Fresno Bee Newsroom Blog

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.

Lanare’s closest option for healthy water was contaminated

Folks in the southwest Fresno County town of Lanare avoid drinking arsenic-laced water from their taps. They thought four vending machines in nearby Riverdale were their best option for healthy water.

Now the machines are gone, according to California Rural Legal Assistance, representing Lanare’s 590 residents. The machines apparently were not filtering the water in Riverdale, which also has arsenic contamination.

CRLA said water from the machines was tested at more than three times the safe level. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says the threshold is 10 parts per billion.

Instead of the four-mile drive to Riverdale, Lanare residents must drive as far as Fresno, 20 miles away, to buy water for drinking and cooking.

As part of a series titled Living in a Toxic Land, The Bee published a story last month about the environmental risks people must live with every day in Lanare.

The town has no schools, health care or sewer service. The tainted well water is the most immediate problem.

Veronica Garibay, a CRLA community education outreach coordinator, says the Lanare Community Service District has applied to the California Department of Public Health for $50,000 to fund interim water solutions. Some of the money could help provide a water vending machine in Lanare.

If the town gets the money, the machine could be installed at the Lanare Community Center.

Existing fertilizer fee is used in research, not cleaning up water

A state report last month suggested a farm fertilizer fee to help fix drinking-water problems, especially in rural towns around the San Joaquin Valley.

I wrote about it, but I should have added that there already is a fertilizer fee in California, a reader said. The existing fee funds research, however, not dirty-water cleanup.

It is the Fertilizer Research and Education Program in the California Department of Food and Agriculture. Last year, Assembly Bill 2174 from Assembly Member Luis Alejo, D-Salinas, made the money available for research on more efficient application of fertilizers.

It would not provide near enough money anyway. The analysis on the fund last year showed it would be worth about $1 million. The state needs $36 million a year to address drinking water problems.

The state report last month focused on nitrate contamination, which comes from fertilizers, animal waste, septic systems and sewage treatment plants.

study released last year by the University of California at Davis said the problem threatens water for 250,000 people from Fresno to Bakersfield. Nitrates can cause a potentially fatal blood disease in infants.

Grants and loans through the state have not panned out for  some towns that can’t afford to pay back loans or maintain treatment facilities. Another funding source is needed, say leaders of the State Water Resources Control Board, which did the report.

I have not seen any legislation yet to raise the funding.

State water board recommends farm fertilizer fee for water cleanup

A farm fertilizer fee is at the top of the suggestion list released Wednesday in a state report focused on widespread contamination of drinking water, especially in rural San Joaquin Valley towns.

The state needs to come up with $36 million a year to address the Valley problems from nitrates, which come from fertilizers and animal waste.

The contamination threatens drinking water for 250,000 people from Fresno to Bakersfield, according to a study released last year by the University of California at Davis.

Many people in small towns such as Seville in Tulare County have been drinking bottled water for years as they await a state solution. A Fresno Bee series of stories in 2011 highlighted the problems.

Grants and loans through the state have not panned out for  some towns that can’t afford to pay back loans or maintain treatment facilities.

Another funding source is needed, say leaders of the State Water Resources Control Board, which did the report.

“There just isn’t a stable, long-term funding source,” said Jonathan Bishop, chief deputy director of the water resources board in Sacramento.

Bishop said the recommendations are among the steps required by SBX2-1 in 2008. It’s up to the Legislature to settle on how to get funding.

Other ideas to raise money include a tax on farm commodities and a water-use fee.

Activists led by the Community Water Center in Visalia say rural residents have been stuck with the bill for bottled water long enough.

“The state has known for 40 years that applying too much fertilizer on crops contaminates drinking water,” said Maria Herrera of the water center, which represents many towns.

“The problem is getting worse for communities and taxpayers throughout California. We need action now.”

Valley rural water problems are clear in state report

Deep in a state report on dirty drinking water, an important and revealing statistic went unnoticed by the media last week.

Of the 772,883 Californians relying solely on compromised groundwater, about 400,000 are in the San Joaquin Valley.

We’re talking about water systems that have violated standards, leaving people with no option except buying bottled drinking water during those times. About half of the people suffering this problem in California are right here in the Valley.

The report was done for the legislators by the State Water Resources Control Board as part of Assembly Bill 2222, which required the water board to look at statewide problems and assess the financial resources to help fix them.

The  report looks at all of California, but the Valley is in a spotlight here.

Naturally occurring arsenic was the biggest offender among the contaminants. But nitrates — attributable to activities by people — was second.

The Valley has a widespread problem with nitrates, which a University of California study last year traced to fertilizers and animal waste in agriculture.

In Kern County alone, there were 55 violations of water standards between 2002 and 2010 — the highest number in the state.

