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'Don't drink the water': How a desert tribal community is dealing with a contaminated aquifer

'Don't drink the water': How a desert tribal community is dealing with a contaminated aquifer

Picture of Terria  Smith

In 2003, residents of the Torres Martinez Desert Cahuilla Indian Reservation were instructed by the tribe's Environmental Protection Agency not to drink the tap water. The reason for this regulation has been attributed to the presence of high-levels of ammonium perchlorate 6.9 and arsenic.

Today, people on the reservation are left with having to find alternative means to accessing safe drinking water. The tribe provides elders with bottled water each month free of cost. Other tribal residents are responsible for obtaining their own drinking water. All community members are still bathing, washing dishes and cleaning clothes with the same contaminated ground water. I am interested in exploring how safe these practices are.

Not everyone agrees about how and when the situation with the water originated. Some tribal leaders I have spoken with said that the problem arose when Colorado River water was injected into the aquifer that is beneath the reservation. While a local water district representative I questioned said that the water may have been unsafe to drink for several years prior to this. I hope to explore these possibilities further as well as look into other factors that may have caused the presence of these pollutants.

The current condition of the water is said to be reversible, but costly. The process would include blending in outside water. In my reporting I would like to look into whether or not this is, in fact, a feasible option for the tribe.

I am so grateful to have been selected as a California Endowment Health Journalism Fellow and to have the opportunity of reporting on an issue that I have been interested in investigating for several years.

Image by Sky Eckstrom via Flickr --


The Center for Health Journalism’s two-day symposium on domestic violence will provide reporters with a roadmap for covering this public health epidemic with nuance and sensitivity. The first day will take place on the USC campus on Friday, March 17. The Center has a limited number of $300 travel stipends for California journalists coming from outside Southern California and a limited number of $500 travel stipends for those coming from out of state. Journalists attending the symposium will be eligible to apply for a reporting grant of $2,000 to $10,000 from our Domestic Violence Impact Reporting Fund. Find more info here!


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