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On Christmas Day 2003, Matthew Sievert, the only child of a single mother and California state worker named Stepheny Milo, was removed from life support. He’d gone out to a Sacramento park the night before to meet an ex-girlfriend, and had been gunned down. He was 19.

The playground where he was ambushed is five miles and a world away from the white-domed Capitol that was his mother’s workplace. His murder, though, would touch not only those halls, but some of California’s best-known political figures.

Initially, it would touch lawmakers, co-workers and lobbyists who sought to comfort Milo, an administrator for the Assembly’s Republican caucus. Later, it would touch Democratic Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon of Los Angeles, who, in 2014 married the sister of Chan “John” Lam, one of the young men convicted of killing Sievert.

In February 2018, it would touch then-Gov. Jerry Brown, whom Rendon asked to read his brother-in-law’s petition for mercy. Ten months later, just before Thanksgiving, Brown reduced Lam’s sentence.

Lam could be released this year, 16 years after the murder.


Few governors would ignore such a request from a legislative leader. Beyond that, a comparison of Brown’s action on similar cases supports his and Rendon’s assertion that Lam got no special treatment.

Rendon’s brother-in-law has been, by all accounts, a model inmate. Brown’s decision to shorten Lam’s sentence was consistent with his view that people can change, held since his earliest days in public service. The former Jesuit seminarian reduced the sentences of 283 prisoners, including Lam, and pardoned 1,332 people who had served their time, more by far than any California governor before him.

“I guess your question is: ‘Should we discriminate and would that be lawful?’” Brown said when asked about Lam. “'You’re totally deserving, but we’re not going to give it to you because … others are going to write nasty stories and imply there are politics involved.’”

In a larger sense, though, the murder of Matthew Sievert and its aftermath offer a case history in one of California’s most enduring quandaries. In the years since Lam and his friends fatally attacked Milo’s son, the criminal-justice pendulum has swung from a policy of mass incarceration to a view that rehabilitation is a fairer and more farsighted bet.

Through that lens, Brown’s decision was a study in the forces that shape the law and its enforcement—and of a question that has haunted and cost not just politicians like Rendon and Brown, or criminals and victims like Lam and Sievert, but also generations of Californians: How do we balance pain and redemption, mercy and safety, society and victims, crime and punishment?

Sixteen years is a long time in politics. On Christmas 2003, Anthony Rendon was celebrating at his parents’ home in Whittier, having left a job working on gang intervention to become a consultant. Jerry Brown was mayor of Oakland, confronting a spike in homicides.

It’s a long time for teenagers, too. In late 2003, Matthew Sievert’s 17-year-old ex-girlfriend, Nicole Carroll, was embroiled in drama.

Venting to Lam, she’d claimed Sievert disparaged her father and said something derogatory about Asians, though there was no evidence that Sievert was racist. Lam was 17, too, and had been jealous that Carroll had dated Sievert. To impress her, Lam offered to beat him up. She agreed.

They devised a plan, and early on Christmas Eve morning, Carroll phoned Sievert and asked him to meet her at Tahoe Park, a few blocks from where Carroll’s father lived, and a mile from the home he and his mother shared. Matthew borrowed his mom’s car, a five-year-old Camry. He promised to return in 20 minutes.

Lam and nine other teenagers converged in three cars on Tahoe Park. One brought nunchucks. Two brought guns. They waited as Sievert and Carroll talked on a bench. He stood and tried to hug her goodbye. She brushed him away twice, then relented. He walked to his car. As he turned on the ignition, Lam and his friends sped up, using their cars to box him in.

When Sievert tried to accelerate, Hung Thieu Ly, 18, his face obscured by a bandana, fired his .38-caliber revolver, striking Sievert in the chest and left temple. Lam, Carroll, Ly and the others drove off. Sievert’s car rolled into a fence across the street, its tires spinning. It was a little before 1 a.m.

“Oh well, I didn’t like him anyways,” Carroll said, according to participants who testified against her.

When her son didn’t return, Milo called a friend who drove her to search for him at Tahoe Park and Carroll’s father’s home. They probably drove right past the Camry. First responders found him an hour after the shooting, and rushed him to the UC Davis Medical Center. Someone from the hospital called his mom.

After her son’s death, Milo’s coworkers at the Capitol rallied around her. Then-Assembly Republican Leader Dave Cox asked that the chamber adjourn in Sievert’s memory on Jan. 5, 2004. On Jan. 6, the day Lam and Carroll were arrested, then-Assembly Policy Director Richard Mersereau sent an email throughout the building saying a fund had been established for her.

An insurance lobbyist called her carrier to make sure she got top dollar for the Camry, and lawmakers and staffers chipped in to buy her a replacement, a VW Beetle. When court hearings consumed her vacation time, the Assembly’s Democratic leaders changed policy to let her take sick leave, and staffers from both parties donated their sick days to her.

“We go hammer-and-tong on the issues,” Mersereau said. “But we have to care for our own.”

As the months stretched into years, however, at least one new member of the Capitol community remained a stranger to Milo: the older sister of the teenager who had set up her son’s ambush.

