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Thirsty for drinkable water in Torres Martinez

Thirsty for drinkable water in Torres Martinez

Picture of Terria  Smith

Mary Belardo drives down the half-mile dirt road to her home. Her house – built by All Mission Indian Housing Authority – sits on a nearly 40 acre allotment on the Torres Martinez Desert Cahuilla Indian Reservation in Thermal, Calif.

The 50,000 acre reservation is at the southeast end of the Coachella Valley. It spans three unincorporated towns and two counties, Riverside and Imperial. Half of the land on the reservation is underwater, after being flooded by polluted agricultural runoff water that was dumped into the Salton Sea.

The soil on Belardo’s property is brittle, salty sand. Dry brush and mesquite bushes clutter the land. To the east is a view of the mountain range and highway leading the path to Arizona, which is an hour away. To the west are the rugged Santa Rosa Mountains. Belardo’s nearest neighbor lives more than a mile away.

As she pulls in front of her driveway, she notices two 24-packs of bottled water at her doorstep.

“I have no idea how long those have been out there,” she said, climbing out of her car.

Cases of bottled water are issued to each senior citizen resident of the reservation because water from the tap is unsafe to drink. Every other tribal resident is on their own.

On this particular day, temperatures reached 113 degrees. Belardo, 64, said she wondered if this water would be drinkable since she had heard that poison from the plastic bottles can leech into the water if exposed to extreme heat.

“What’s the use of giving us this water if it’s got carcinogens in it too?” Belardo said.

She is one of the 180 residents that are facing the issue of avoiding drinking tap water, a situation that has been the case on the reservation for the past 10 years. At that time, residents were told by the tribe’s EPA department not to drink the water due to levels of arsenic and aluminum perchlorate in the water that was welled from the ground beneath them.

“I’ve always said that my mom’s water is the best water in the world,” said Hugh Mirelez, Torres Martinez tribal member and water technician. “It was sweet and good.”

Mirelez’s mother, like Belardo, has bottled water delivered to her as well. As allotment owners, they also have also been given in-home filters to treat arsenic levels by Riverside San Bernardino County Indian Health Services Inc.

Tribal administration offices and the Riverside San Bernardino County Indian Health clinic on site have a well which was last tested on April 18, 2012. At that time, the level of arsenic was at 13 parts per billion. Both federal and California EPA standards are set at a maximum contaminant level at 0.010 parts per billion.

Federal EPA notes the following as possible ramifications of overexposure to arsenic: Non-cancer effects can include thickening and discoloration of the skin, stomach pain, nausea, vomiting; diarrhea; numbness in hands and feet; partial paralysis; and blindness. Arsenic has been linked to cancer of the bladder, lungs, skin, kidney, nasal passages, liver, and prostate.

Other reservation residents, who don’t have arsenic contamination, have other concerns.

The main housing section of the reservation has 32 homes and is at the base of the Santa Rosa Mountains. Each family in the housing project is being built a new house after close to 25 years of living in trailers. Construction is being carried out with oversight from All Mission Indian Housing Authority. The homes will be completed with parking areas, laundry spaces, and a number of bedrooms appropriate to family size. But a complete water filtration and sewage system for the community will not be part of the upgrade.

In this area – off of Avenue 64 in an area known as Vista Santa Rosa - water tests have shown levels of aluminum perchlorate that are unsafe for consumption by California State standards. The well near the housing project was last tested by the tribe on June 28, 2012. At that time, the levels of perchlorate were 6.9 parts per billion which is above state standards.

Steve Bigley, director of environmental services with the Coachella Valley Water District – which services the areas surrounding the reservation - said the effects of over exposure to aluminum perchlorate may be easily remedied.

“The primary concern with perchlorate is it inhibits the uptake of iodine and you need iodine to regulate your metabolism,” Bigley said.

Bigley also said that aluminum perchlorate was once prescribed for decades as a medication for patients with overactive thyroid.

“Getting enough iodine would compensate for any potential risk of having too much perchlorate,” Bigley said.

Tribal leaders and environmental officials attribute this aluminum perchlorate contamination to a Coachella Valley Water District recharge station - which replenished the underground water table with water imported from the Colorado River - that is not too far from the reservation boundaries. The district contends that the water meets all EPA standards.

Grant funding is assisting in ridding homes and tribal facilities with arsenic contamination. However, nothing has been done to filter out aluminum perchlorate contaminants in the rest of the homes. This is because the tribe is only required to follow federal EPA standards, and not those set by the state. There is currently no federal standard set for perchlorate levels.                                     

Without these set federal standards, no federal grant money is available to assist Torres Martinez in reducing the perchlorate contaminates. Despite these obstacles, tribal chairwoman Mary Maxine Resvaloso said the tribe is exploring its options.

 “The tribe is still waiting for those standards to be developed because then we have something to stand on to pursue our rights, our water rights, for the quality and the quantity of the water,” Resvaloso said. “Because then we can use those standards to say because of the direction that you went with this recharging it did effect our quality of our water and then we can pursue an action in court.”

Terria Smith was a 2013 California Endowment Health Journalism Fellow.  You can watch her video account of water quality problems on the Torres Martinez Desert Cahuilla Indian Reservation here.


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