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Toxic Taps

Clean Water Plan for Long-Suffering San Joaquin Valley Towns Derailed

An innovative project would see seven Tulare County towns plagued by polluted wells sharing a water treatment plant, but political infighting stalled the proposal days before a funding deadline.

Written by Mark Grossi Published on Read time Approx. 7 minutes
Canal water from Sierra snowmelt moves through Tulare County, California. A plan to help seven nearby communities with polluted groundwater wells gain access to surface water for their drinking supply recently stalled after years of effort.Tara Lohan

SEVILLE, California – Fresh Sierra mountain snowmelt would make a better drink of water for rural Tulare County folk who currently rely on wells tainted by fertilizers, leaky septic systems and decades-old pesticide residues. Nobody argues with that here in California’s San Joaquin Valley.

The problem is obtaining even a tiny fraction of the average 1.7 million acre-feet of Kings River snowmelt that heads mostly to farm fields each year. Even after securing the water, millions of dollars would be needed for a treatment plant, which is required for surface water.

But over the past several years, a rare opportunity has appeared for seven towns in northern Tulare County: Cutler, Orosi, East Orosi, Monson, Seville, Sultana and Yettem. The river water is available, and the state is willing to help build the treatment plant for the 17,000 people in these towns.

Clustered together in a broad, rural citrus belt, the towns have been suffering from contaminated wells for at least two decades. Children here are taught not to drink from the tap, and families living below the federal poverty line have often been forced to spend up to 10 percent of their income on bottled water. When the drought hit, wells dried up, leaving people in more misery.

Now, after enduring years of contamination, a devastating drought and the scuttling of a similar project six years ago due to a legal technicality, these rural residents are on the verge of replacing polluted groundwater with unsullied river water.

A regional water treatment system shared among several rural towns would be a first for the San Joaquin Valley, but it is threatened by self-inflicted delays and local political slowdowns, including one that last month stalled the estimated $30 million treatment plant.

This time the conflict is a home-grown squabble over the benefits of the treatment plant. The two largest towns, Cutler and Orosi, stand together in pushing for the majority of the benefits in perpetuity, leaving the five smaller communities on the opposing side. People on both sides are deflated, but still dedicated to building the plant.

One of them is Argelia Flores, a resident in Seville, one of the smaller five towns. She served on the committee to set up the owner-operator agency for the treatment plant.

“This treatment plant is a very good idea, and probably a necessity in future droughts – it is so hard to live without water in your home,” she says. “We thought this was going well until last month. But we’re not giving up.”

River water instead of groundwater is perhaps the most elegant long-term solution to the chronic contamination of drinking-water wells in this farm belt. The state’s 2014 groundwater sustainability law won’t protect the groundwater supply for another two decades and treating the contamination is too costly for small communities.

Around the San Joaquin Valley, many rural communities with contaminated or dried-up wells are connecting with bigger cities. One example is the Matheny Tract just outside the city of Tulare.

The northern Tulare County towns aren’t close enough to connect with big cities, such as Visalia, which has a population of about 130,000. The smaller five of the seven towns have stopgap measures in place that would have served residents until the river water treatment plant was built.

The distinctive water tower for Orosi is seen on the main street. Orosi and neighbor Cutler are two of the biggest towns in a seven-town deal to try and share a new drinking water treatment plant in Tulare County, California. (Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor)

The towns of Seville and Yettem are working together on a well. The town of Monson is getting a new well and distribution system, and soon will join nearby Sultana’s community service district. East Orosi is also working on a new well. Engineers say those projects are vulnerable to the same fate as other wells in the area – nitrate contamination from agricultural fertilizers. But folks were hoping to have the treatment plant built by 2020, to ensure a long-term solution.

Instead, Cutler and Orosi pulled out of the water treatment project talks just days shy of a deadline to acquire $250,000 for planning through a $7.5 billion state water bond, Proposition 1.

