Public health in California's forgotten communities

Published on
July 22, 2011

Across the state of California, low-income residents live in forgotten communities that lack even the most basic infrastructure. The water from the tap in their homes is tainted with arsenic and nitrates, and they rely on clogged and failing septic tanks that pool wastewater in their yards. Sidewalks, streetlights, and storm drain gutters are unheard-of amenities.

As a Dennis A. Hunt grant recipient, I will profile several California communities dealing with these conditions for the Center for Investigative Reporting's California Watch. I'll explore the public health implications of failing infrastructure on their residents: What are the impacts of being exposed to contaminated water and raw sewage? Does the lack of sidewalks, streetlights, and parks contribute to neighborhood's ability to live healthier lifestyles?

Residents of those communities tend to think so. As one Southern California resident told me recently, access to clean water, sewer systems, sidewalks, and streetlights "all has to do with safety and health."

I began exploring this topic several years ago, when a group of residents decided to sue a local government entity for improved services and infrastructure. Though these upgrades have been promised to them, the community is still waiting for sewer service, storm drains, and sidewalks.

My project will look at these residents' unfulfilled desires for basic infrastructure, and will seek to explain the forces and policies that caused and sustains these conditions. Through this story, I'll unravel the tangle of laws and planning policies to explain why these communities have been left behind, and illustrate how it affects the lives of many Californians.

As a journalist who is committed to public interest reporting, it is my hope that this story will shine a spotlight on people and communities that have long gone overlooked, and that it will prompt sensible and overdue policy changes.