A graduate of UC Davis in Asian American studies, Annie Lam had forged a very different path from her errant brother’s and had gone to work as a junior aide to then-Assemblywoman Judy Chu.


Sacramento County Deputy District Attorney Donell Slivka prosecuted Lam, Carroll, Ly and two others, Jimmy Cooc and John Dich, in a single jury trial. The other participants testified against them.

Lam’s parents are Vietnamese refugees who worked in the fields and at other hard jobs in and around Sacramento to provide for their five kids. John Lam, the youngest, was born here. Lam’s father regularly attended court, wearing a tie and sitting behind Milo on the prosecution side of the courtroom. One day, a lens from Milo’s glasses popped out. Lam’s father found it and handed it to her.

“I thanked him,” she said. “I felt bad for him. He seemed like someone who really tried hard to do for his kids.”

Although only one defendant pulled the trigger, Slivka won convictions in 2005 of all five for first degree murder, based on the natural and probable consequence doctrine: Their plan to beat Sievert predictably resulted in his death. The murder occurred in the course of a felony, so each was as culpable as the shooter—or so the theory went.

Within a decade and a half, that thinking would change. But this was then: At their sentencing, Milo stood in Superior Court Judge Trena Burger-Plavan’s courtroom and spoke, aiming most of her anger at Carroll, the teenage girl at the center of the crime.

“Matthew was my life. You took my life,” she said. “I go over this whole thing every single day, several times. When you think of that night, and you will, I hope it rots your brain like acid. I hope you feel the pain in some way. I hope your days are filled with fright and pain.”

The judge sentenced the shooter to life in prison without parole. Lam and Carroll got 26 years to life, and the other two to 25-to-life.

“They have to be punished,” Milo told the judge. “This has to stick.”


John Lam arrived at Corcoran State Prison, one of the state’s highest security joints, in 2006. Driven by a generation of tough-on-crime legislation, California’s prison population that year stood at 172,528, a record high. He was 19.

“The violence and intimidation shocked me at first, but eventually fear became the norm,” he would later write in a prison newspaper. Back home, his sister Annie was by now working to elect Judy Chu’s husband—and her future employer—Mike Eng, to the Assembly. Rendon managed that campaign.

That’s where Rendon and Annie Lam met, though they didn’t start dating for several more years. She’s a consultant now focusing on mentoring Asian Americans.

The contrast between brother and sister didn’t surprise Rendon. “I worked in gang-reduction programs, and saw this a lot. I saw it in immigrant families where some people were successful, and some weren’t.”

That dynamic extended to his own family. In 1997, while Rendon pursued his doctorate in political science at UC Riverside, a cousin’s son was shot and killed at age 16 in Echo Park. He talks of distant relatives who, in family photos, throw gang signs.

In 2010, Milo retired, unaware that Annie Lam was Assemblyman Eng’s staffer. Rendon rose through the ranks of Democratic activism in Los Angeles, not joining the Legislature until two years after Milo’s retirement. In our term-limited era, with institutional memories short, Rendon winced upon being told, recently, that Matthew Sievert’s mother worked for 24 years in the House he now leads. Brown became attorney general and then governor, again.

Then, in 2011, came a decision that shifted the dynamics of criminal justice in California: The U.S. Supreme Court ruled the state’s prisons were so crowded that they violated the constitutional protection against cruel and unusual punishment.

Brown had initially fought the case, but came to embrace the ruling, pushing legislators to enact laws that would cut prison population. It now stands at around 125,000, largely because of his policies.

Brown signed a 2011 bill that kept lower-level criminals out of prison, and another giving second chances to people who commit murders as teenagers. He also signed transparency legislationrequiring that governors give notice to prosecutors before granting clemency.

That bill was a response to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s decision to halve the 16-year sentence of Esteban Núñez, the son of former Speaker Fabian Núñez, in connection with the stabbing death of a San Diego college student. Schwarzenegger granted only 10 clemency petitions during his six years in office, and acted without notice in 2011 on his final day in office. He later said he’d exercised his executive prerogative out of friendship with the then-speaker.

“Victims and their families should not be blindsided when a request is made for a sentence to be commuted,” Brown spokesman Evan Westrup said after Brown signed the bill.

After his 2014 re-election, Brown went on to fund Proposition 57, a 2016 initiative that offers prisoners the possibility of release if they rehabilitate themselves. He assigned a dozen lawyers and staffers to sift through prisoners’ requests for mercy, and deliver promising petitions to the Board of Prison Hearings for full investigations.

And he signed a major overhaul of the felony murder rule. The new law restricts prosecutors’ ability to charge and convict people of first-degree murder who, like Lam, didn’t actually pull the trigger.

“Basically, I believe the sentences are too damned long,” Brown said in an interview. “There are literally thousands of people who have turned their lives around and are being kept in cages for no legitimate reason, other than that’s the law in California.


Rendon, elected to the Assembly in 2012 and as Speaker in 2015, doesn’t tell many people about his brother-in-law. They’ve spoken briefly by phone, never in person. Although he accompanies his wife on the drive to San Quentin, he doesn’t go in, at her insistence. Instead, he reads or works on his laptop at a nearby Starbucks.

