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Rural Poverty in California

Is the American Dream Drying Up in California’s Central Valley?

Co-published by The Guardian
Love and energy aren’t always enough to provide what Allensworth, a historic African-American town, needs most: clean water, accessible to all.

Judith Lewis Mernit

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ACRE founder Catherine Coleman Flowers. (Photo: Jim Gensheimer)

Editor’s Note: This story marks the launch of an ongoing series about poverty in California’s heartland. From farming valleys to foothill communities, “the other California” makes ends meet in a time of adversity. Climate-changed weather patterns have contributed to catastrophic droughts and fires, while dwindling job opportunities are depopulating long-established towns. In the months ahead, we will profile the lives of rural Californians and examine the economic conditions that shape their futures. We will also weigh proposed solutions to the challenges they face, as well as programs that are helping to improve the present.

 Co-published by The Guardian

One day in 1979, Nettie Morrison, then 44 and living near Bakersfield, California, announced she was moving — to a tiny rural town called Allensworth, 40 miles north. Hardly anyone had even heard of it, and those who had thought she was crazy. “People said, ‘Why would you want to move out there?’” recalls her daughter, Denise Kadara, who was already married by then. “‘There’s nothing for you up there.’ But she knew it was a historically black town and wanted to be a part of it.”


Removing arsenic costs money, and money is something a small, rural water system never has.


Colonel Allen Allensworth, a former slave who rose to become a Union officer during the Civil War, had founded the eponymous town in 1908, when he bought up 2,700 acres of alkali flats to establish a black utopia in a part of the San Joaquin Valley known as the Tulare Basin. By 1913, some 1,200 people from across the country had responded to Allensworth’s call — sent out via newspaper advertisements — to build the “Tuskegee of the West.” Back then, abundant clear water flowed from artesian wells, enough to drink and to irrigate crops of alfalfa, sugar beets and corn, along with feed for livestock.

But when Morrison arrived, all that remained of Allensworth’s vision was a nostalgic new state park, established in 1976 to commemorate the fallen town, and a tumbledown village of mostly Latino migrant workers and a few African-American families, grinding out a spare existence on the now-parched land. They cooked, when they could afford it, with expensive propane brought in by the tank. If they had toilets to flush, the sewage went into faulty septic systems; many of them used outhouses instead. Their wells were determined to be contaminated with arsenic, at levels too high for human consumption. A remedial treatment system never proved quite adequate: Residents still drove miles to fill tanks with clean water from other jurisdictions.

Morrison went to work and did what she could for Allensworth. Recruiting her five grown children as helpers — “we were there every weekend,” remembers Kadara — she founded a nonprofit, Friends of Allensworth, and saw that food and other necessities were distributed to the neediest residents. In 2007, Morrison mobilized opposition to two corporate dairy farms planned near the town, which would have compounded the threats to Allensworth’s air and water — her work insured that cattle had to be at least 2.5 miles outside of town. She also organized events at the state park, to teach people about the town’s — and by extension, the nation’s — history. “All the activities that take place there,” her daughter says, “Nettie Morrison established every single one of them.”

Kayode Kadara (Photo: Judith Lewis Mernit)

When Morrison died last year, at the age of 83, she had without question improved the lives of Allensworth’s residents, and inspired Denise and her husband, Kayode, along with Denise’s twin brother Dennis Hutson, to carry on in her absence. Together, they established a farm on the town’s outskirts, where they demonstrate sustainable growing practices. Soon, they plan to involve local children in a work-based learning program to teach them to be stewards of their land.

“I wish every community had a Kadara family,” says Dezaraye Bagalayos, a program coordinator for the Tulare Basin Wildlife Partners who works to improve Allensworth’s environment. “They take all of their love and energy and pour it into their community, because the history is so important to them. It’s not something I’ve witnessed very often in my life.”


In thousands of rural communities attempts to treat water to state and federal drinking water standards have run up against a fundamental absence of infrastructure and community.


Unfortunately, love and energy aren’t always enough to provide what Allensworth needs most: clean water, accessible to all. The community’s water system comes from two blended wells, serving 521 residents with 156 connections. A chlorination process removes most harmful bacteria, but the water still tests high for arsenic, a known carcinogen that damages the kidneys. (Denise Kadara suspects, but can’t prove, that it may have contributed to the kidney disease that proved fatal to her mother.) It may have been implicated in some of the low-level health effects people report in the town, such as headaches and nausea. Removing it costs money, and money is something a small, rural water system never has.

“That’s the ongoing problem,” says Bagalayos. “It’s just not possible for these rural communities to scale up enough to pay for the kind of water system they need.”

