Sherry Hunter, president of the Allensworth Community Services District in rural Tulare County, stands near a swing set at the town's community center on Friday, Aug. 29, 2022. (Craig Kohlruss/FERN)
Valeria Contreras’ phone started ringing on a bustling Saturday last February, when she was driving past almond and pistachio orchards on an errand run. Some callers sounded panicked. Others were just upset. "Where’s the water?" they asked her. "How come you guys don’t notify us? I know I’m past due, but did you guys turn off my water?"
Contreras lives in Allensworth, a small town of about 500 people an hour’s drive north of Bakersfield, in California’s Central Valley. She runs her own catering company, and in her spare time she is also the general manager of the Allensworth Community Services District, which oversees the town’s water supply. Back in February, Contreras had no idea why the water had stopped flowing. And it was her job to fix it.
Contreras and other community leaders spent the rest of the weekend scrambling to find the source of the problem. It turned out the pumps on a few of Allensworth’s water wells had failed — the system is old and prone to breaking — and it took the town a month to fully fix it. Then the water system broke down again a few months later. These days, Contreras keeps a few extra gallons of water on her back patio, just in case it happens again.
“You would think it's just water, but it's a necessity — to use a restroom, to wash, to do anything,” Contreras said.
Clean, safe and affordable drinking water is considered a human right under state law, but nearly a million residents don’t have access to it. Like Contreras, many of them live in the Central Valley, a patchwork of desert scrub and irrigated farmland that’s twice the size of Massachusetts and produces 25% of the nation’s food supply. To some extent, the state’s historic, climate change-fueled drought is to blame. The number of dry wells in California has shot up by more than 70% since last year, many of them in the valley.
The drought has only exacerbated long-standing water access issues that in many valley communities can be traced back to decades of neglect and racist policies. Nowhere is this more apparent than Allensworth. Founded in 1908, the town was the first community in California to be financed, built and governed by African Americans. Ten years later, it had been all but decimated by white farmers and corporate interests. Water was one of their weapons of choice.
Now, more than a century later, local leaders like Contreras are still dealing with the aftereffects and periodic crises. But they are also laser-focused on securing a sustainable and clean drinking water supply for the town — and their creative approach could turn out to be a blueprint for other water-insecure communities in California.
A thriving Black community
“Water has always been an issue here in Allensworth,” said Sherry Hunter, who is president of the Allensworth Community Services District and manages the town’s water system with Contreras. Contreras was visiting her on a sweltering summer afternoon, when it was over 100 degrees, but no one seemed to mind. When it comes to California heat, the women agreed, people from Los Angeles are whiners; people from the Bay Area are just plain weak.
“When we were kids, there was no AC,” said Contreras. “You sat in those leather seats ... ”
“And sweated profusely,” said Hunter. “And you were happy about it.”
Hunter's sister, Denise Kadara, was there, too. She advocates for marginalized communities across the region as vice chair of the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board. The sisters played a pivotal role in helping Contreras fix the water outage back in February. They are also among Allensworth’s few remaining Black residents. Their mother moved to town in the 1970s after learning about its troubled history, and her children followed her.
“Her mission was to make sure that this town did not die and that history got it right,” said Hunter. “And we knew without a second thought we had to be a part of that.”
Lieutenant Colonel Allen Allensworth was the town’s iconoclastic founder. He was born into slavery, escaped to fight for the Union during the Civil War, and became the highest-ranking Black military officer of his time. With Jim Crow tightening its grip on the South, he wanted to go West and build a town “where African Americans would settle upon the bare desert and cause it to blossom as a rose.”
In 1908, he and his co-founders bought a stretch of farmland in the Central Valley and got to work. Many of the town’s streets were named after prominent Black leaders or abolitionists, and its founders dreamed of building the West’s first Black university.
“They had a glee club, they had a debate society,” said Kadara. “They were a thriving, upscale community.”
And they had water from the nearby White River. But a few years after Allensworth was established, powerful white farmers diverted the stream to irrigate their crops and cut off the town’s supply.
Fortunately, Allensworth had a backup plan: groundwater. The town planned to tap into the ancient aquifers that run deep underground in the Central Valley. A local company that had sold them land promised to help dig the wells and build the town's water system, according to several historians.
But the firm, Pacific Farming Co., violated its contract and drilled fewer than half of the wells.
“Allensworth was promised fertile land and water — which [was] reneged on,” said Hunter.
The town sued Pacific Farming, but reached a settlement that left the town in debt. Meanwhile, the company honored its contract with Alpaugh, a majority-white community a few miles away, and dug all the wells they had agreed to.
These battles over water access were prevalent throughout California in the early 20th century. As the Central Valley became an agricultural powerhouse, Black migrants flocked to it for a piece of the California dream, along with immigrants from Mexico, Japan, India and the Philippines. But more established local farmers, almost all of whom were white, sought to control as much of the state’s water as possible.
The result, says Jonathan London, an associate professor at the UC Davis Department of Human Ecology, was a “separate but unequal system of water provisions.” When corporate interests resorted to illegal behavior, communities of color took them to court, but rarely got a fair hearing.
“It was a really difficult situation — getting squeezed by the corporations on one hand, in a way that really was racially biased, and then having a judicial system that was also racially biased,” said London. “They had really nowhere to turn.”
