The town that refuses to die | KALW

The town that refuses to die

Jul 10, 2019

When drinking water gets contaminated, there’s usually a polluter to blame. Most likely it’s the fault of big industry spewing out toxic fertilizers or synthetic chemicals. 

But in nearly 100 communities in California, this isn’t the case. They have water that is contaminated with a naturally occurring chemical: Arsenic.

Allensworth, California is one of those communities. 

It’s a tiny town a couple of hours north of LA in California’s Central Valley. It’s in Tulare County, one of the poorest counties in the state. And it was the very first all-black community in California, founded in the early 1900s. 

Today, it’s home to about 500 people — but they don’t have water that’s safe to drink. 

Denise Kadara lives in a town where she can’t drink the water. If she does, she faces a litany of health risks — the most serious being cancer.

“It’s not comforting,” she says. “I mean, it’s just like being in Flint and having lead in your water.”

Denise lives in the tiny community of Allensworth, California, and there’s been arsenic in her drinking water on and off for decades. The problem stems back to the early 1900s when Allensworth was founded as the state’s first all-black community.

Located about two hours north of Los Angeles, the tiny town is home to about 500 residents. It’s in Tulare County — one of the poorest in the state — and it’s considered severely disadvantaged. 

Allensworth fits the description of the majority of roughly 100 other communities in California that have arsenic in their water, too. Most of these towns are clustered in the San Joaquin Valley and are predominantly poor and/or Latino or African American. 

Arsenic is a naturally occurring chemical, and it’s a carcinogen. It can cause bladder, lung, kidney, and skin cancers, along with a whole slew of other health effects, including diabetes, neurological problems, and developmental disorders.

Allensworth, California
Credit Sarah Craig / KALW

“My first concern was our children were drinking that water,” said Denise. “What effects did it have on them?”

The toxin has particularly alarming effects on the development of children’s brains. In one study out of Maine, children who were found drinking arsenic below the legal limit of ten parts per billion tested five to six points lower on an IQ test. 

Denise told me that she’s heard stories from her other sister, Regina, about members of the community getting sick.

Regina has lived in Allensworth for over 30 years. She says she knows half a dozen families who have seen many of their family members die of cancer. She says most of the cases have been either stomach, prostate, or liver cancer. 

Both prostate and liver cancer are connected to arsenic poisoning. But there’s no way to really know if it’s related to the arsenic in the water. 

It’s also hard to know how many residents are aware that the water isn’t always safe to drink. 

Every time there is too much arsenic in Allensworth’s drinking water, residents are supposed to get a notice in the mail from the Allensworth Water District — it’s required by law. But the notice downplays the health risks. It suggests the water is still safe to drink — that another water supply isn’t necessary.

The Fight for Better Water

Allensworth, California
Credit Sarah Craig / KALW

Denise and her two siblings, Denis Hutson and Sherri Hunter, first learned about arsenic in the water from their mother, Nettie Morrison. And Nettie learned about it in the early 1980s.

At that point, there was more than 10 times the legal limit set today.

“My mother started going to the county,” says Sherri. “She asked question after question after question, and people started realizing, ‘This lady is not going away,’ and, ‘She is not joking,’ and, ‘We can’t just pacify her to shut her up because she will be back tomorrow.’”

Nettie’s efforts paid off and helped Allensworth get two new wells. One was drilled in the 1980s and the other in the 1990s.

Those two wells had water that was safe to drink, according to the standards set by the EPA.

But in 2008, the EPA changed its standards. It lowered the legal limit of arsenic from 50 parts per billion to 10 parts per billion.

Ten parts per billion isn’t necessarily safe. It’s just the amount the EPA decided was practical. The agency weighed the health risks of the toxin against how much it would cost to upgrade water systems throughout the country. It even considered lowering it to just 3 parts per billion, but that would have cost too much.

Really, any amount of arsenic in your water isn’t good for you. 

The standards the EPA set at 10 parts per billion were adopted by California, and Allensworth’s water went out of compliance again.

A few years later, Denise, Denis, and Sherri started to get involved because their mom, Nettie was getting older. They have been working for over a decade to find another water source. 

