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.

Proposed fix for Drinking Water Program fades behind political scene

The proposal to replace California Department of Public Health as guardian for the state’s drinking water quietly slipped away last week, dying in a committee. Assembly Bill 145 didn’t even come to a vote in the state Senate.

Drinking water advocates and many people living in small San Joaquin Valley towns are disappointed over the failure of the bill, which never came out of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Small-town residents must buy bottled water to replace tainted tap water.

AB 145, introduced by Henry T. Perea, D-Fresno, would have moved the Drinking Water Program responsibilities to the State Water Resources Control Board, an enforcement agency that already deals with dirty water throughout the state.

The California Department of Public Health administers the program that is known in the Valley as a foot-dragging bureaucracy.

But the agency had support from larger California cities and the Association of California Water Agencies. The water association said the water program works well in many places and needed a more “targeted approach” to solve problems. Their opposition to AB 145 had been clear in the last few months.

Thousands of residents in poor Valley communities have suffered with tainted water as their towns waded through years of bureaucratic red tape at the department of public health.

For those residents, this was like another rebuff on a technicality, say advocates.

“This bill was a game-changer that would have had long-term benefits for communities that are ignored under the current system,” said Maria Herrera, community advocate for the Visalia-based Community Water Center.

Under the Department of Public Health, funding applications for feasibility studies take years. This year, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency demanded a spending plan for $455 million of unused federal money entrusted to the department.

Public health officials responded with a spending plan, saying they are streamlining their efforts to move faster.

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.

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.

Activists challenge new ag groundwater order

The tug of war over California’s groundwater continues over a 1 million-acre swath of the San Joaquin Valley, north of the Fresno area.

For the last decade, the state has studied and discussed ways to protect groundwater beneath farm fields. The Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board late last year issued hard-fought orders for several thousand farmers north of the San Joaquin River.

Activists in early January told the state the orders don’t do the job, and they need to be rewritten.

Activists say farm chemicals and pollution would continue to pollute the water, monitoring would be inadequate and people in small towns would have to continue living with poor drinking water quality.

They asked that authorities stop the new orders for the East San Joaquin Water Quality Coalition in Madera, Merced and Stanislaus counties.

The petitioners are community groups, including Asociacion de Gente por El Agua (AGUA), Fairmead Community and Friends, and Planada en Accion.

These challenges take time. The state will have nine months to respond.

If the challenge is denied, the next stop is probably Superior Court in Sacramento. The lawyers who filed the petition with the state are Laurel Firestone of the Community Water Center and Phoebe Seaton of California Rural Legal Assistance.

The petition notes that it has been 13 years since legislation was passed requiring farm groundwater regulation. The disputes over the program may take a few more years to resolve.

This is the first large coalition in the Valley to come under the groundwater program.


Perea wants to streamline water funding for small towns

After years of delays and confusion over state funding to fix dirty drinking water, a lawmaker says it’s time to make this easier for rural San Joaquin Valley towns.

Assemblymember Henry T. Perea, D-Fresno, introduced Assembly Bill 145 Friday, aimed at having the State Water Resources Control Board take over. It’s a streamlining move, Perea says. The state water board already is a water policing agency.

The state water board would replace the California Department of Public Health, a $3 billion bureaucracy tasked with 150 different functions handling everything from hospital licensing to regulating the movement of radioactive material.

The state public health agency was the biggest roadblock to getting funds, according to town leaders and many others involved in the process.

The Fresno Bee’s 2011 stories detailed several cities that have been trying for years to get funding from the public health department for drinking water cleanup. In such towns as Seville in Tulare County, drinking bottled water is a way of life.

Nitrates from fertilizers, animal waste and septic systems are the most common problems in the water.

“Some towns have been able to get funding, but some have been lost in the bureaucratic stream,” said Perea, who has expressed frustration about the public health department’s efforts.

Look for these stories in 2013

A year ago, the Sierra snowpack was an anemic 20% of normal. Now it’s a whopping 146%.

At this time last year, the San Joaquin Valley was gasping through a 44-day siege of federal air violations — dangerous soot and debris. This year, the Valley only had five violations in December.

California’s capricious weather makes all the difference.

At the same time, some things I cover in the Earth Log and in the news columns have not changed much. My beat has had a kidney stone of a year. Thankfully, it has passed. But 2013 might be more of the same.

— The complex San Joaquin River restoration continues to move forward. Experiments included trapping adult salmon and hauling them upstream near Fresno to spawn. The billion-dollar restoration still lags behind the initial and ambitious timetable. Many big projects, such as replacing Sack Dam, are expected to make progress this year.

— A dozen years after setting aside more than 300,000 acres for the Giant Sequoia National Monument, people are still arguing about how to manage it. The latest plan was released during 2012. The Sierra Club and others have appealed the plan.

— Yosemite National Park has an even longer-running discussion. A dozen years ago, I wrote a story about the park’s Merced River protection plan — which was already about a decade late. I lose track of how many times it has been rewritten by court order. By July 2013, the National Park Service is supposed to have another plan out. This might be the one that finally gets through.

— Dozens of cities are now lined up to sue Dow Chemical and Shell Oil, the manufacturers of a now-defunct farm fumigant. The fumigant contained a chemical called 1,2,3-trichloropropane or TCP, a powerful cancer-linked toxin. It’s in the drinking water across a wide swath of the Valley, including Fresno, Clovis, Bakersfield and a host of other cities. It may take hundreds of millions of dollars to protect the public.

— Small towns throughout the Valley still wait for the California Department of Public Health for funding to clean up nitrates in their drinking water. Nitrates come from fertilizers, septic systems, animal waste and rotting vegetation. A University of California study says the problem threatens drinking water for 250,000 people.

— Kettleman City, the Latino town in western Kings County, has its own special water problem. It needs the financial help of Chemical Waste, the owner of the hazardous waste landfill near town. The landfill needs to expand so it can offer the financial help. But plenty of Kettleman residents would rather see that landfill close.

— The San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District approved a new plan to clear up tiny specks of pollution called PM-2.5. As they often do, environmentalists did not think the plan was tough enough. That’s often a prelude to a legal challenge — a very familiar scenario.