“It is not something I have pressed. It is a tough subject for them,” Rendon said.

One day last February, though, he walked from the speaker’s office to the governor’s office with a thick envelope: “I said, ‘I have something I want you to take a look at, something I want you to consider. I don’t want you to be blindsided. It’s somebody who is related to me.’”

It was Lam’s clemency petition, 192 pages. Rendon recalled Brown’s reaction as being “very Jerry Brown.”

“He started talking about criminal justice, theological-Jesuit stuff,” the speaker recalled. “I felt like my part was very brief.”

Both Lam and his sister declined to be interviewed for this story, but the package details Lam’s accomplishments: a high school diploma, four community college degrees. He has learned carpentry and has been a member of prison groups that did Bible study, restorative justice and gang rehabilitation. It also includes laudatory notes from prison officers, who report Lam has never been disciplined while in prison.

The centerpiece is Lam’s letter to Brown. In it, he described the fights, drugs and violence that were “a normal part” of his gang life leading up to the murder. Of the crime, he wrote, “the fact that we brought guns meant it was likely something much worse would happen, and it did. … We attacked and shot Matthew, then we ran away, like cowards.

“Today, I fully understand that my decisions during the night of the crime were just as costly as those of the person who pulled the trigger. Actually, I believe my actions were probably worse, because I was the person who got my friends together with the intention of attacking Matthew.”

Lam ended by saying he is “fully committed to living a life of service to others.” He has been at San Quentin, one of the top prisons for rehabilitative programs, since 2012. One of his staunchest advocates is Scott Budnick, whom he met there.

Budnick, who gained fame as producer of the “Hangover” movies, has also helped shape the law, as a proponent of sentencing reform, especially for offenders who committed crimes as teenagers. Teen brains are not fully formed, so they are not fully responsible for their actions, or so goes that theory.

“What stood out to me is that a lot of people screw up in prison before they realize what is important in life. John recognized that at a very young age,” said Budnick, who wrote to Brown urging mercy for Lam.


Lam has eight job offers, including ones from Budnick and Annie Lam, who promises to provide him a place to live and position in her consultancy business. Brown’s clemency team turned the case over to the Board of Parole Hearings, and a board investigator informed the judge and prosecutor at the end of February 2018 that he was opening an investigation of Lam’s request.

Slivka, the prosecutor, wrote a letter opposing Lam’s release, though she was not surprised at the outcome. Views have shifted: An appellate court had previously reduced convictions of Cooc and Dich to second-degree murder. Cooc got out last year. Dich likely will be released soon. Besides Lam, only Hung Ly, Sievert’s shooter, and Carroll—who remains behind bars at the California Institution for Women in Corona—were left.

On Nov. 21, 2018, Brown granted clemency to 52 convicted murders, reducing their sentences by a decade or more and making them eligible to appear before the Board of Parole Hearings for potential release.

Of those, 38 individuals had pulled the trigger, including two who committed double homicides. Thirty-two had been sentenced to life in prison without parole. Most committed the crimes as teenagers. One was Hung Ly, Sievert’s shooter. He’ll be eligible for parole in 2021. Another was Lam.

In knocking 10 years off Lam’s 26-to-life sentence, Brown wrote that Lam is “dedicated to living without violence and serving others.” Lam is scheduled to appear before the Parole Board later in May.

Milo is thinking about making a statement at Lam’s parole hearing.

“This thing about prisons being crowded, and not humane: What was humane about killing somebody? … I have no mercy for any of these people,” the mother said.

She was sitting in the front room of her East Sacramento home, near a framed photo of Matthew. She has a medallion acknowledging that his organs were donated. She has never returned to Tahoe Park, but has thought a lot about justice and what might have been had that night not happened. Maybe Matthew would be living with her now. Perhaps he would have married. Probably he would have wanted a job working outside.

Or maybe he would have evolved, like so much else. He was so young on the night they killed him. He would be a grown man now, like Lam, had he survived.

CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics. Below: Chan “John” Lam, 17 when the murder occurred, was sent first to Corcoran, then to San Quentin prison. California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

Published in Politics

The California Democratic Party no longer accepts donations from the oil industry, viewing that as politically unsavory for a party pushing to curb climate change. But that hasn’t stopped oil companies from spending millions to help California Democrats win.

Instead of giving money to the party, oil companies are donating directly to Democratic candidates and pouring huge sums into outside groups that campaign for a mix of Democrats and Republicans.

The petroleum industry has put at least $19.2 million into California politics in the 2017-18 election cycle, according to a CALmatters analysis of campaign finance data. Much of it is helping Republicans, including $2 million to the California Republican Party. The industry also gave roughly $14 million to independent committees supporting some politicians from both parties.

But the oil money helping California Democrats is significant. It includes:

  • More than $853,000 in direct contributions to 47 Democrats running for Assembly and Senate—including powerful leaders of both houses of the Legislature—and to the campaigns of Democratic Attorney General Xavier Becerra and a Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor, state Sen. Ed Hernandez.
  • More than $2.8 million on an independent campaign to help Democrat Susan Rubio win a Los Angeles-area state Senate seat.
  • More than $343,000 on an independent campaign supporting the re-election of Democratic Assemblyman Rudy Salas of Bakersfield.
  • Nearly $160,000 to a committee that campaigns for business-friendly Democrats.

