Fresno Bee Newsroom Blog

State approves study funding for Tulare County water contamination

There’s big news for seven northern Tulare County communities that have waited years for healthy drinking water.

The California Department of Public Health has agreed to approve funding for a feasibility study on how to fix the problem.

The Bee has written stories about the possible fix since 2011, but technicalities and confusion have delayed the feasibility study.

Well water in the rural communities is tainted by nitrates, a chemical that comes from farm fertilizers, septic tanks, sewage treatment and decomposing vegetation.

Water advocates and leaders in Tulare County believe the problem can be solved with a regional plant to treat Kings River water for the towns of Culter, Orosi, East Orosi, Monson, Seville, Sultana and Yettem. The combined population of the region is 15,000.

Alta Irrigation District in Dinuba already has completed a project to make water available. River water would be banked in the ground during wet years and pumped back out for use on farms, thus making a supply of river water available for the towns.

The agreement for the funding is scheduled before the Tulare County Board of Supervisors on Oct. 8.

The study will evaluate many parts of the project, including the ability of the towns to pay for operation and maintenance of the treatment plant.

The plant construction could cost as much as $20 million, engineers say, and healthy drinking water will still be several years away after the feasibility study.

Bill to move drinking water authority advances

The push continues to take away drinking water responsibilities from the California Department of Public Health, which has been under a spotlight from the Legislature and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The Bee also has looked closely at the public health agency’s performance in the last two years, reporting that many small towns in the San Joaquin Valley have hit a wall in trying to get funding for water fixes.

The latest example is the southwest Fresno County community of Lanare, which could not get emergency funding to fix a broken water well. The town must now fund its own well repair while using tainted water from an old well.

Assembly Bill 145 would move the responsibilities to the State Water Resources Control Board. Last week, it passed the Senate Committee on Health. It has moved on to Senate Appropriations. No word on when the next vote will be.

The EPA required state health leaders to come up with a plan to dole out $455 million in federal water cleanup money that hasn’t been spent in California.  Public health released a plan last month, but it didn’t help Lanare.

Assemblymember Henry T. Perea, D-Fresno, who introduced AB 145, says it’s time to make a change.

“Access to clean, safe drinking water affects 2 million California residents from both rural and urban parts of the state,” he said. “Contaminated water poses a serious health risk, and when underserved communities can’t afford to buy bottled water, they are forced to drink water they know is harming themselves and their families.”

State health can’t fund emergency repair for Lanare

Folks in the southwest Fresno County town of  Lanare are riding out the heat wave with a 1970s water well that pumps out sandy drinking water and not much of it.

The town of 600 is caught in a familiar state bureaucratic maze, preventing it from getting public money to fix a newer well that broke down.

Help is not on the way despite the California Department of Public Health announcement this week of a plan to speed up funding for drinking water fixes.

Many other small towns in the San Joaquin Valley have hit a similar bureaucratic wall. And Lanare has had its own problems with public funding before.

Lanare is where a $1.3 million federal grant was used several years ago to build a water filtering plant. The town could not afford to run it, so the system was shut down within months of starting. No one assessed the town’s ability to pay for operating the system.

The town is slowly saving up money to pay off a debt that started at about $100,000. But now $10,000 placed in a reserve account to help pay off the debt must be used to repair the newer well.

The health department cannot issue emergency funding to cover the broken well, since the town has the old well.

The department earlier this week had announced the plan to speed up the use of about $455 million in federal funding, saying it would spend about $84 million as soon as possible.

The plan was ordered by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which has heard from many small San Joaquin Valley communities that have waited years for the funding.

Back in Lanare,  townfolk will spend the money they have been saving since 2010 for the well repair instead of using it to make payments on the debt.

State health changes drinking water division chief

The state has made a change in the leadership of  the folks who control funding for drinking water fixes — an important pot of money for many San Joaquin Valley towns.

Beyond confirming the change, there is no explanation from the California Department of Public Health, though many here would be curious about it.

Over the last decade, this obscure division of Public Health has been considered a roadblock in many rural towns trying to clean up their drinking water. Technicalities have slowed funding for years, especially in Tulare County.

If the leadership change is related to the delays and outcry from those towns, people here would like to know it. If it is a routine personnel matter — such as a promotion, transfer or leave of absence — people would like to hear that too.

A public health information officer simply confirmed Leah Walker is no longer chief of the division, and Dave Mazzera is acting chief.

In the last year or so, I have seen stories quoting Mazzera on the chromium 6 problems in Southern California.