Without a secure water supply, Allensworth’s farmers couldn’t get enough water for their crops. And they faced other racist roadblocks. Local companies charged Black farmers nearly four times as much for land as white farmers, then tried to prevent them from buying land altogether. The railroad shut down Allensworth’s station and moved it to the majority-white Alpaugh. Then, in 1914, Lt. Col. Allen Allensworth was struck and killed by a motorcycle. The driver was white, and no charges were ever brought against him.
By the 1920s, Allensworth’s Black residents started to move away.
'If it's not drinkable, you may as well be without'
Today, the most visible evidence of Lt. Col. Allensworth’s utopian project is an obscure California state park. Tourists can walk through the town’s original buildings, visit the old church, and tour the lieutenant colonel’s home. Contemporary Allensworth sits across the street. It’s quiet and welcoming, populated by mostly Latinx farmworkers who moved in as Black residents departed. The town is hemmed in by irrigated vineyards and orchards. Many Central Valley farmers get water deliveries from the State Water Project and the Central Valley Project, feats of 20th-century engineering that shuttle water from Northern California to cities and farms in the south. But like most small valley towns, Allensworth doesn’t have access to this water source.
Instead, it's still tapping its shrinking aquifer, which, according to residents, tastes unusually good. There’s “an itty-bitty sweetness to it,” said Hunter. But like most people in town, she only uses the water to shower, wash dishes or flush toilets. She hasn’t had a drink from it in years.
“Come to find out the water was contaminated with arsenic,” she said.
Arsenic is tasteless, odorless, colorless and extremely toxic; trace amounts of the naturally occurring contaminant can increase cancer risk. In Allensworth, some wells have arsenic levels 15 times the legal limit. State officials have known about Allensworth’s arsenic problem since at least the 1960s, but for decades, residents say, they weren't told how dangerous it was. Hunter and her sister didn’t find out until the 1990s. By then, residents had been drinking the contaminated water their entire lives. “Nobody told them,” said Hunter.
Allensworth is far from alone. According to a damning state auditor’s report earlier this year, nearly a million Californians face an increased risk of cancer, kidney problems and other long-term health crises because their water isn’t safe to drink. Many systems are contaminated by nitrate pollution arising from farming, or by arsenic, which can become more concentrated when farmers overpump their aquifers.
According to other studies, the communities suffering from contamination are disproportionately Black and Brown, without the resources to fix the problem, the report noted. The California State Water Resources Control Board has the funding to help these failing water systems, but the agency “has generally demonstrated a lack of urgency in providing this critical assistance,” the state auditor’s report said.
Right now, the only arsenic-free water in Allensworth comes from a small spigot in the center of town, across the street from the elementary school. There are two black solar panels a few feet away, which emit a mechanical buzz beneath the squabbling of nearby chickens.
“You hear the hum?” said Kayode Kadara, Denise Kadara’s husband. “Those are motors running, powered by the sun.”
The hydropanel system pulls moisture out of the air. Kadara poured some water from the spigot. “Completely arsenic-free,” he said with satisfaction.
Allensworth’s hydropanels are the result of a pilot program with Source, a renewable drinking water company based in Scottsdale, Arizona. Last year, the town installed two hydropanel prototypes near the elementary school, and local leaders plan to install two panels at every home in the community. The technology is expensive and somewhat limited — each hydropanel produces only about a gallon of water a day. But to Hunter, they’re better than nothing because the water is arsenic-free.
“It would be enough to cook and enough to drink,” she said. “Water is something you cannot live without. And if it’s not drinkable, you may as well be without.”
The panels are also a stopgap measure, which will tide Allensworth over as it works on longer-term solutions like an experimental arsenic-removal technology with UC Berkeley’s Gadgil Laboratory. If it works, it could help hundreds of other communities whose water is also contaminated.
The town is pursuing much of this work on its own, with unpaid volunteers working with partners on projects and cobbling together grant funding to make it happen. Hunter, Kadara and a group of other Black and Latinx leaders in town know that if they’re going to save Allensworth — and its history — they need to solve its water crisis. It's the only way Allensworth can thrive again.
Watering the future
On a 105-degree day last June, Allensworth doubled in size. Hundreds of people braved the heat, bought themselves plates of hot links and crowded the stage in the center of town to celebrate Juneteenth, the holiday celebrating the emancipation of enslaved people.
As the audience sweated over Styrofoam cups of lemonade and swayed to the music, Hunter and Kadara worked the crowd. A coalition of Black and Brown farmers handed out smoothies. Scientists and grad students set up shop by the old schoolhouse, showcasing a half dozen projects to help solve Allensworth's water crisis. Staffers for local congressmembers and state senators milled about.
There’s a reason scientists and politicians are looking at Allensworth. California's historic drought is getting worse. More than 90% of Central Valley residents are now relying on groundwater, and as the state overpumps its aquifers, the water is becoming more contaminated and dwindling fast. If any of these communities are going to survive in the long term, they’re going to need access to clean drinking water.
So Allensworth may become a beacon, an example of what one water-stressed community can do to ensure a water supply after a century of denied access and repeated crises. Its leaders might end up piloting some of California’s water solutions precisely because they’ve been forced to take matters into their own hands.
“Being creative is not something we wanted to do,” said Kadara. “It’s that we’ve had enough.”