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San Mateo County’s Untold Story of Water Justice: The Path to Clean Drinking Water in Pescadero Schools

By Kara Glenwright

Would you believe me if I told you a school less than 35 miles from the heart of Silicon Valley does not have access to clean drinking water?

Students at Pescadero High School and Middle School, small public schools with an enrollment of less than 200 students, drink from bottled water provided for them to drink each day at school; they have never known anything different. It has been decades since the last time a student was able to turn on the tap and drink water directly from it due to nitrate pollution in Pescadero groundwater. However, in a few years, that lack of access may well be addressed.

Pescadero High School and Middle School are located in the small town of Pescadero, California, in a region known as the South Coast in San Mateo County. The town is just less than 50 miles south of San Francisco. The town is also really small: it had a population of just 226 as of 2018. Because of Pescadero’s recent history as an agricultural community, the town’s groundwater suffers contamination by nitrate pollution, and it is this pollution that has kept the school’s water supply undrinkable for almost twenty years.

The two schools, Pescadero High School and Middle School, share a campus and serve the entire La Honda Pescadero Unified School District which represents the towns of both La Honda and Pescadero plus other unincorporated areas. The high school has a total enrollment of 93 students. Of those students, 72% are Hispanic.

The outside of Pescadero High School and Middle School

Pescadero is located in San Mateo County, one of the wealthiest counties in the United States. In a county with a median income of $110,000, the median income for a South Coast farmworker family is $26,000. The town consists of a population that is largely low-income white and Hispanic. Today, Pescadero schools are the only schools within San Mateo County that lack access to clean drinking water.

Aislinn Clark, a high school sophomore, does not attend Pescadero High School, but she has lived in the town all of her life and many of her friends attend Pescadero High School. “It’s pretty shocking when other people hear about it, especially because Pescadero is only an hour away from Silicon Valley. You think everything around you is just modernized and then this school doesn’t even have clean drinking water,” Clark said.

Five years ago, Clark joined a youth activism group called Heirs To Our Oceans. The organization was founded in Pescadero in 2016, as a youth empowerment nonprofit focused on addressing human impacts on the oceans. Heirs To Our Oceans now has 300 youth actively involved from the San Francisco Bay Area, Nigeria, Kentucky, Palau and beyond.

Clark began doing research through the organization on nitrate pollution into groundwater and the human health issues related to this pollution in addition to impacts on marine life. While she had always been aware of the water contamination issues in Pescadero, Clark said her work with Heirs To Our Oceans was when she first started getting into specific research of what was happening at the school in her town.

Agricultural land right next to (above) and across the street (below) from the school campuses

For her peers attending Pescadero High School, Clark said that this is something they have mostly become used to. “It’s just kind of a constant problem and then became the new norm for them,” she said. While her peers have access to bottled water, Clark added that, “Using all that bottled water is also a huge issue in regard to plastic pollution so it’s kind of two environmental issues feeding off of one another.”

She explained that a few of her peers involved with Heirs to Our Oceans spoke to the San Mateo County Board about the problem, including a presentation to Supervisor Don Horsley of San Mateo County and the San Mateo County Water Board to petition them to work towards a solution to the problem more quickly. A couple of her peers even joined the youth advisory council for the county.

Shortly after Clark and her peers started raising awareness about the problem and petitioning the county for action, change arrived. In 2020, the county announced that it would extend water system infrastructure serving the town of Pescadero, CSA-11, to provide service to the schools. The project, bundled with the construction of a new fire station, would take at least three years to complete, but it represented a huge success for water justice advocates within Pescadero.

When asked if she thinks her peers’ work has contributed to the county acting to address the problem, Clark said that she definitely thinks it has been influential. “They’ve been pretty persistent about bringing this issue up in meetings and reaching out to legislators about it.”

Through Heirs To Our Oceans, Clark and her peers have been working with the Ocean Protection Council in California on how to start mitigating the usage of chemical fertilizers and pesticides that often seep into groundwater and cause problems like the one at Pescadero High School.

“This isn’t just a problem that’s impacting our own local community but schools around the state and around the country,” Clark said. “Even if our one school gets clean drinking water, that’s not necessarily going to be the case for all schools. We wanted to start thinking about how to tackle this problem from the source, so we’ve been speaking to a lot of our state legislators, talking to them on Capitol Hill and in their own local offices.”

Kara Glenwright is a Masters student at Stanford University studying Environmental Communication. In her free time, she loves hiking and being near the ocean. You can contact her at karag@stanford.edu.

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