In addition, oil companies and other business interests are pooling funds on campaigns supporting other Democrats running for the Legislature: Tasha Boerner Horvath of Encinitas, Sabrina Cervantes of Riverside, James Ramos of San Bernardino, Bob Archuleta of Pico Rivera, Vanessa Delgado of Montebello, Freddie Rodriguez of Pomona and Sydney Kamlager of Los Angeles.

It’s all part of a broader push by business interests in recent years to shape the type of Democrats who hold power in the state Capitol. As the Republican Party has diminished in California, and progressive activists nudge the Democratic Party leftward, big business has helped foster a cadre of more-conservative Democrats in the Legislature. This “mod squad” amounts to a bloc that can kill or water down environmental legislation.

“For years, I would have to convince the business community every election cycle that a moderate Democrat is good for them—not as great as a Republican who would do everything they tell them to, but better than a liberal Democrat,” said David Townsend, a political consultant who runs a business-backed political action committee that works to elect Democrats.

“I don’t have to make that argument anymore. It’s patently clear,” he said. “Now it’s a question of who is a mod, and how much can (business) help?”

Chevron, Valero and Phillips 66 are among the businesses working to elect Democrats through Townsend’s PAC and others like it. The companies are members of the Western States Petroleum Association, which doesn’t give political donations, but lobbies in Sacramento.

“We’re focused on bringing the conversation around energy back to the middle and away from the polarized extremes,” Catherine Reheis-Boyd, president of the petroleum association, said in a statement.

But many environmentalists see this kind of centrism as anathema to Democratic party principles. The California Democratic Party’s platform calls for a moratorium on fracking and a new tax on fossil fuel extraction—ideas that have failed in the Democratic-controlled Legislature.

“Our fear is that if oil companies are pouring money into candidates even before they’re elected, if they are elected, what will be their moral compass when there are issues with the refineries or natural gas power plants?” said Diana Vazquez, a policy manager with the California Environmental Justice Alliance.

The group ranks legislators every year on their environmental records. One of the low-scoring Democrats this year is Salas, the Bakersfield assemblyman benefiting from big spending by the oil industry, a major employer in his oil-rich region.

The environmental group gave an even lower score to Assemblywoman Blanca Rubio—the sister of Susan Rubio, who is running for state Senate with more than $2.8 million in support from petroleum. Environmentalists are supporting Susan Rubio’s opponent, Mike Eng, also a Democrat.

Susan Rubio’s spokesman touted her work on parks funding and other environmental issues as a Baldwin Park council member, and said her sister’s track record doesn’t indicate how she’ll vote.

Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon said that despite campaign support from Big Oil, Democrats have passed environmental measures that oil companies opposed—including legislation to curb offshore drilling and expand renewable energy.

“Does it influence individual members? I’m not sure,” Rendon said. “But as a body, I think we have a good record of standing up to oil.”

Yet Big Oil’s influence in the state Capitol is why the chair of the California Democratic Party’s environmental caucus pushed the party to ban oil-company money at the end of 2016. (The Democratic National Committee followed suit earlier this year, but, facing blowback from labor unions that rely on oil industry jobs, quickly reversed course and overturned the ban.)

RL Miller, the party’s state environmental caucus chair, said she’s not surprised the petroleum industry has found other channels for spending on California Democrats this year.

“I’ve always known that it would be a long road,” she said. “Getting the party not to take the money is a step, but the end goal here is to remove their influence in Democratic politics.”

CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California’s policies and politics.

Published in Politics

Becky Quintana walks along the gravel shoulder of a rural two-lane road through the sprawling orange groves of California’s Central Valley, the snow-white jags of the Sierra Nevada at her back.

“On a clear day, it’s like you can almost touch the mountains,” says the 57-year-old school bus driver, who has lived all her life in Seville, 35 miles south of Fresno. The vast majority of the town’s 500 residents are Latinos, and most toil for meager wages in Tulare County’s vast nut, olive and citrus orchards.

The nearby Kaweah River, which flows from headwaters in the high peaks of the Sierra, is cool and clean. But most of its flow is diverted into irrigation canals and delivered to a faraway mosaic of farms and cities. In spite of Seville’s proximity to the Kaweah, the tiny town’s drinking water doesn’t come from the river, but from wells punched into the intensively cultivated land around town. Quintana points out the array of white tanks and a U-shaped pipe plunging earthward: This, she explains, is where the town’s water comes from. As a groundwater activist and founder of a local group called the Committee for a Better Seville, Quintana has worked for several years to improve Seville’s primitive water system.

A white PVC pipe runs down the middle of an irrigation canal, which carries three or four inches of water. The pipe—actually many pipes, loosely connected by plastic couplings—is the town’s water main. Quintana pushes on the rickety assemblage, which creaks and dips below the surface of the canal. She explains that when the canal is full, the pipe is submerged, and when pressure is low (usually in the summer, when people use lots of water), canal water can seep in through loose connections, carrying sand and other debris. A neighbor says a small tadpole once wriggled out of her kitchen tap.

