Fresno Bee Newsroom Blog

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.

Another study links dirty drinking water, small Valley towns

The evidence keeps mounting that people living in impoverished, Latino towns around the San Joaquin Valley are in danger if they drink water out of their taps.

Researchers this year linked dirty drinking water with many towns, such as Seville, Orosi and Tooleville in Tulare County. The culprit is widespread nitrates, which come from fertilizers, septic systems, animal waste and rotting vegetation.

This month, a new study reveals people living in similar communities also are at a high risk of drinking arsenic in their water.

Arsenic is routinely found in the water of such towns as Lanare in Fresno County, Kettleman City in Kings County and Alpaugh in Tulare County.  It is linked to skin, lung, bladder and kidney cancer. More recently, it has been connected to diabetes.

The lead researcher in the latest study is Carolina Balazs of the University of California at Berkeley.

She said, “We found that across the Valley, lower income communities had higher arsenic levels than their wealthier counterparts. These same systems may be the least equipped to comply with drinking water standards in the future, leaving residents at continual risk of exposure.”

California’s approach to cleaning up the problem has fallen far short for many years, say those living in the communities. A plan to build a water treatment plant in Tulare County has been caught in funding snafus with the California Department of Public Health for more than a year.

Balazs says California needs a new, well-funded approach over the long-term.

“In the meantime,” she said, “interim solutions need to be put in place so that residents of small communities are protected from dangerous contaminants like arsenic.”