What happened? According to the revised contract language circulated at a meeting among the attorneys, the lawyer for Orosi Public Utility District proposed the benefits of the water treatment plant should remain in perpetuity as they were initially allocated – proportionately by population size. Cutler and Orosi have 80 percent of the 17,000 residents who would be served. But the numbers might change in future years as communities grow, opponents argued.

Before lawyers became involved in the negotiations this year, representatives of the seven towns had a tentative agreement to give Orosi and Cutler a majority vote on the board of a new agency that would own and operate the treatment plant.

But Orosi’s lawyer, Moses Diaz, sought to add the language about water benefits, according to a source familiar with the negotiations. Diaz did not respond to requests for comment.

Ryan Jensen of the nonprofit Community Water Center in Visalia worked with the communities for many months, trying to set up the new agency. He says informal polls of the communities show 85 percent of the people in the area want the project, and many are surprised and disappointed.

“If local leaders can’t take a strong project proposal and carry it through to develop shovel-ready projects, they won’t be in a position to take advantage of new opportunities for construction funding,” he says. “And the funding will pass by our valley communities.”

Jose Guerrero, a board member for the Cutler Public Utilities District, says there is talk of Cutler and Orosi moving forward with the project on their own. He says Cutler has been working on the water treatment concept since 2004.

“This is something the community needs,” he says. “But there was a disagreement among the lawyers about how the treatment project should be shared. It’s disheartening, but we have the greater population, and we have the greater need to serve more people.”

If Cutler and Orosi move forward on the project together, it would leave the other five towns vulnerable to continued contamination and dried-up wells. During the drought, Monson residents Ben and Lazara Luengas saved water any way they could – which meant their landscaping died and water was rationed for bathing, laundry, dishwashing and other household needs.

“It’s very hard,” Lazara says. “They delivered water to a big tank for us to use. You shower every day and do laundry once a week. But there isn’t much water left over for anything.”

The water treatment idea has run aground before. In 2007, the local Alta Irrigation District of Dinuba designed a plan to use some of its own Kings River water for towns in the area. Orosi, which had long been pursuing the river water along with Cutler, would be the lead applicant for grant money from the state.

Funding efforts languished on the state’s priority list until a highly publicized visit to the area from the United Nations in March 2011. A U.N. representative toured Seville, taking note of the crumbling, century-old distribution pipes and the town’s only well, which was contaminated. The U.N. urged California to act quickly in cleaning up the water.

The state publicly agreed, but then quietly balked again, citing a funding technicality: The funding would not be high priority because the lead applicant, Orosi, had a water supply that was not currently out of compliance with standards.

Local engineers unsuccessfully argued it was only a matter of time before Orosi would be out of compliance again. Months later, the seven communities got together and tried to obtain funding with the county taking the lead, but the delays and false starts continued throughout 2012 and 2013.

It has been frustrating for residents, because Alta Irrigation District’s plan to deliver about 23,000 acre-feet is still ready to go. The water would come from excess river runoff from wet winters, such as the latest wet season. The runoff would be allowed to percolate into two groundwater holding areas, which could be pumped for farm irrigation. The seven towns would get fresh river water that would not have to be sent to farms. State officials are confident Alta could make the deliveries even during droughts.

“In California, you always figure the tough part is getting the water,” retired Alta general manager Chris Kapheim said last year. “Not this time.”

The pain of the recent five-year drought changed minds. The state altered the management of funding for water fixes, making it more responsive to helping these impoverished towns.

Chad Fischer, Tulare district engineer for the California State Water Resources Control Board, which is involved in funding, says he, too, was surprised the seven towns could not reach an agreement in June. But he says the door is not closed on funding.

“It is a good project, aligned with State Water Resources Control Board’s approach,” he says. “I want to see this go through.”

Tulare county supervisor Steve Worthley, who has been involved in the project, says the group of five smaller towns might improve their chances by finding a larger community to join their effort – perhaps Dinuba, which has about 24,000 residents.

Would the state have to someday choose between a Cutler-Orosi application or an application from the smaller five? Fischer declines to comment. But he says, “We would prefer that the seven communities work together because it makes more sense for the region.”

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