In the canal’s shallow water, beside the main, the carcass of a dog slumps in a grisly state of putrefaction. “Lots of tourists come through here on their way to Sequoia National Park,” Quintana laughs. “They stop to eat in the café. I bet they wouldn’t if they knew what was in the water.”

The most harmful ingredients can’t be seen. The groundwater underlying Seville, like that beneath dozens of small towns throughout the Central Valley—the 50-by-400-mile agricultural basin, home to 4 million people, that effectively separates coastal California from the Sierra Nevada—has long borne the brunt of the region’s industrial-scale agriculture and the industrial-scale pollution that comes with it.

(A similar story can be told about portions of the eastern Coachella Valley, a recent study shows.)

While dozens of contaminants, both manmade and natural, have been detected in the region’s groundwater, nitrates are the pollutant of greatest concern. Derived from hundreds of thousands of tons of synthetic fertilizer and animal wastes applied to crops each year, nitrates pose an especially acute risk to infants; long-term exposure has also been implicated in various forms of cancer, including gastric, esophageal, ovarian and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. According to a recent University of California at Berkeley report, nitrate exposure’s health impacts fall disproportionately on the poor Latino communities of the Central Valley—the same people who make up most of the low-wage workforce of the agriculture industry.

Nitrates and other contaminants are less of an issue in larger, wealthier communities, since treatment or blending with cleaner water can often reduce concentrations to meet health standards. By contrast, the small Latino communities of the Central Valley—where median household incomes are less than $15,000 per year—simply do not have the tax base to support the construction and operation of treatment plants, or to secure alternative sources of water.

The struggles of these poor communities hint at much larger problems. Unlike every other state in the Western U.S., California does not regulate the quantity of groundwater pumped, although more than eight in 10 of the state’s residents rely on groundwater for at least a portion of their water supply. A report released in February by the State Water Resources Control Board identified 31 principal contaminants, including arsenic, uranium, perchlorate and pesticide residues, in the groundwater serving 21 million Californians.

As the state’s population grows, and its complex water systems are further racked by climate change—with Sierra snowpack expected to dwindle by as much as a quarter by mid-century—residents across all income levels will become more and more dependent on increasingly scarce and polluted groundwater. And many already drink water that’s less than clean.

“As many as 8.5 million Californians rely on supplies that experienced more than five incidences of excessive levels of contaminants in the drinking water in a single year,” former Assemblyman Mike Eng, from Los Angeles, testified before the California Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Water.

In response, last October, Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law AB 685, the “Human Right to Water” bill. The 250-plus-word addendum to the state water code is ambitiously phrased, declaring, “Every human being has the right to safe, clean, affordable, and accessible water adequate for human consumption, cooking and sanitary purposes.”

The bill, which reaffirms the larger goals of the federal 1974 Safe Drinking Water Act, is one of the first clear victories in acknowledging the unequal burden of water contamination in California. It’s the product of an aggressive seven-year-long grassroots-inspired legal campaign focused on the Central Valley. But successfully turning the bill’s fine words into reality won’t be easy: The effort to secure clean drinking water in the Central Valley requires reversing a century’s worth of pollution, and it will be a slow, expensive process—entailing reform of one of California’s most powerful industries, which has transformed the valley into one of the planet’s most heavily engineered and industrialized landscapes.

In the meantime, says Laurel Firestone of the Community Water Center, the effort to bring clean water to places like Seville will require determination, creativity—and a recognition of the problem’s multiple facets.

“On one hand, the solution is complicated, and on the other, it’s not,” Firestone says. “We need to look at what our priorities are as a state and what we are using our resources on. It’s pretty obvious it hasn’t been on bringing safe drinking water to places like Seville. … All of us have to play a part in creating that solution.”

 

Along with providing around half of the nation’s fruits and vegetables, Central Valley farms generate tens of billions of dollars in revenue annually. The Environmental Working Group estimates that California farmers have received more than $10 billion in subsidies since 1995. Indeed, California farmers achieved their regional economic and political dominance largely through government largesse and publicly financed, gargantuan water projects, such as the State and Central Valley Water Projects, which funnel huge quantities of water (as much as 80 percent of the state’s overall supply, by some estimates) to the area.

And yet, the industry has spent millions on lobbying, as well as a public relations campaign that portrays itself as the victim of over-regulation and water policies aimed at its destruction. For years, local farmers have protested reductions in water deliveries to the area from the San Francisco Bay Delta—posting signs along the roadside with messages such as CONGRESS CREATED DUSTBOWL and FOOD GROWS WHERE WATER FLOWS.

Similarly, a pack of pro-agriculture groups railed against AB 685. Opponents, including the Western Growers Association—a trade group that represents California farmers—and the state’s Chamber of Commerce, offered up a litany of criticism, warning that the law could, among other things, prevent local districts from shutting off water to non-paying customers, create subsidies for poor residents, and expose farmers and water districts to lawsuits.