The Early Days

Arsenic was first discovered in Allensworth’s water shortly after the town was founded in 1908.

The founder was Colonel Allen Allensworth. When he purchased the land, he was a retired minister in his late 1960s. But growing up, in the 1850s, he was a slave in Kentucky. 

He taught himself to read, but he was punished for it and separated from his family.

Then, when he was about 20 years old, Allensworth escaped by joining the Union during the Civil War. He eventually served as the highest ranking black officer in the U.S. Army. 

After he retired, he traveled West and founded Allensworth because he wanted to give African Americans a chance to own and farm their own land. 

It was this history that brought Nettie Morrison to Allensworth. She moved there in the late 1970s — decades before her children did. 

“When she heard the history of a townsite that was established by African Americans, she wanted to be part of it,” says Denise. “And several of the African Americans that were still in the community when she first came here said ‘God sent you to this place to take care of us.’ My mom said, ‘He didn’t tell me that.’”

Allensworth is — and was — a symbol of freedom. Back in the early 20th century, blacks came to Allensworth looking for a place free of racial discrimination.

“They all came from different cities,” says John Pope, a resident of Allensworth whose family has been in the town for generations. “They wanted to form this community to prove to the world that black people were capable of sustaining, governing and managing their lives on every level.”

At the time, black towns like Allensworth were springing up all over the country. There was Greenwood, Oklahoma, known famously as “Black Wall Street.” There was Blackdom, New Mexico, and Buxton, Iowa. 

“When Colonel Allensworth, Professor [William] Payne, and Mr. [Harry] Mitchell, when they came across the railroad track, water gushing out the ground, they picked a prime spot,” John says. “Tulare lake was right there.”

Allensworth, California
Credit Sarah Craig / KALW

Tulare Lake doesn’t exist today. It’s all dried up, and it’s filled with acres of pistachio and almond trees. Before it was drained by heavy agriculture use, it was the biggest lake west of the Mississippi. 

“It was just absolutely beautiful,” he says. “And the railroad track was there, so Allensworth became this hub. The farmers, they had to pay black people and this town was prospering.”

But their success didn’t last very long. Four catastrophes, one after another, destroyed the town. 

First, the town’s wells dried up since farmers moving to the area were diverting streams and rivers from entering Tulare Lake. 

Most communities would just drill a deeper well, but the company that sold Colonel Allensworth the land didn’t follow through on its promise to provide the town with a water system. It refused to help drill another well and left them with thousands of dollars of debt. 

Then, about a year later, wealthy farmers nearby Allensworth raised money to build a railroad stop in Alpaugh, the mostly-white town next door. The new station took away most of the business from Allensworth’s station, which was used by farmers to ship their crops and livestock to market. By 1930, Allensworth’s station closed down. 

Then, the town suffered the third and biggest blow. In 1914, Colonel Allen Allensworth, the town’s founder, was killed. 

It happened near Los Angeles, where he was giving a sermon. He was walking across the street when two white men on a motorcycle ran him over. It was broad daylight on a paved street that was at least 60 feet wide. People who saw Allensworth get hit said there wasn’t any traffic. 

The fourth and final blow came in 1917. A huge drought hit the Central Valley and lasted off and on for almost two decades. 

Allensworth turned into a ghost town.

Allensworth, California
Credit Sarah Craig / KALW

Allensworth Today

Most people who live in Allensworth aren’t African American anymore; they are Mexican and Mexican American. 

“I guess I grew up thinking I was black because I was raised here,” says Margarita Gonzales, a longtime resident of Allensworth, who goes by Margie.

Margie has lived in Allensworth almost her whole life, but when her family first moved to the town, it didn’t have a water system.

Her family took baths in a nearby canal and drove to Delano – about 13 miles away — to get water to drink. 

“We had to go and get water in big, old tanks,” she says.

Eventually, Margie’s family — and the rest of the residents in Allensworth — got tired of hauling water. In the late 1960s, they formed a water company so they could drill a community well. They got financial assistance from the federal government, but the funding only covered the cost of drilling the well.

“I don't know with the county or whom, they told them, ‘Okay, you guys are the ones that are going to have to make the lines,’” she says.

