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.”

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.”

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.

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.