“A new ‘right to water’ in California law could potentially upset decades of legal precedent and could cost the state of California untold amounts of money,” the Association of California Water Agencies wrote Gov. Brown, strongly urging a veto.

Supporters of AB 685 included numerous environmental groups, such as the Sierra Club and the California League of Conservation Voters, but the on-the-ground effort was headed by the Visalia-based Community Water Center and la Asociación de Gente Unida por el Agua, or AGUA, a group made up of local representatives from towns with contaminated water.

“Part of the reason we’re in the situation we’re in is because communities have been segregated and isolated,” says Firestone, whose Community Water Center helped organize the AGUA coalition, many of whose members work in the very farm fields generating the pollution. “They’re now speaking with a unified voice.”

AGUA’s efforts are in many ways reminiscent—even an extension—of the grassroots organizing of Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers union. That group’s famous rallying cry, “Sí, se puede” (“Yes, we can”), galvanized the movement that drew national attention to the often-terrible working conditions faced by California farmworkers.

 

On a March evening, just off Visalia’s main drag, around 40 people crammed into the living room of the small bungalow that serves as AGUA’s main offices, discussing strategies for an upcoming rally and meeting with legislators in Sacramento.

One AGUA representative, Sandra Garcia, 48, who picks fruit and vegetables near her hometown of Poplar, shook her head when I asked if she worried her activism might land her in trouble with her employer. “We have no choice,” she says. “A few years ago, my boss said, ‘I don’t want you out stirring everyone up.’ I told him, ‘I’m trying to keep you from getting sued.’“

In rapid and impassioned Spanish, the group discussed the need to press state representatives about securing grant money to improve the water supplies of disadvantaged communities. Applying for the funds—available through Proposition 84, a 2006 bond act funding safe drinking water initiatives—is a complex process, requiring input from engineers and technical experts that the towns most in need often lack the funds to hire.

Such are the problems with the new law. In spite of AB 685’s bold rhetoric, it does not actually require state agencies to do anything new. Though it mandates that state agencies take a “multi-agency” approach and consider the policy when they adopt or revise regulations, it does not require California to provide clean water or to allocate “additional resources” to fix ailing water systems. Nor does it require the agencies that oversee public water systems—the Department of Water Resources, the State Water Resources Control Board and Department of Public Health—to increase enforcement.

Nonetheless, local activists call AB 685 an important, if largely symbolic, first step toward greater recognition of the connection between clean water and human health. Firestone says AB 685 makes “a problem that was invisible into a priority. People have to pick up that rock and see the disparities around water in our state,” she says.

Debbie Davis, community and rural affairs adviser for the governor’s office, agrees. “The bottom line is that the legislation spells out our intent, which is that everyone in the state should have access to safe water for basic human needs,” says Davis, who worked as a community water activist before joining the governor’s office. “In California, that should be a reasonable, minimum expectation.”

 

In the Central Valley, however, what is “reasonable” often clashes starkly with what is. According to the Community Water Center, one in five Tulare County communities is unable to provide clean drinking water on a daily basis.

To see the conditions facing those communities and their tens of thousands of inhabitants, I traveled to several small agricultural towns in the county, outside of Visalia. In East Orosi, a tiny hamlet of 500 people, residents live in small wood-frame and stucco bungalows, many painted in bright pastel colors reminiscent of a rural Mexican village. My guide, 19-year-old Jessica Sanchez, shows me a recent warning from the East Orosi water district, citing nitrate levels that exceed the state maximum of 45 milligrams per liter. The notices that frequently come in the mail are often obvious facsimiles of previous warnings. “A lot of times, you can see tape marks around the date,” says Sanchez.

Sanchez has been active in local water issues since high school, but these days, she has a new reason to be concerned: her 11-month-old son, Jordan, whose stroller she pushes along a trash-strewn gravel shoulder. Sanchez points out an abandoned-looking trailer tagged with graffiti—the main office of the East Orosi Community Services District.

“There’s no one there,” she says with a laugh. “They hardly ever are.”

As in Seville, the East Orosi’s Community Services District delivers water to homes with “no method of treatment such as coagulation and flocculation, sedimentation, filtration or disinfection,” according to a 2011 Tulare County report on the area’s small community water systems. Moreover, its groundwater pumps sit a few yards from an orange orchard—meaning whatever is applied at the surface can potentially percolate into the shallow groundwater below and into drinking supplies.

Local municipal groundwater pumps are often located beside orchards, alongside agricultural canals, and beside sprawling dairies and their huge sewage lagoons. “The Third World conditions of these systems are truly shocking, particularly for a state that is a leader in so many areas of environmental governance,” says Richard Frank, an environmental law professor at the University of California at Davis. “It’s a striking anomaly.”

Farms and dairies are responsible for 96 percent of the nitrates entering groundwater in the Central and Salinas valleys, according to a 2012 UC Davis study. Some 220,000 tons leach into that groundwater every year—more than four times the “benchmark” level at which nitrogen will not further degrade the region’s groundwater. However, since the bulk of it comes not from single point sources, but from application of fertilizers over vast areas, farms are not required to have discharge permits for the large quantities of nitrogen pollution they generate. California’s dairies are now required to submit waste and nutrient management plans if they are located in “high risk” areas—over shallow groundwater, say, or near municipal water supplies. But much of the manure and sewage sludge generated by these dairies is destined for fields, potentially jeopardizing the groundwater beneath.

