California farm town lurches from no water to polluted water

By Daniel Trotta

TEVISTON, Calif. (Reuters) – The San Joaquin Valley farm town of Teviston has two wells. One went dry and the other is contaminated.

The one functioning well failed just at the start of summer, depriving the hot and dusty hamlet of running water for weeks. With temperatures routinely soaring above 90 degrees Fahrenheit (32 degrees Celsius), farm workers bathed with buckets after laboring in the nearby vineyards and almond orchards.

Even as officials restored a modicum of pressure with trucked-in water, and after the well was repaired, the hardships have endured. Teviston’s 400 to 700 people – figures fluctuate with the agricultural season – have received bottled drinking water since the well failed in June.

But for years, probably decades, the water coming from Teviston taps has been laced with the carcinogen 1,2,3-Trichloropropane, or 1,2,3-TCP, the legacy of pesticides.

The Western U.S. drought, the most severe in 125 years of record-keeping, is exacting a further toll on communities throughout the San Joaquin Valley, where people living on the edge of farmland gather many of the crops but little of the largesse from California’s $50 billion agricultural industry.

For Esperanza Guerrero, 35, a Mexican immigrant and homemaker whose husband works at a dairy farm, the poor water quality poses additional dangers for her 16-year-old daughter, who can drink only purified water because of a gastrointestinal ailment.

“It’s very stressful as a mother to know that if for any reason she should wash a piece of fruit (with tap water) and eat it, she’s going down,” Guerrero said while picking up bottled water from the community depot.

Teviston, devoid of any retail or commercial business, won a $3 million settlement in June from pesticide producers Dow Chemical Company and Shell Oil Company and distributors that will pay for a water treatment plant.

Dow declined to comment on Teviston, but said there was “no merit” to allegations in similar lawsuits brought by other local jurisdictions in the San Joaquin Valley.

“The plaintiffs’ claims in these cases are based on a California water quality standard that went into effect in 2018, several decades after the product formulations in question were discontinued. To the extent TCP was present in past product formulations, it would have been at levels so low as to pose no environmental risk,” the company said in a statement.

Shell declined to comment on active litigation.

The settlement will help Teviston resolve the dilemma of having to choose between safe or affordable water, said Todd Robins, an attorney with San Francisco-based Robins Borghei LLP who has represented other towns like Teviston in similar lawsuits.

The arid, forbidding land of the San Joaquin Valley has been transformed into one of the most fertile plains in the world by farmers, politicians and engineers who changed the course of mighty rivers and brought water hundreds of miles to a valley so broad and flat that in most directions the fields meet sky.

The drought has made both surface and ground water scarce.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which operates canals moving surface water from Northern California further south, has cut allotments to farmers this year: first to a mere 5% of normal, then down to zero.

That increased demand on the aquifers. Growers who operate their own wells are lowering the water table for neighboring towns like Teviston that depend on well water.

Outside the valley, many environmentalists criticize growers. The people of Teviston don’t paint them as the enemy.

“We need the farms. Without the farms, we don’t have any work,” said Frank Galaviz, a director on the town council who has emerged as Teviston’s leading water advocate.


Historically, the farms have faced another nemesis besides drought.

Beneath the ground, tiny worms called nematodes infest roots. For decades, through the 1980’s, growers injected their soil with the since-discontinued pesticides Telone, made by Dow, and D-D, made by Shell, according to Robins, who has pieced together the history of 1,2,3-TCP contamination through about 70 lawsuits against both companies.

By the 1990’s health officials established that TCP was carcinogenic and would linger in the water table for a lifetime unless removed by filtration. California’s TCP problem is concentrated in the San Joaquin Valley, state data show.

Telone and D-D were essentially a byproduct of other chemical processes that would have been disposed of were it not found to be an effective pesticide, enabling the companies to offload the byproduct by selling it to farmers, Robins said.

“It’s a dirty secret,” Robins said, adding that Dow’s reformulated Telone II became more effective once TCP and other impurities were removed.

While Teviston awaits a treatment plant, its TCP levels remain above safe levels. In May, testing showed the TCP level was nearly three times the maximum acceptable level, and in March it was more than seven times the limit, according to the state’s Safe Drinking Water Information System. In September, Teviston showed a negligible amount, an outlier that experts said could be skewed by the new well or the extreme drought.

Teviston’s marginalization dates back nearly a century, when Black workers arrived to work white-owned cotton farms. While the farmers had sought the Black workers, the workers were unwelcome in white towns, and they formed a tent city that became Teviston. Over the years the workforce became immigrant Mexican, another politically disadvantaged class, and white family farms were supplanted by corporations operating ever larger tracts of factory farms.

Dorris Brooks, an African American woman who lives at the end of Teviston’s water line, said past efforts to improve well water have only resulted in temporary relief.

“You can see there’s actually sludge that comes out of the tap,” Brooks said.

Brooks, who moved to Teviston as an adult 43 years ago, questioned whether the settlement was just.

“That company got away with for messing up the water and the people’s lives,” Brooks said. “There’s sick people here.”

(Reporting by Daniel Trotta. Editing by Donna Bryson and Diane Craft)

No intensive care beds for most Californians as COVID-19 surges

By Sharon Bernstein

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (Reuters) -There are no intensive care beds available in densely populated Southern California or the state’s agricultural San Joaquin Valley, together home to nearly 30 million people, amid a deadly surge of COVID-19, Governor Gavin Newsom said on Monday.

