Fresno Bee Newsroom Blog

Town hall planned to talk about small-town drinking water

The public is invited to a town hall meeting about drinking water problems in small San Joaquin Valley communities where thousands of people have waited years for solutions.

The free event is scheduled from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 16, at  Fresno Convention Center, 2nd Floor, 848 M St. Latino USA on National Public Radio and Radio Bilingue are putting on the town hall.

Maria Hinojosa,  journalist and Latino USA executive producer, will moderate. Spanish translation will be available.

The town hall will feature a discussion of Lanare, a small Fresno County town with a history of water problems. Organizers say the discussion will focus on ways to speed up the process of getting healthy drinking water.

Veronica Garibay, co-director of the Leadership Council for Justice and Accountability, will speak at the event. She said the contamination of well water is expanding.

“We should have been doing something about this yesterday,” she said.

Speakers also will include John Capitman, executive director of the Central Valley Health Policy Institute, California State University, Fresno;  Susana De Anda, co-executive director of the Community Water Center in Visalia; Assemblymember Henry T. Perea, D-Fresno, and Isabel Solorio, president of Lanare United in Lanare.

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.

Perea bill to move drinking water funds advances

The state Assembly Tuesday approved legislation that would move responsibility for safe drinking water away from the California Department of Public Health.

Assembly Bill 145, authored by Assemblymembers Henry T. Perea, D-Fresno, and Anthony Rendon, D-Lynwood, would move the duties to the State Water Resources Control Board.  The bill now goes to the state Senate.

The move is billed as a fresh start, especially for rural communities that have waded through years of Public Health Department red tape to get public funding for healthy drinking water.

“Communities throughout California have been demanding access to clean drinking water for the past few years,” said  Perea. “We need to create a water governance structure we can hold accountable, so that all Californians have immediate access to one of life’s most basic necessities — water.”

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.

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.