When we talk about public water that’s unsafe to drink, we don’t usually think we’re talking about California. But in some of the state’s poor inland communities, many families can’t even turn on the tap anymore.

No, Tulare, you really don’t.
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Today, The New York Times has a report on tainted water in California’s Central Valley, where area groundwater is laid waste by the region’s agriculture industry, contaminated with arsenic, bacteria, and worse.

It is the grim result of more than half a century in which chemical fertilizers, animal wastes, pesticides and other substances have infiltrated aquifers, seeping into the groundwater and eventually into the tap. An estimated 20 percent of small public water systems in Tulare County are unable to meet safe nitrate levels, according to a United Nations representative …

Here in Tulare County, one of the country’s leading dairy producers, where animal waste lagoons penetrate the air and soil, most residents rely on groundwater as the source for drinking water. A study by the University of California, Davis, this year estimated that 254,000 people in the Tulare Basin and Salinas Valley, prime agricultural regions with about 2.6 million residents, were at risk for nitrate contamination of their drinking water. Nitrates have been linked to thyroid disease and make infants susceptible to “blue baby syndrome,” a potentially fatal condition that interferes with the blood’s capacity to carry oxygen.

Residents of the Central Valley lack the political power to do much about the problem, but they’re also without the hundreds of extra dollars each month they need to buy bottled water.

Many such communities started as farm labor camps without infrastructure, said John A. Capitman, a professor at California State University, Fresno, and the executive director of the Central Valley Health Policy Institute. Today, one in five residents in the Central Valley live below the federal poverty line. Many spend up to 10 percent of their income on water. “The laborers and residents of this region have borne a lot of the social costs of food production,” Professor Capitman said.

Gov. Jerry Brown signed the Human Right to Water bill last month, which tells state agencies to make money for clean water a priority. But state solutions are less likely to work than smaller, local and regional ones — communities could consolidate into a kind of water co-operative, or partner with irrigation districts to snag clean water from upstream reservoirs.

One thing’s for sure: California water is precious, especially in the thirsty Central Valley. Is the state really going to choose to divert those resources to its poorest citizens?