There is mounting evidence that the nitrogen in the groundwater today originated decades ago—which is to say, the Central Valley’s problems stand to get significantly worse.

“Even if we got rid of all of the sources tomorrow, it’s going to be decades before this mess is cleaned up,” says Thomas Harter, a co-author of the UC Davis nitrate report. “To think that this is a problem that we’re simply going to be able to remediate away is the wrong path.”

In the meantime, Latinos living in the Central Valley are suffering disproportionately from nitrogen contamination, according to a study published in 2011 in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives. That study’s lead author, Carolina Balazs, a UC Berkeley researcher, says that previous research on water contamination overlooked socioeconomic and ethnic disparities, assuming that all communities served by small water systems faced similar risk of nitrate contamination.

“We found that, yes, small systems do tend to have higher nitrate levels. But it’s small systems (serving) high percentages of Latinos that have the highest levels of nitrates,” says Balazs.

Both economic and social factors may play a role in exposure risk. Data from the 2000 Census show that more than one in four Spanish-speaking families in the Central Valley are “linguistically isolated,” meaning that all adults in a household speak a language other than English, and none speaks English very well. Because of this, these families are less able to advocate for themselves and successfully use civic channels available to effect change.

For mothers like Sanchez, nitrates are particularly worrisome since they can cause methemoglobinemia, or “blue baby syndrome,” a sometimes-fatal condition in which an infant’s red blood cells cannot carry enough oxygen.

“I definitely won’t use this water to make formula,” says Sanchez, looking down at Jordan in his stroller. “But should I even give it to my dogs?”

 

The 300 people in Tonyville, tucked between the beige Sierra foothills and the boundless green of surrounding orchards, also face severe water problems. Senaida Aguilar, a vigorous 71-year-old farmworker, raised three children here after moving in the mid-1980s from her hometown of Morelia, in southern Mexico. Her skin is tanned and creased after nearly 30 years of laboring in the olive and orange orchards.

Thick gloves protect her forearms from thorns, and she wears a heavy canvas fruit-picking apron, with a large, kangaroo-like pouch in front. It takes 18 filled aprons—more than 1,600 pounds of citrus altogether—to fill a single bin, she explains; she earns $14.50 for each bin.

She is still strong, and though she no longer climbs the ladders, Aguilar says she can keep up with most of the younger pickers by working the lower limbs, filling a bin an hour. But the contract work that has become standard today makes her wages unpredictable.

“Now they tell you they need a certain number of bins, and they send you home once they are filled.” That means that, on many days, it is simply not possible for Aguilar to fill her eight bins.

This strains her budget, which includes $650 a month in rent. She also pays around $50 a month to the Lindsay-Strathmore Irrigation District for water that’s undrinkable. So she spends another $50 to $100 a month for five-gallon bottles at water vending machines for drinking and cooking.

Aguilar’s situation is not unique; seven out of 10 Tulare County households surveyed in 2011 by the Oakland-based Pacific Institute spent close to 5 percent of their annual income on water—three times the “affordability threshold” set by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Aguilar shows me several recent warnings from the irrigation district, one mentioning “disinfection byproducts”—trihalomethanes and haloacetic acids—found at concentrations nearly twice the state limit. The warning that follows is confusing at best. One sentence reads, “You DO NOT need to use an alternative (e.g., bottled) water supply.” But the following line is hardly reassuring: “Some people who use water containing trihalomethanes in excess of the (maximum contaminant level) over many years may experience liver, kidney, or central nervous system problems and may have an increased risk of getting cancer.”

The most ominous warning, however, arrived with Aguilar’s February bill. It reads, TONYVILLE WATER HAS HIGH LEVELS OF PERCHLORATE. DO NOT DRINK THE WATER OR USE IT TO MAKE INFANT FORMULA. Perchlorate, a potent thyroid inhibitor, is often used in munitions manufacturing but can also be derived from fertilizers.

Aguilar runs a glass from her bathroom tap and brings it into the light. The water has a slightly yellowish tinge, and it looks cloudy on some days, she says, “the color of pond water.” It has a faint acrid smell, reminiscent of wet animal fur tinged with lighter fluid.

No one knows the actual toll bad water is taking on human health around here. But residents all share stories of illness or death. Aguilar mentions people who developed strange rashes and sores after using the water for bathing. Another Tonyville resident, Guadalupe Nunez, tells me she knows 11 people who have died of liver, stomach and kidney cancers in Tonyville in less than 10 years.

Public health statistics show the death rates from infant health issues (including birth defects, miscarriage and sudden infant death syndrome), digestive system cancers and other illnesses associated with nitrate exposure in Tulare County have been above statewide averages at one time or another since 2001. California public health workers found a cluster of childhood cancers in the Tulare County town of Earlimart between 1986 and 1989—and all the victims were children of farmworkers. Of course, proving a definitive link between water contaminants and disease requires long-term, longitudinal studies—the sorts of public-health inquiries that are rarely made in these virtually invisible communities.

