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Dissertation/Thesis Abstract

Just Water? Social Disparities and Drinking Water Quality in California's San Joaquin Valley
by Balazs, Carolina Laurie, Ph.D., University of California, Berkeley, 2011, 142; 3616201
Abstract (Summary)

California's San Joaquin Valley is one of the world's richest agricultural regions yet it is also home to some of the greatest environmental problems, including drinking water contamination. After decades of intensive agriculture in the San Joaquin Valley (SJV), the region's aquifers and rivers are some of the most contaminated in the nation. This creates a notoriously difficult environmental problem to regulate, and related public health and environmental justice issues. Ninety-five percent of the SJV population relies on this contaminated groundwater for drinking thus creating an exposure risk. Contaminant exposures are further compounded by the fact that with high costs of treatment, few water systems are able to afford mitigation, especially under-resourced communities. Yet most of our understanding of water in the San Joaquin Valley concerns agricultural water use, or environmental water quality of rivers, streams and aquifers. Very little focuses directly on drinking water quality, and much less on the health and regulatory implications of this contamination.

My dissertation combines the fields of environmental health science and environmental justice to examine the relationship between exposures to contaminants and the socioeconomic characteristics of drinking water systems. Combining both fields allows me to explore which individuals and communities are most vulnerable to drinking water contamination, whether these groups are equipped to mitigate exposure at household, community or regional levels, and what underlying processes impact exposure. In doing so, this dissertation contributes to a growing field of research that addresses the impacts of contaminated drinking water supplies and inadequate service provision in the U.S., but still has considerable gaps. While the environmental justice literature focuses on the extent and causes of disproportionate environmental burdens, it has largely failed to examine drinking water issues. While the environmental health arena has contributed a plethora of studies on drinking water exposures and health outcomes, it has mainly focused on issues in the developing world, and has not always addressed social disparities in the U.S. with regards to water.

To fill these gaps, my dissertation addresses three sets of questions: 1) Are there social disparities in exposure to drinking water contaminants in California's San Joaquin Valley? 2) Are there social disparities in the ability of water systems to comply with drinking water standards? 3) What are the social, political and environmental processes that explain the origins and persistence of observed disparities and their associated health and regulatory implications? Underlying these questions is a hypothesis that scale-alone (i.e., small system size) does not fully explain disparities in drinking water contamination and compliance abilities, and that a focus on demographic composition of water systems may further elucidate which communities are most vulnerable.

Using mixed methods, I answer these questions by focusing on community water systems throughout the Valley, and exploring the relationship between nitrate and arsenic contamination and community demographics. To answer the first two questions, I combine two main sets of historical datasets of drinking water quality maintained by the California Department of Public Health. With this data I estimate distribution water quality and contaminant exposure, and compliance with federal standards at the water system level. I then use statistical modeling techniques to examine the relationship between race, class and exposure to nitrate and arsenic in water systems. To answer the third question, I rely on primary ethnographic data that includes semi-structured interviews and participant observation with county and state regulators, drinking water advocates and community residents. I complement this primary data with media and document reviews relating to drinking water contamination in the San Joaquin Valley.

My results show that among smaller water systems, those serving larger fractions of Latinos have higher nitrate levels in their drinking water. This provides evidence of an environmental inequity. I also find that systems with lower rates of home ownership have higher arsenic concentrations in their drinking water. In addition, these systems have higher odds of receiving an arsenic maximum contaminant level violation. For arsenic, these results indicate that communities with fewer economic resources face a dual burden—they are not only exposed to higher arsenic levels, but are also served by non-compliant systems. I conclude by developing a new social epidemiology framework that captures the multiple challenges created by natural, built and social environmental factors. I use the framework to argue that these multi-level driving factors impact both coping abilities and exposure at the community and household level. In sum, my dissertation highlights the distributional and procedural inequities that exist with regards to drinking water contamination and compliance with drinking water standards. In doing so, this research challenges the notion that drinking water problems are only a matter of system size and elucidates the drinking water disparities that low-income communities and communities of color face.

Indexing (document details)
Advisor: Ray, Isha, Morello-Frosch, Rachel
Commitee: Hubbard, Alan, Morello-Frosch, Rachel, Ray, Isha
School: University of California, Berkeley
Department: Energy and Resources
School Location: United States -- California
Source: DAI-A 75/07(E), Dissertation Abstracts International
Subjects: Environmental Health, Water Resource Management, Environmental Justice
Keywords: Drinking water, Environmental justice, Health, San joaquin valley, Social disparities, Water systems
Publication Number: 3616201
ISBN: 978-1-303-83016-7
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