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Chasing clean water: Agricultural practices, groundwater contamination and farmworker health in Salinas, California

By Aysha Peterson [1], Linnea Beckett [2], Michelaina Johnson [3], Flora Lu [4]


Following Highway 1 along California’s coast, headed south from San Francisco, the traffic suddenly turns inland into the Salinas Valley. Coastal dunes give way to a large sky. Sometimes known as “The Salad Bowl of the World,” the valley floor is a sea of produce, cut row by perfect row into dark earth with distant mountains to both the east and west. While the main road runs upland through the valley to intersect several cities, our T2GS[5] California team follows smaller roads that wind their way through the agricultural matrix. A patch of Eucalyptus trees stands tall and proud amidst low fields of broccoli, lettuce, celery, and strawberries.


The large trees mark the San Jerardo Housing Cooperative (San Jerardo), a gated residential community whose location amidst seemingly-endless agricultural operations is no accident. Housing structures were originally built here during World War II to house laborers on a federally-funded agricultural project designed to support the war effort. In 1942, with the advent of the Mexican Farm Labor Agreement that encouraged Mexican men to enter the U.S. agricultural industry as migrant laborers, the original structures were converted into barracks for farmworkers. San Jerardo’s story began in 1972 after the migrant labor program had ended and the labor camp had been abandoned, when farmworker families living a few miles away were evicted from their homes. Families who had banded together for years of struggle against lack of affordable housing and strict zoning laws established San Jerardo as a housing cooperative. They converted the old barracks into new homes with water, gas, and electricity. San Jerardo is encircled by intensive industrial agricultural production and many of the community’s residents work in the fields nearby. Exposed to harmful chemicals at home and at work, residents are disproportionately affected by the health-related effects of conventional agriculture. Amidst these challenges, the cooperative continues to organize for labor, health, and basic human rights.

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San Jerardo housing cooperative in Salinas, November 2019.

(Credit: Barry Nelson, Western Water Strategies.)

Retrieved from


San Jerardo’s current general manager is Horacio Amezquita. He was a teenager in the 1970s and recalls working alongside his father and siblings, as well as other families and volunteers, in a time when the cooperative spirit was strong among members. While he and other members achieved their goal of establishing housing for farmworker families, the community has encountered new challenges in recent decades. Regional housing regulations had required that the community build two wells to tap groundwater for household water supplies: one for ongoing use, and one as an emergency backup in the case of well contamination. The wells were to be operated by a private water company, as is customary in many parts of rural California that are not easily served by urban public water systems. In 1990, when the operators found the primary well to be contaminated with high levels of nitrates, many community members recognized that the nitrate content was likely due to the leaching of fertilizers from surrounding agricultural operations. Residents began drawing water from the second well and undertook construction of a third well for emergency use, but many doubted that water from either of these wells would be clean and safe for human consumption.

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In this 2014 file photo, Horacio Amezquita, general manager of the San Jerardo Co-op, enters a water storage area.

(Credit: Jay Dunn/The Salinas Californian)

Retrieved from

By the time that Horacio became general manager of the cooperative in 2005, San Jerardo’s second and third wells had both been found to be contaminated with high levels of nitrates as well as with 1,2,3-Trichloropropane (1,2,3-TCP), a carcinogenic additive found in agricultural soil fumigants. Local government officials had established a ration program to provide San Jerardo residents with bottled water, yet these provisions were largely insufficient for many households. Despite drinking and cooking with bottled water, residents developed rashes on their bodies and reported losing fistfuls of hair while showering. In 2006, the private water company operating San Jerardo’s wells was found to have falsified water quality reports to hide contamination levels and avoid taking immediate action. The government then agreed to take responsibility for the community’s water system.


Horacio’s work as general manager began to focus largely on bringing the community into compliance with water quality standards. His work has involved attending numerous community meetings at San Jerardo, collaborating with governmental and non-governmental organizations to develop short- and long-term water solutions, and advocating for rural residents at public meetings throughout the state. In 2010, this work led to the completion of San Jerardo’s fourth well, which was built almost two miles away and is connected to the property by an intricate network of underground pipes. Despite this success, Horacio explains that the community’s water-related struggles are not over. San Jerardo


“is now on its fourth well. When it was drilled in 2010, 2 miles uphill from our community, the water was good. But now it also is showing higher levels of contaminants, and we worry every day about our water. We also pay water rates that are four times what they were a few years ago, as we work to ensure clean water for our families” (Amezquita, 2019).