*   *   *

Allensworth is not unique among rural communities in California. Nor is it so different from thousands of other rural communities, from New Mexico to Missouri to Alabama, where attempts to treat water to state and federal drinking water standards have run up against a fundamental absence of infrastructure and community. Catherine Coleman Flowers, founder of ACRE (Alabama Center for Rural Enterprise), and a nationally renowned crusader for rural environmental justice, says that while the specific conditions might differ — Alabama has too much water, California, often not enough — the basic challenges are the same. “All rural communities have in common a lack of infrastructure investment on a federal level,” Flowers says. “I see parallels of inequality all over rural America.”

Allensworth State Historic Park. (Photo: Jim Gensheimer)

Flowers has a long history of working within rural communities to improve living standards, and water quality in particular. She grew up in Lowndes County, Alabama, where in 2001 black families living in poverty were blamed for a raw sewage spill because they couldn’t afford to build a treatment system. After the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency conducted a house-to-house survey that traced the problem back to failing septic and municipal systems, she persuaded both the state and federal officials to stop prosecuting Lowndes’ poorest residents for sewage spills they had no power to prevent.


“What almost all rural communities have in common is that their problems have been exacerbated — and in some cases caused — by corporate farming.”


In 2018, after more than a third of the county’s residents tested positive for parasitic worms they’d acquired from inadequately treated drinking water, she initiated a civil rights complaint against the responsible state agencies, arguing that depriving people of basic sanitation constituted a form of racial bias. When social justice philanthropist Kat Taylor told her she ought to visit Allensworth, “I knew I had to go,” Flowers says. Both Taylor and Flowers were present at a far-ranging community meeting in Allensworth on October 13, along with Jane Fonda, who introduced herself to the group as an “activist and actress.” (Disclosure: Taylor’s TomKat Foundation is a financial supporter of this website.)

“Allensworth is less about wastewater, and more about water” than rural communities in the South, Flowers acknowledges. But what almost all have in common is that their problems have been exacerbated — and in some cases caused — by corporate farming. In rural North Carolina, Smithfield Foods’ hog waste from massive farming operations pollutes the air and spills into the water; in Allensworth the culprit has been industrial-scale growers of cotton, alfalfa and other crops. In both instances, says Flowers, “the influential members of the community — the business community — gets what it needs in terms of resources, depleting them until there’s nothing left for the residents.”

*   *   *

That pattern started early. By the time Colonel Allensworth arrived in the Tulare Basin, it had been irrevocably altered by agriculture. Farming had so drawn down the water table that an entire lake — the largest west of the Mississippi — had disappeared, one that once ran so heavy with fish that early farmers were said to have harvested them with buckets. Arsenic, which is naturally occurring in the basin, was already in the soil and, to some extent, the water. The continuous overdraft by industrial agriculture has only made the problem worse.


“The more water we draw out, the more concentrated the chemicals in the soil become.”


“The more we draw out, the more concentrated the chemicals in the soil become,” says Dezaraye Bagalayos. “When the land subsides [as a result of overdraft], it puts more and more pressure on the soil. It’s like you’re squeezing a sponge — the contaminants get squeezed out of the soil.”

Solutions do exist — they just cost money. One of them, called electrochemical arsenic remediation, or ECAR, has already been used successfully in India. A University of California, Berkeley graduate student, Sara Glade, plans to conduct a field trial of the technology in Allensworth later this spring. Another option would have combined the water systems of Allensworth and of the neighboring town of Alpaugh, where the median income is roughly a third higher than Allensworth’s. The arrangement would have satisfied a 2015 law mandating rural consolidation, creating a larger and better funded subscriber base for advanced treatment. Allensworth was on board, but Alpaugh officials balked, says Bagalayos. “There were no teeth in that mandate,” she says. “The state didn’t force it.” Instead, “The state left the communities to work it out among themselves.”

For now, Catherine Coleman Flowers says her work is to focus policymakers’ attention on rural America, to raise its issues higher in the national consciousness. “You can’t have policy,” she says, “if people aren’t educated about the situation.”

On March 7 at 7 a.m. PST/10 a.m. EST, she’ll speak to the House Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment about rural water and wastewater infrastructure funding, and intends to mention Allensworth in her talk. (The event will stream live on the subcommittee’s website.)

Even urban America should be paying attention. “What’s going on in Allensworth,” she says, “is the future of what will happen if we don’t do a better job of protecting our water resources. Every time I get to shine the spotlight on Allensworth, I’m going to do it.”


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