Inside the Uphill Fight for Clean Water in California’s Central Valley


More than 1 million Californians, many living in the state’s agricultural heartland, still do not have access to clean water. “The Great Divide” — the third-place winner in the Yale Environment 360 Video Contest — examines one community’s struggle to gain access to unpolluted water.

California’s Central Valley, covering close to 20,000 square miles, produces roughly 40 percent of the United States’ fruits, vegetables, and nuts. That abundance is the result not only of large-scale irrigation, but also of the widespread use of fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides, which then seep back into the valley’s aquifers.

The resulting pollution is a major reason why more than 1 million Californians do not have access to safe drinking water. Many of them are Latino farmworkers who live in small communities reliant not on municipal water systems but on underground aquifers tainted by nitrates, arsenic, hexavalent chromium, and other pollutants that have numerous ill health effects.

In her video “The Great Divide” — the third-place winner in the 2020 Yale Environment 360 Video Contest — filmmaker Casey Beck takes a look at one of those small communities — Tooleville, an unincorporated community of 80 homes located in the San Joaquin Valley at the southern end of the Central Valley. Beck tells the story of Pedro Hernandez, an organizer with the nonprofit Leadership Council for Justice and Accountability, as he works to have Tooleville consolidated into a larger neighboring town that has a proper municipal water system.

“It’s very, very, very hard,” Tooleville resident Yolanda Cuevas said of her worries about her children and grandchildren being exposed to the contaminated water. “Only by walking in someone else’s shoes can you understand how another person lives. If they saw everything that we have to deal with, they would realize how difficult it is to live with a problem like this.”