BRAWLEY - Comite Civico del Valle, Inc. held three informative workshops in three towns in late August to receive input from rural dwellers who use canal water for bathing, washing, and cleaning. During those workshops, the agency presented a slide show of various country water filtration systems, that Comite Civico claim reveal mostly faulty and inadequate water systems.
However, during a recent Imperial Irrigation District meeting, IID board members did not agree with the group's findings, and presented doubts on the scientific legitimacy of the data.
The environmental justice organization had participated in a video and two publications (September 2017) in "Water Deeply" which purported rural canal users in the Imperial Valley were at risk, health wise, from exposure to contaminants from the untreated water.
Comite Civico partnered up with Professor Vanessa Galaviz of the University of Washington’s School of Public Health and other various California regulatory agencies to study the danger of canal water use in homes.
“People should have access to clean drinking water out of their faucet,” said Luis Olmedo, executive director of Comite Civico del Valle in the "Water Deeply" article. “This is not the case in the countryside.”
Several Imperial Irrigation District associates and rural homeowners pushed back against what they feared would be “creating a problem where there isn’t one, and forcing a solution that isn’t necessary.”
“You are going to mandate that 3,500 homes do something?” asked Tim Whalen, who attended the August 28 meeting held in El Centro. “Where is the evidence that there is anything? Is there anything in the hospitals? Is there anything with the doctors? Is there anything that has been reported? Have any reports been filed with anybody? And you come back and say, ‘No.’”
The IID also contested the claim of contaminants, touting studies already completed by the State of California, the Imperial County Public Health Department, the IID and agricultural entities that regularly test irrigation water for food safety.
District officials said they were unaware of any reported instances of water borne illnesses or injuries attributed to water delivered by canals and used for domestic purposes, including bathing and brushing of teeth.
IID Director Bruce Kuhn recalled fighting a similar battle 20 years earlier with the United States Environmental Protection Agency. Outside agencies have wanted rural homes, about 2,800 scattered throughout the countryside, to have potable water piped into their homes.
The cost is prohibitive to almost all of the residents, Kuhn said. The IID did a study 20 years ago, and the value in 1998 came to $1,200 a month to each home to have piped, potable water.
The IID sent a letter to President Ana Marie Cauce of the University of Washington, presenting “our grave concern regarding your financial support of Comite Civico del Valle, Inc..” In the letter, IID laid out nine arguments against the canal water study.
One argument said if the residents had to have potable canal water, an exodus from the countryside would ensue. The letter stated it is common for agricultural workers to be given a rural home as part of their compensation. The cost of piping in potable water would force them to move into town, giving up their rent-free homes and instead paying $500 to $700 in rent, plus utilities.
IID Director Jim Hanks mentioned during the August 27 meeting in Brawley that the organizations needed to be more careful in their presentations.
“This is why you saw a lot of defensive people here,” Hanks said, referring to the majority of the people in the room. “You were talking about the drinking water, and then you were talking about water in the canals that run off from the fields. Runoff from the fields are not in the canals, those are in the drains.”
The lack of knowledge of Comite Civico investigators of the details of water delivery and water waste from fields led many to doubt the scientific expertise of those gathering information.
The organizations said they planned on using citizen-scientists to provide the data.
IID Water Manager Tina Shields said she questioned the methodology of collecting water samples.
Shields said the proposed study by Comite Civico and the University of Washington failed to employ trained experts to collect accurate samples, and that without proper training, the collectors could even self-contaminate the samples.
The IID went further, claiming the organizations sought to usurp the scientific work local agencies were tasked to conduct. The IID charged that Comite Civico has failed to produce a scope of work for their study.
Many people who attended the informational meetings held in late August questioned the organization staff’s apparent lack of any formal scientific training.
Olmedo said the extent of his scientific or educational training as pertinent to public health extended as far as the diploma he received from Brawley Union High School.
Besides questioning their sample gathering, many did not like the survey country residents were given, citing the leading questions on feeling sick after drinking canal water.
“The survey somebody sent me,” said Shields, “is not an impartial survey. It is leading questions. The very first question should be, ’From where do you get your water supply?’ It shouldn’t be, ’Do you feel sick, because you are drinking canal water?’ Those are loaded questions.
Many rural residents said they had lived several generations in their country homes and never had one issue with using canal water. The country dwellers said they knew not to drink the canal water.
The IID requires all country residents to have potable water delivered to the homes, and water delivery companies must report any stop orders to the IID, who then investigate why the potable water delivery was halted. If the problem was finances, the IID has a program for low income residents to qualify for electricity rate reduction, and those who qualify can also apply for the water delivery assistance service.
Shields told the group the IID had reached out to rural residents before, especially Imperial and Holtville areas.
“Those residents, overwhelmingly, did not want the service (connected to city water), because they didn’t want the additional cost,” Shields said. “They didn’t want the responsibilities that dealt with annexation. People live here in the country because they want to live in the country. They take those risks.”