2011-08-24 "$54 a month for water you can’t drink" by David Bacon from "New America Media"
Angel Hernández, Isabel Solorio and Jesús Medina, residents of Lanare, have discovered dangerous concentrations of Arsenic in their water supply. (PHOTO BY DAVID BACON)
Note from the editor: Here we present the first of a two-part series about contaminated water in the community of Lanare.
When Mary Broad moved to Lanare in 1955, there were only four other families still living in this tiny, unincorporated community in the middle of the San Joaquin Valley, halfway between old Highway 99 and Interstate 5 on the cracked blacktop of Mt. McKinley Avenue.
It wasn’t always this way. Lanare used to be a company town, taking its name from rancher and speculator LA Nares, one of the last of a string of speculators from the east who became owners of the old Spanish land grants - in his case, the Rancho Laguna de Tache. From 1912 to 1925 the town had a post office and a station on the Laton and Western Railway.
Lanare and its neighbors drew their water and life from the Kings River. The next town up the road even changed its name from Liberty Settlement to Riverdale to advertise its proximity. But through the first half of the 1900s, farmers tapped the Kings in the Sierras to the east, to irrigate the San Joaquin Valley’s vineyards, orchards and cotton fields. Instead of flowing into the valley past Lanare and Riverdale, in most years the stretch below the mountains became a dry riverbed. Eventually Tulare Lake, the river’s terminus, itself was drained for farmland and disappeared.
So, almost, did Lanare. Its people left, and only a few families remained. But in California’s housing crunch of the last few decades, Lanare began to grow again. For farm laborers, truck drivers and poor rural working families, living in Lanare was cheaper than urban Fresno fifty miles away.
But for these new residents, the dry riverbed and a century of using its water for irrigation have spelled bad news. Today Lanare’s water comes from a well. And in this low-lying area of the San Joaquin Valley, chemicals have become concentrated in the water table. It was no surprise, therefore, that residents discovered their water had high levels of arsenic, a poison. Since then, their effort to find water they can drink has been a search for the life of their town itself.
By 2000 Lanare had 540 residents. A decade later, 589. People mostly moved into trailers. Because most are farm workers in the surrounding fields, a third live under the poverty line, with half the men making less than $22,000 per year, and half the women less than $16,000.
Today Lanare is one of the many unincorporated communities in rural California that lack the most basic services, like drinking water, sewers, and even sidewalks and streetlights. According to Policy Link, a foundation promoting economic and social equity, “Throughout the United States, millions of people live outside of central cities on pockets of unincorporated land. Predominantly African-American and Latino, and frequently low-income, these communities ... have been excluded from city borders.”
Three years ago, Policy Link partnered with California Rural Legal Assistance to create the Community Equity Initiative, to find answers to the critical situation of Lanare residents and others like them. The San Joaquin Valley alone is home to more than 220 unincorporated communities, with an estimated population of almost half a million.