Small-Town America Has A Serious Drinking-Water Problem

On a swel­ter­ing day last July, a team of sci­en­tists stood before a crowd­ed room of peo­ple from the tiny town of Sanders, Arizona, and showed them a pho­to of a dilap­i­dat­ed wood­en shack cov­ered by hole-filled tarps. This, the sci­en­tists explained, was the town’s water source.

Tonya Baloo, a long­time res­i­dent and moth­er of two, did a dou­ble take. “It looked like a Third World coun­try,” she says. “I was like, ‘Is this Africa?’”

The well serv­ing Sanders res­i­dents Chris Shuey

The researchers’ next image — a chart with a flat red line cut­ting through yel­low bars — was even more wor­ri­some. Tommy Rock, a Ph.D. can­di­date study­ing water con­t­a­m­i­na­tion at Northern Arizona University, explained that the red line was the Environmental Protection Agency’s thresh­old for ura­ni­um allowed in pub­lic water sys­tems: 30 micro­grams per liter. The yel­low bars rep­re­sent­ed ura­ni­um lev­els in Sanders’ water sup­ply dat­ing back to 2003. They hov­ered around 50 micro­grams per liter.

For more than a decade, the chart showed, peo­ple in Sanders had been drink­ing con­t­a­m­i­nat­ed water.

Residents lis­tened, dumb­found­ed. Sanders sits on the edge of the Navajo Nation; ura­ni­um mines, relics of the Cold War, have long dot­ted trib­al lands across the West. Long-term expo­sure to the heavy met­al can cause kid­ney dis­ease and can­cer. But locals had nev­er been noti­fied of the con­t­a­m­i­na­tion. Nor were they aware of the near­ly 200 drink­ing-water vio­la­tions that the local util­i­ty had amassed over the pre­vi­ous decade, rang­ing from ura­ni­um and bac­te­r­i­al con­t­a­m­i­na­tion to fail­ure to test the water.

The ini­tial betray­al,” Baloo says. “It was shocking.”

Roughly 6 mil­lion Americans use one of 2,300 pub­lic water sys­tems that qual­i­fy as “seri­ous vio­la­tors”; 99 per­cent of those util­i­ties serve few­er than 50,000 people.

The meet­ing hap­pened two months before researchers in Flint, Michigan, revealed that their city’s water was laced with lead. In both cas­es, curi­ous sci­en­tists exposed years of drink­ing-water vio­la­tions that affect­ed pre­dom­i­nant­ly poor, minor­i­ty com­mu­ni­ties. (Most Sanders res­i­dents are Navajo and live on less than $20,000 per year.) But unlike urban Flint, Sanders is home to just 630 peo­ple and con­sists of a clus­ter of sin­gle-fam­i­ly homes, a gas sta­tion, a dol­lar store, two church­es, and a trad­ing post — all sur­round­ed by miles of red rock and sage brush.

An aer­i­al view of Sanders, Arizona Doc Searls/​Flickr/​Wikimedia Commons

The town is one of thou­sands of rur­al com­mu­ni­ties across the coun­try where water qual­i­ty has qui­et­ly evad­ed fed­er­al health stan­dards for years. Many small util­i­ties sim­ply can­not afford advanced water treat­ment tech­nol­o­gy, says Jeff Griffiths, a pub­lic health pro­fes­sor at Tufts University and a for­mer advis­er to the EPA on drink­ing water. (An inspec­tion of the Sanders well in 2012, for exam­ple, found that “the own­er pours an unap­proved bleach prod­uct down the cas­ing vent dai­ly as the method of dis­in­fec­tion.”) According to EPA data, rough­ly 6 mil­lion Americans use one of 2,300 pub­lic water sys­tems that qual­i­fy as “seri­ous vio­la­tors” — defined as hav­ing mul­ti­ple, con­tin­u­ous, or seri­ous health or report­ing prob­lems. Ninety-nine per­cent of those util­i­ties serve few­er than 50,000 peo­ple. Together, they serve a pop­u­la­tion 25 times the size of Flint.

A week after Rock’s pre­sen­ta­tion, Sanders res­i­dents received a notice in the mail from the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ) inform­ing them of the high ura­ni­um lev­els in the local water sup­ply — a first since the con­t­a­m­i­na­tion was report­ed to the state in 2003. Long-term expo­sure can increase the risk of kid­ney dis­ease and can­cer, it said, but the sit­u­a­tion wasn’t an emer­gency. “You do NOT need to seek an alter­nate (for exam­ple, bot­tled or hauled) water sup­ply,” it read. “The water remains safe to use until treat­ment is put into place.”


Many res­i­dents, wary of the state’s assur­ances, avoid­ed the water. Baloo brought her kids an hour away to her mom’s house for baths. Genevieve Lee, a 73-year-old retired teacher, resort­ed to eat­ing canned food and tak­ing sponge baths out of a buck­et. She made 40-minute treks to Gallup, New Mexico, for water and often found her­self won­der­ing about the uranium’s impact. Did it con­tribute to her breast can­cer in 2008? To her neighbor’s kid­ney disease?

Lee, Baloo, and oth­ers formed a water task force, peti­tion­ing for the town to con­nect to a near­by, well-main­tained util­i­ty in the Navajo Nation. “All we think about is water,” Baloo told me this spring.

The hub­bub led Sanders school sys­tem super­in­ten­dent Dan Hute to test the schools’ water sup­ply, which comes from a pri­vate well unaf­fil­i­at­ed with Sanders’ water sys­tem; the water in Sanders ele­men­tary and mid­dle schools was also con­t­a­m­i­nat­ed. Hute tapped into school bud­gets to pro­vide bot­tled water to rough­ly 500 stu­dents and 150 teach­ers. “I’ve got­ten no help from any­body,” Hute told me ear­li­er this spring. According to Rock, no local, state, or fed­er­al agency pro­vid­ed the town with bot­tled water or filters.

Under the Safe Drinking Water Act, util­i­ties are required to noti­fy their cus­tomers if water has con­t­a­m­i­nant lev­els above the EPA’s thresh­old. If they fail to do so, the law calls for the “pri­ma­cy agency” — in Sanders’ case, the state — to inter­vene. After 30 days, the EPA steps in.

“These peo­ple have been drink­ing this for years. It’s not a short-term expo­sure. I’m a lit­tle baf­fled by their lack of concern.”

Though the pol­i­cy sounds sim­ple enough, the real­i­ty is far murki­er. Dr. Bruce Macler, an EPA tox­i­col­o­gist who helped decide to tell Sanders res­i­dents that

This arti­cle has been updated.