Tulare County followed with 31. Madera County had 22, Fresno County 15 and Stanislaus County 14. Very few other counties in California even had 10 violations.

Here’s another telling point that nobody reported.

“There are 89 community water systems in Los Angeles County that serve approximately 8.4 million people. However, only 11 percent of that population is solely reliant on a contaminated groundwater source.

“In contrast, Tulare County has 41 community water systems that rely on contaminated groundwater source that serve approximately 205,000 people. Sole reliance on groundwater for these communities stands at 99 percent.”

I’m looking at the percentages here, not the raw numbers. Southern California has larger numbers, but it also attracts more money to fix the problem. Dirty water is cleaned up.

As I mentioned earlier, the Valley has more people drinking water from a system with actual violations.

How are the problems being addressed? The report said some water systems were not receiving or even actively seeking money — most of them in the Valley. They are in Kern, Stanislaus, Fresno, Madera, San Joaquin and Tulare counties.

Hazardous waste landfill leaders meet with Kettleman City

Hazardous waste landfill leaders met with folks in nearby Kettleman City this week about plans to renew a state operating permit. Kettleman activists continued to oppose it.

Since 2008, the activists, led by El Pueblo Parra el Aire y Agua Limpio, have slowed the landfill’s efforts, sparking a government investigation of birth defects. Investigators found no link between the landfill and Kettleman health problems.

The Kettleman City meeting this week was required as part of the process to get the permit renewal.

Such a renewal would usually be simple — it was in 2003 —  but  Waste Management Inc., owner and operator of the landfill, needs to expand. There’s almost no room left now for hazardous waste.

So the landfill’s future relies on expansion approval of at least four major government agencies, which are moving cautiously.

The four agencies are the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, state Department of Toxic Substances Control, the state Water Resources Control Board and the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District.

Waste Management is hoping for the expansion approval sometime this year. The state operating permit expires in June, but the company can continue to operate as long as its renewal application is received before the June expiration.

Meanwhile, activists say they will fight every step of the way. They say there is a connection to continuing cases of childhood cancer and mortality in Kettleman City.

Activists, led by resident Maricela Mares Alatorre, say they suspect there are simply too many environmental risks around Kettleman — including pesticides, diesel exhaust, contaminated drinking water and oilfield operations.

But no government agency tracks all the sources at once. In a story last month, The Fresno Bee featured Kettleman City’s multiple risks.

Lawmakers want to fix bureaucratic funding maze for clean water

Small, impoverished towns are sometimes left for years with tainted drinking water while they wade through a cryptic state process for public funding to fix the problem.

Two frustrated lawmakers this week will start a streamlining effort that probably will result in several new bills next year.  The lawmakers are Assemlymembers Henry T. Perea, D- Fresno, and Luis Alejo, D-Watsonville.

“We’re getting pretty fed up,” said Perea, who has worked for funding in such Tulare County towns as Seville, Monson, Cutler and Orosi. “We might want to consolidate this process under different agencies.”

At 1:30 p.m. Wednesday in Sacramento, Alejo and Perea will convene an oversight hearing of the Environmental Safety & Toxic Materials Committee to take testimony from more than a dozen people. If you want to follow it live, go here.

Thomas Harter, a University of California at Davis researcher, will briefly discuss his landmark research released this year on nitrates, the most widely found contaminant. It comes from fertilizer, animal waste, septic systems, sewage treatment plants and decaying vegetation.

The contaminant threatens the drinking water for more than a quarter of a million people in the Valley, according to Harter’s research.

Yet in places like Seville, which was featured last year in a Fresno Bee series of stories on drinking water problems in rural towns, it has taken years just to secure funding to study a fix.

This week, the Tulare County Board of Supervisors was expected to approve a $690,000 grant to study the best ways to fix Seville’s problem. The study money has been years in the making and there have been bureaucratic snags along the way, as The Bee reported last year.

Even with the study money in hand, it probably will take more than a year to get started on a fix for the town’s crumbling water system.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

New system for eyewitness reports of hazards, illegal dumping

Fresno County residents today can begin reporting illegal dumping, pesticide drifts, vandalism, water contamination and many other  hazards or nuisances just by texting, emailing or calling.

They can use the Fresno Environmental Reporting Network, which is being launched by community groups, health advocacy organizations and government agencies, which have joined in a partnership.

The network, funded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, is designed to eliminate layers of bureaucracy that might confuse people.

Based on a successful model in Imperial County, the network uses popular technology such as online reporting and texting so eyewitness accounts of local problems can be reported quickly and accurately, 24 hours a day.

Residents will generate the first set of community reports today, highlighting environmental and health violations they see in their own communities.