To learn more about what water managers are doing to fix Tonyville’s problems, I call Scott Edwards, Lindsay-Strathmore’s district manager, whose name and number are listed on the warning notice. Edwards explains that most of the time, Tonyville’s water comes through surface canals, but that the perchlorate spikes occur every year or two when the canal is “dewatered,” and the town switches from canal water to groundwater.

According to Edwards, Tonyville’s filtration plant is simply incapable of removing the perchlorate from its groundwater. (He admits he doesn’t know where the perchlorate is coming from.) “State and federal regulations say we must deliver clean drinking water, even though we can’t afford to do that,” he says, explaining that treatment costs already run from $1,500 to $2,000 an acre-foot, while residents are paying only $250 per acre-foot. “Tonyville residents would be paying $450 a month to operate that plant. What am I supposed to do, raise the rates? They can’t afford that.”

But clean drinking water is a human right in California, I point out, referring to the new bill’s wording. “Drinking water is not a human right. Get that off your head right now,” says Edwards. “If it costs somebody else money to provide it to you, it’s not your right.”

He quickly shifts to a more sympathetic tone, though, noting that he lives in an unincorporated part of Tulare County, and his water, too, is unfiltered and undrinkable. “We have bottled water in our house at all times.”

As a manager tasked with delivering high-quality water across the county, does he find this fact troubling or, at the very least, somewhat ironic?

“It is what it is,” he replies.

 

Overwhelming costs and technical complexity compound this kind of institutional apathy. Since large-scale groundwater cleanup is, by most measures, not feasible, a different approach called “pump-and-fertilize” has been proposed. In essence, farmers would use nutrient-loaded groundwater for both irrigating and fertilizing, a practice that, over time, could gradually reduce nitrate levels in aquifers. Another idea is a tax on nitrate-rich fertilizers, meant to dissuade farmers from overusing them. The tax funds would be used to tackle nitrate contamination in towns served by small community water systems. (The UC Davis report estimates it will cost $36 million annually to bring clean water to the two regions examined in the study—either through new infrastructure or securing new sources of water.) Not surprisingly, agricultural groups are strongly opposed.

“It’s going to take action, not only from the water board, but the Legislature and other state agencies to move forward,” says John Borkovich, program manager for the state water board’s groundwater monitoring program.

The most promising technical fix may, in fact, be rooted in the ties forged by the AGUA coalition itself. The hope is that these small towns can pool their resources to create larger districts with economies of a scale capable of reducing the high costs of treatment. “If you take seven communities and combine them into one district,” says Abigail Solis of the Community Water Center, “you eliminate the costs of seven secretaries, seven attorneys, seven engineers, seven everything. You’re also much stronger politically.”

Steve Worthley, a member of the Tulare County board of supervisors, is exploring just such a possibility. The county, which took over operation of Seville’s water system by court order a few years back, is considering linking it up with the water system of the nearby town of Yettem. He notes that the greatest impediments to consolidation are political. “There would have to be an election to create a district and form its boundaries and determine its governance structure. But it can be done.”

He adds that another nearby district is considering delivering clean water to these towns via water “swaps,” which entail exchanging cleaner surface waters for groundwater stored in large underground reservoirs.

While the concept of swapping tainted groundwater for cleaner surface water seems like a no-brainer, it’s not as simple as it sounds, explains Worthley—particularly in years like this, in which, as of May 1, the state’s snowpack stood at a meager 17 percent of average. Communities across the region have no choice but to turn to groundwater to augment supply.

Given the myriad threats to the Central Valley’s groundwater, I ask if the state might have a larger role to play, helping the county to more carefully manage the pumping of groundwater and more rigorously regulate sources of pollution. “I’m totally opposed to it,” says Worthley. “We can manage our own groundwater.”

Like most places in California and across the country, already-strapped Tulare County was decimated by loss of tax revenues during the financial downturn. “We know we have a problem, and we’re trying to fix it,” says Worthley. “We don’t have the money to fix it. The community services districts don’t have the money to fix it.”

So where will Tulare County get the money? I ask. “We’re looking for some assistance from the state,” he says.

Back in Seville, as we walk toward Becky Quintana’s house and the snowcapped peaks beyond, Quintana reflects on what’s been accomplished. Still, she acknowledges that the struggle to secure clean water for her community never ends.

“People always ask me, ‘How come you don’t just move?’ Is that going to solve my problem—just taking off? My parents built their house here 60 years ago. Should I just say, ‘OK, I’m leaving; the water will take care of itself?’”

She shakes her head emphatically, her large earrings swinging defiantly in the cool spring air. “It’s not just about me. It’s about the next generation. It’s about the next human being that’s going to want to come make a home here. Why not make a difference?”

Jeremy Miller is a contributing editor for High Country News, where this story was originally published. He writes from his home in Richmond, Calif. This story was made possible with support from the Kenney Brothers Foundation and with reader donations to the High Country News Research Fund.

Published in Environment