That meant that the residents, themselves, had to dig trenches for the water pipes that would connect the well to their houses.

There’s no record of why the state or the county didn’t help dig the lines. It was most likely a lack of resources, but it made an impression on Margie. 

“They didn't care, really. It was just a poor black community,” she says. 

The well was finished a year later, and Tulare County was put in charge of making sure the water was safe to drink. But it wasn’t safe.

The county tested the well, and that’s when it found arsenic in the water — more than 10 times the legal limit set today. 

There are no records that show how long people in Allensworth were drinking contaminated water. It could have been for over a decade.

Stretched Resources 

Tulare County was responsible for making sure Allensworth’s water district was doing its job — testing the water and telling residents when there’s too much arsenic. 

But the county didn’t do a good job enforcing these rules or helping them find better water. 

“It makes me feel that our community is neglected,” says Denise Kadara, one of the residents trying to find better water. “Nothing is happening quickly enough. Why? Why are we still having to do this? Is it because we're poor? Are we not entitled to safe drinking water, which is a state law?”

In 2014, the state stepped in after it discovered the county was failing to do its job. It found that the county was understaffed and stretched thin. 

At the same time, the EPA found that California overall was failing to make sure people had clean drinking water. It basically told the state to get its act together.

The state started helping out a little more. It even sent a water engineer to look at Allensworth’s water system and recommend ways it could improve the town’s water quality.

Ultimately though, it’s up to the water district to find a solution to the arsenic in the water. It’s been trying, but it’s been a very slow, uphill battle.

Like most small districts, Allensworth’s district is in bad shape. When it balanced its books last summer, Sherry told me it had a $13,000 deficit. It struggles with aging infrastructure, a backlog of paperwork, and residents who just don’t pay. 

A few years ago, it tried to work with neighboring Alpaugh, which also has high levels of arsenic in its water. But Alpaugh managed to get a water treatment plant from the state because it couldn’t find a place to drill a good well. 

Allensworth tried to join Alpaugh’s treatment plant, but Alpaugh didn’t want to work with Allensworth and negotiations between the two communities fell apart. 

It seemed like Allensworth couldn’t win. That is, until just last year, when it found a place to drill a well. 

But there was another problem. 

“We haven’t started construction of the new well because [the California Department of] Fish and Wildlife have a lizard, a leopard lizard that lives out there,” says Sherry. 

The blunt-nosed leopard lizard lives on the well site. It’s a fully protected and endangered species which means Allensworth’s water district will need to get a special exemption from the state to even begin the process of applying for a permit to drill on the land where the lizard lives.

“You would think that human consumption is more important than the little leopard lizard,” says Sherry, “but with Fish and Wildlife, that leopard lizard is more important to them!”

To try to get the special exemption, Sherry, Denise, and Dennis, along with Denise’s son and his family, traveled to the state capitol in Sacramento in the summer of 2018. 

Sherry and Denise testified in front of the Water, Parks, and Wildlife Committee meeting in an attempt to convince Assembly members to pass a bill that will allow Allensworth to apply for a permit to drill on the land where the lizards live. 

Less than two months after the meeting, the bill passed the Senate. Then, less than a month after that, the governor signed it into law. 

The Future

The siblings have come close to getting good clean drinking water for their town. But the bill was just one hurdle of many that Allensworth needed to cross. 

The town still has to apply for a permit from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. Then, it has to apply for more government money to actually drill the well.

It could take another three years of waiting, and there are more obstacles to consider. 

Even if Allensworth is able to drill a new well, residents will only be able to drink the water that is close to the surface. That’s because the deeper the well, the more arsenic in the water. The toxin is more concentrated the deeper underground you go. 

And it becomes even more concentrated when people pump too much water out of the aquifer. 

If you think into the future — when the next big drought hits — it doesn’t require much foresight to guess what will happen. Just look at what the state went through in the last drought: water tables dropped and wells went dry all over the Central Valley. 

That scenario is predicted to get worse. With climate change making droughts longer and more frequent, Allensworth may find itself right back where it started. 

But the people of Allensworth haven’t given up easily. That’s how Allensworth got its reputation as ‘the town that refuses to die.’