Toxicity in a California City: Is Stockton the Next Flint?

Welcome to Stockton, CA

Pulitzer Prize winning California journalist Herb Caen once said:

“One day if I do go to heaven, I’ll look around and say, ‘It ain’t bad, but it ain’t San Francisco’”.

Even though countless people have romanticized California as a place of paradise and opportunity, there still exist serious problems affecting many residents of the state. Most notably and recently, the severe California drought led to the establishment of a “mandatory statewide 25 percent reduction in urban water use.” One of the cities hardest hit on a number of levels by issues relating to the drought is Stockton, CA. Unfortunately, the city and residents of Stockton have become victims to a combination of water contamination issues and water rate hikes.

These problems exemplify governmental mismanagement and environmental racism, as the people most negatively affected by the city government’s mistakes are predominantly poor people of color with very limited power to effect policy changes.

Stockton, CA’s location relative to the San Joaquin Delta

Founded in 1849 during the California Gold Rush, Stockton is located in Central California on the banks of the San Joaquin River in San Joaquin County. The city’s founder, German immigrant Charles M. Weber, came to seek gold in the area but “soon discovered serving the needs of gold-seekers was a more profitable opportunity” and purchased “over 49,000 acres of land through a Spanish land grant.” Due to the city’s advantageous location near water, Stockton’s main export before agriculture was shipbuilding.

Today, the city of Stockton remains a major shipping area for agriculture, and the agricultural resources of the San Joaquin Valley help support the growth of fruits and vegetables such as asparagus, cherries, tomatoes, walnuts, and almonds. Even though the city has faced significant issues, such as bankruptcy, mass violent crime, and an exodus of police officers, Stockton and its economy have always relied heavily on its prime location in the San Joaquin Delta and agriculture.

Erin Brockovich, environmental activist speaking to Stockton city leaders

However, regular citizens not involved in agriculture live in Stockton as well, and they too have as much a claim to the use of water as do farmers and other agribusinesses.

On February 1, 2016, the famed environmental activist Erin Brockovich “warned [Stockton city] leaders they were ‘on the fast track to creating the next [Flint, Michigan water contamination crisis]’.”

Residents became concerned when the city began adding chloramines, a type of disinfectant chemical, to treat the water. While the US has been using chloramines to purify water since 1929, recent studies of Washington D.C.’s shift to chloramines from chlorine show that chloramine “corroded the city’s aging lead and copper pipes” and brought about risks of cancer and digestive problems, among other reported issues.

City of Stockton tests showed that the water “showed lead levels above the [15 parts per billion] federal limit of 26 parts per billion and 18 parts per billion in the next testing.”

Even Stockton City Manager Kurt Wilson has publicly stated,

“I’m so tired … Chloramines hasn’t [sic] helped.”

The reason cities began switching from chlorine use to chloramines in the first place was because “in the 1960s, people learned that the chlorine that we were adding to our tap water to protect us from waterborne pathogens was reacting with organic matter to produce a class of chemicals known as disinfection byproducts,” which have led to cancer and other deleterious health effects. Despite the Stockton public’s disapproval and first-hand experience with the problems associated with chloramine such as “skin rashes, breathing problems, and other allergic-seeming reactions,” Bruce Macler, a toxicologist for the Environmental Protection Agency and member of the chloramine regulatory review board, stated confidently despite citizen accounts: “I have just been reviewing chloramines, and the data that has come out has continued to support these chemicals are safe.

Part of the San Joaquin Delta

California’s often complex water laws prevented Stockton from even getting water from the San Joaquin River Delta until 2012, despite having a location right next to the Delta. Previously using “water from reservoirs in the nearby Sierra Nevada mountains,” Stockton has changed its water supply now, but Alex Breitler, a Stockton Record reporter covering this water issue, said that “the problem, of course, is that there are lots of issues with Delta water. It’s just not as good as reservoir water.”

A money-strapped Stockton with a water crisis does not have many choices and will either have to continue with something the people do not prefer or go back to chlorine but make heavy investments with money the city does not have. As Nick Stockton of Wired states:

“Stockton’s city council has to make a decision — a tough one. If the city stays the course and keeps the chloramines in the system, it will do so against a groundswell of public opinion. If it goes back to chlorine, the city council will once again be in the position to violate federal disinfectant byproduct rules — not to mention expose its citizens to known cancer risks. The politically astute but practically expensive choice would be to go back to chlorine but also install expensive things like UV lights or carbon filters to remove organic material from the water so the chlorine can’t do its dirty work. In the end, politics could trump science.”

While the city of Stockton battles with this issue of lead contamination and determining whether to continue using chloramines, city leaders in Stockton also voted in June 2016 “to increase water rates by nearly 40 percent over the next five years.” This measure, thoroughly disliked by Stockton residents, is in effect, according to city officials, because “a reduction in water use [during the drought] has meant less revenue and less money to lower the debt on Stockton’s water treatment plant.”

In a similar case study, Flint, Michigan, which had its own water contamination crisis similar to Stockton, had the highest annual water bill cost of any city in the United States as of January 2015 of $864.32, and in 2011, Flint “raised water rates by more than 50 percent.”

These water measures seen in Flint and Stockton that not only compromise the quality of water that residents receive but also increase prices do not achieve a happy medium between government financial management and consumer welfare.

Stockton’s Waterfront Pollution

This combination of money problems and water issues have significantly affected the already low-income citizens of Stockton. With the tax hike affecting 49,000 Municipal Utilities Department customers, many of which barely that much money to begin with, resident Jemal Guillory said: “We needed the city to step up and use our 9 percent of taxes, which is $209 million dollars a year, to subsidize those [water] payments so that it’s not so oppressive on our poor in Stockton.”

In a city where 26.2 percent of residents are foreign born and 62 percent are minorities according to the 2010 census, this government negligence and mismanagement is a prime example of environmental racism since these minority citizens “do not have access to alternate means of earning an income or to alternatives to animal products or contaminated tap water. They are hurt by the system and have few reasonable choices,” especially when the per capita income for Stockton from 2010 to 2014 was $19,927 and 25.8 percent of Stockton residents were in poverty.

This evidence, coupled with the fact that “three of [California’s] most polluted areas [were in] Stockton” in 2013 according to the California Environmental Protection Agency, clearly shows that the citizens of Stockton are falling victim to governmental mismanagement and, more specifically, environmental racism, which is defined as:

“[Environmental racism is] racial discrimination in the enactment or enforcement of any policy, practice, or regulation that negatively affects the environment of low-income and/or racially homogeneous communities.”

In conclusion, the Stockton local government is not managing water usage properly by both having water contamination issues and implementing water rate hikes on Stockton residents complaining about these water issues, a clear sign of governmental mismanagement and environmental racism. Having water pollution problems to begin with as an agricultural hub and forcing Stockton residents, most of whom are minorities, to foot the bill for the same water they do not like, show negligence and environmental racism, intentional or not, on the part of Stockton government officials. As a city just coming out of bankruptcy with large unemployment numbers and crime, Stockton has already faced more than its fair share of challenges.

It will take the combination of citizens and government, both in and out of Stockton, to help address these important problems and reach a solution that hopefully serves Stockton’s citizens best.