Sensing Toxicity: Water Systems and Quality Monitoring Data

Authors: Kallista Bley*, University of Wisconsin–Madison
Topics: Human-Environment Geography
Keywords: water, risk, uncertainty, health
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/7/2019
Start / End Time: 3:55 PM / 5:35 PM
Room: Marshall West, Marriott, Mezzanine Level
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


The groundwater contamination of the central agricultural valleys in California has received international attention. While the valleys have high agricultural revenues, the health and environmental costs of this productivity raise a series of environmental justice concerns. California passed a human right to “safe, clean, affordable, and accessible water” bill in 2012 (Assembly Bill No. 685), yet this right remains unrealized for many. Those reliant on small community water systems—particularly in unincorporated areas—may lack the resources to remediate water contamination, and those using domestic well water can face additional exposures and risks, as private wells are not monitored by the state. Statewide some of the greatest gaps in data include areas reliant on groundwater from domestic wells, where exposures to contaminants associated with agricultural activity such as nitrate are especially high. With an emphasis on Maximum Contaminant Levels (MCLs), the regulatory monitoring process often leaves unexamined the social and economic relations that are constitutive of uneven geographies of risk. Through recent platforms, water quality data for the region are becoming publicly available in new formats, including interactive mapping elements. As part of a larger project to understand what is sensed and also obscured through water quality governance, this paper shares initial reflections on the uncertainties, temporalities and spatialities related to mapped geographic datasets of water systems and related water contamination in these regions. This paper also considers the implications of this monitoring process for accountability and political action.

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