The pandemic is crushing hospitals in the most-populous U.S. state, even as the U.S. government and two of the nation’s largest pharmacy chains began a nationwide campaign on Monday to vaccinate nursing home residents against the highly contagious respiratory disease.

The U.S. death toll from the virus has accelerated in recent weeks to 2,627 per day on a seven-day average, according to a Reuters tally.

The University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation has said U.S. COVID-19 deaths will peak in January, when its widely cited model projects that more than 100,000 people will die as the toll marches to nearly 562,000 by April 1.

Nationwide, the number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients on Monday stood at nearly 113,400, near a record high of over 114,200 set on Friday, according to a Reuters tally.

In California, Newsom told a remote news conference he had requested help from nurses, doctors and medical technicians in the U.S. military, and is hoping that 200 people can be deployed. The state has also sent nearly 700 additional medical staff to beleaguered hospitals, and opened up clinics in unused state buildings, a closed sports arena and other locations.

California Secretary of Health and Human Services Mark Ghaly said many hospitals in the state may also soon run out of room for patients who need to be admitted but do not require intensive care.

Ghaly told the news conference the current surge was related to gatherings that took place over the Thanksgiving holiday and that a similar surge is expected after Christmas and New Year’s, he said.

Newsom pleaded with Californians to comply with stay-at-home orders that restrict activity in most but not all of the state. “We are not victims of fate,” he said.

The governor added that the strain of the virus ravaging California was not the new, highly contagious version emerging in the UK, Newsom said.

(Reporting by Sharon Bernstein; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Peter Cooney)

Military helps worn-out nurses, sicker patients in California COVID-19 effort

By Sharon Bernstein

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (Reuters) – All day long, as Air Force nurse Major Pinky Brewton cares for patients struggling to breathe in California’s COVID-19 ravaged San Joaquin Valley, fears for her family simmer underneath her cool exterior.

Once back in her Stockton hotel room, seeing her seven-year-old on Facetime, the relief is overwhelming.

“He’s breathing!” Brewton said. “That’s the first thing I see as a nurse. How well is my son breathing?”

Over the past two weeks, the U.S. Department of Defense has sent nearly 200 medics and logistics experts to the Valley. The military has also sent nearly 600 personnel to Texas, where a surge in COVID-19 cases is crushing hospitals along the Rio Grande Valley and elsewhere in the state.

The teams of nurses, doctors and technicians work extra shifts, treating sicker-than-usual hospital patients. Many are so weak from oxygen deprivation they can barely eat.

In the San Joaquin Valley agricultural region, intensive care units overflowed as cases surged earlier this summer. In some counties, as many as 28% of test results were positive.

At Dameron hospital in Stockton near the state capital of Sacramento, every nurse was soon deployed on a new COVID-19 floor, said Jennifer Markovich, the facility’s chief nursing officer.

“There wasn’t a slow ramp up. In the space of two weeks we just saw a significant increase in patients … and really started to see those staffing needs really escalate.”


When staffing agencies lacked healthcare workers, the hospital turned to the state, Markovich said. Under the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Brewton’s team of 20 military nurses and respiratory therapists came on board in mid-July.

About 160 Air Force medical staff have been sent to California so far, with about 100 in San Joaquin Valley, coordinated by 25 U.S. Army logistics experts trained in responding to nuclear, chemical and biological attacks.

Chaplains and mental health experts were added to relieve stress in a system stretched to its limits.

The teams, mostly stationed at Travis Air Force Base north of San Francisco, were easily absorbed into the rotations and work cultures of the Valley hospitals, said Lieutenant Colonel Ryan Gassman, who commands the California teams.

“It’s not like we have any Air Force tents that are set up outside,” Gassman said. “We are truly jumping into the staff in each of these hospitals to help support in any way, shape or form that we can.”

In addition to five hospitals in the San Joaquin Valley, military teams have also been deployed to the Los Angeles area and Rancho Mirage in Riverside County east of Los Angeles.

COVID-19 cases in California began climbing after Memorial Day, which health officials attributed in part to family gatherings without masks or physical distancing measures. Statewide, cases have topped 500,000, and over 9,000 Californians have died.

California, Texas, Florida and Arizona are among several hotspot U.S. states for a second wave of coronavirus cases.


In the San Joaquin Valley, a perfect storm of cultural, political and economic issues led to a crush of cases in a fragile rural and smaller-city hospital system.

The region is heavily Latino, a group making up 39% of California’s population but accounts for 56% of COVID-19 infections and 46% of deaths in the most populous U.S. state. Agricultural businesses that have not provided protective equipment to workers, or implemented social distancing or rules requiring masks has led to increased infections. Large family gatherings and multi-generational households have led to fast and deadly transmission, often to vulnerable older relatives.

The Valley, which includes the oil drilling and agricultural area around Bakersfield, and farmlands around Fresno, is generally more conservative than the rest of the state, and many local and congressional leaders have opposed rules requiring masks and social distancing.

The resulting toll is stark. As of Friday, only 20 intensive care unit beds were available for new patients in all of San Joaquin County, which has a population of nearly 800,000.

“The first thing I saw were really, really sick patients,” nurse Brewton said, describing her first day at Dameron. “The acuity of these patients are far more than what we see on a typical medical floor.”

(Reporting by Sharon Bernstein; editing by Bill Tarrant and Richard Chang)