While daily industrial agricultural practices continue to contribute to groundwater contamination, the local government currently owns the water system and threatens to sell it to a private corporation, putting water affordability at risk.

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Horacio Amezquita, general manager of the San Jerardo Cooperative, is seen with the first and now outdated water system.

(Credit: Santiago Mejia / The Chronicle)

Retrieved from


In a conversation with Peterson in early 2018, after speaking at length about nitrate contamination, Horacio was particularly excited to learn that Peterson has training in soil science. He shared that he is on the board of directors at a local beginning farmer training organization, where he wants to support farmers’ education about practices that will reduce nitrate loading to groundwater. He makes clear connections between improving groundwater quality and shifting agricultural activities, writing:


“Some people believe rural groundwater contamination is a problem without a solution. We know that’s not true. A decade ago, our neighbor stopped farming for a year during the recession. In less than a year, we saw contamination levels in our well drop by more than half. We know that improved farming practices are affordable and can produce big benefits faster than many people realize” (Amezquita, 2019).


Following Horacio’s interest as well as Tuck’s (2009) call for desire-based research, Peterson’s dissertation uses ethnographic methods to explore how the desire to protect regional groundwater resources manifests through alternative agricultural practices. Simultaneously, San Jerardo’s efforts to fight agro-industrial pollution and water privatization has drawn our T2GS California team’s attention to the histories and politics of institutionalized groundwater governance (Nader, 1972; TallBear, 2014).

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San Jerardo resident Horacio Amezquita stands near the cooperative’s water source near Salinas, CA.

The water is piped in from a clean well some distance away. 

(Credit: Paolo Vescia/FERNnews)

Retrieved from


Amezquita, H. (2019, December 19). California must stop agriculture from fouling our drinking water. CalMatters. Retrieved from

Linton, J. (2010). What is water?: The history of a modern abstraction. UBC press.

Nader, L. (1972). Up the anthropologist: Perspectives gained from studying up. In D. Hymes (Ed.), Reinventing anthropology (pp. 284-311). New York, NY: Vintage.

Stein, S., & de Oliveira Andreotti, V. (2017). Higher education and the modern/colonial global imaginary. Cultural Studies↔ Critical Methodologies, 17(3), 173-181.

TallBear, K. (2014). Standing with and speaking as faith: A feminist-indigenous approach to inquiry. Journal of Research Practice 10, N17-N17.

Tuck, E. (2009). Suspending damage: A letter to communities. Harvard Educational Review 79, 409-428.

Zwarteveen, M. Z., & Boelens, R. (2014). Defining, researching and struggling for water justice: Some conceptual building blocks for research and action. Water International, 39(2): 143-158.


Other references that may be of interest:

Harter, T., Lund, J.R., Darby, J., Fogg, G.E., Howitt, R., Jessoe, K.K. and Pettygrove, G.S. (2012). Addressing nitrate in California’s drinking water. With a Focus on Tulare Lake Basin and Salinas Valley Groundwater. Report for the State Water Resources Control Board Report to the Legislature. Davis, CA: UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences. Retrieved from

Johnson, J. (2009, December 17). San Jerardo Cooperative gets $4.8 million water system. Monterey Herald. Retrieved from

Moncrief, E. (2017). Raising the blackbirds: A novel. SingWillow Publishing.

Zender, B. and Mart, G. (2017, May 5). The price of safe drinking water in farmworker communities. KCBXFM Central Coast Public Radio. Retrieved from


Ideas about methodologies and theories:


We approach our T2S California case study with San Jerardo - as well as other groundwater organizations in the Salinas Valley and the Pajaro Valley - from anti-colonial and feminist perspectives with attention to the ways in which “modern water” (Linton, 2010) has been made through the settlement and modernization of California. We draw from the hydrosocial cycle (Zwarteveen & Boelens, 2014) and critiques of global modernity (see Stein & Andreotti, 2017) to denaturalize the hydrological cycle and explore the ways in which coloniality and racial capitalism undergird current water production, use, and visions of sustainability.

[1] Department of Environmental Studies, University of California Santa Cruz

[2] Colleges 9 & 10, Division of Social Sciences, University of California Santa Cruz

[3] Department of Environmental Studies, University of California Santa Cruz

[4] Department of Environmental Studies, University of California Santa Cruz

[5] “T2GS: Transformations to Groundwater Sustainability” is a transnational research project encompassing teams at seven distinct international locations. The goal of the overarching project is to better understand grassroots initiatives that access issues of groundwater governance, access, and quality. Our team of researchers at UC Santa Cruz comprises one of these seven international case studies.

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