earlier this decade, the community’s septic systems began to fail as well, resulting in toxic soil and a sour smell throughout town.

But the city refused to connect the systems even after the state made nearly $5 million available to build the project — despite a clear legal obligation. The city was repeatedly warned it was violating state and federal civil rights laws protecting communities of color. The city’s leaders, who did not respond to requests for comment, said at the time they did not have jurisdiction over Matheny and could not take its residents on as customers.

Ultimately, the state resorted to using new powers to legally mandate a consolidation, the first time it had done so. Today, the fight continues to persuade the City of Tulare to connect Matheny to its sewer treatment system, which is across the street from Matheny.

Questions about fairness, though, are often further complicated by the endemic poverty in the Valley. Low-income communities sometimes must compete against each other for resources and attention.

In the 20th century, California’s black farmworkers settled in waterless colonies. The history endures underground, through old pipes, dry wells and shoddy septic tanks. ]]>