Fresno Bee Newsroom Blog

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.

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.”