Fresno Bee Newsroom Blog

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.”

One-hour, eight-hour standard, it’s confusing

I apologize if there’s been some confusion about an air-quality blog I wrote a few weeks ago — remember the one about the “silver lining” during an ozone siege?

A few readers have asked how there could be a silver lining if there are more eight-hour breaches of the standard than last year. The silver lining — or good news — was that the air didn’t breach the one-hour standard.

Eight-hour is a much tougher standard, the average of eight one-hour readings. The one-hour standard refers to the peak reading during a one-hour period.  They are quite different.

Now, let’s talk about comparing the eight-hour exceedence totals with last year’s totals. It’s a dangerous thing to do early in the season.

At the time of that blog item, there were 23 exceedences this year compared to 17 last year. So isn’t the air actually getting worse? Why didn’t I point that out in the item? Well, check it now, and you’ll see why it’s dangerous to jump to any conclusion right now.

There are 25 exceedences through this week, compared to 26 at this point last year. I was simply giving a running total in my blog item a few weeks ago.

One last thing. Improvement is a gradual thing in air quality, and the San Joaquin Valley is far from clean or healthy.

In summertime, the goal is eliminating ozone exceedences. Last year, the Valley had 105. Alongside South Coast Air Basin in the Southern California area, that’s the worst in the country.

But compare the numbers this year to 2003.

There were 38 exceedences at this point in 2003, and there had been a one-hour exceedence. During that period in 2003, I counted 17 days when the ozone concentration was above 100 parts per billion — an exceedence happens at 76.

This year, there have been 25 exceedences and only three days when ozone exceeded 100 parts per billion. Clearly, the air quality is improving, but not very quickly for many people.

Air-quality activists say the improvement comes partly because of the relocation of the Arvin air monitor in Kern County. That air monitor showed the most exceedences in the nation. The new one — two miles away — doesn’t record as many bad days.

There are many other arguments about the improvement. I’ll leave that for the readers to comment.

I want to leave you with the clear message: A few weeks ago during record-breaking heat, the Valley didn’t exceed the one-hour standard, which is connected with a $29 million annual fine paid mostly by motorists here.

But the air still is a long way from the goal.

Where does the federal money go for safe-drinking water?

Federal leaders last week notified California that it needs to account for $455 million for safe drinking water here. The money has not been lost or squandered. It just hasn’t been spent yet.

That all sounds like a picky bureaucratic complaint. After all, the state intends to use that money for improving drinking water.

But this is about accounting to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and taxpayers. This is about seeing the state’s priorities and making sure those in need are getting the help.

Two years ago, The Bee asked questions like these in a series of stories about small towns that have waited years to get funding to fix drinking water problems.

Who will get the money? How is it prioritized? Are the water systems with the most needs getting the help? What is the holdup?

We found towns, such as Seville in Tulare County, that had been bounced to lower priorities over technicalities and delayed for years.

The state rejected a request for a $500,000 grant because the town’s water company had gone bankrupt, and county governments are not allowed to apply for residents.

Progress has been made for funding in Seville over the last 18 months, but there hasn’t been a fix. People with poverty-level incomes are still forced to buy bottled water.

In another instance, the California Department of Public Health, which holds the purse strings, balked at a regional water cleanup that would have helped several towns with contaminated wells. Again, technical reasons were cited.

The concern about the state’s approach has always been about transparency and accountability. Now EPA says it wants to know about nearly a half billion dollars of public money. The state has 60 days to address that concern.