Red tape ties up possible relief from dirty water

October 3, 2011 

SEVILLE -- Turn on the tap in Seville. Sand might pour into sinks, toilets and shower stalls. Children aren't allowed to use drinking fountains at school. Water pipes lie cracked and exposed in a murky irrigation ditch.

It doesn't take a water engineer to see something has gone terribly wrong here. And it's not just sand and bacteria in the pipes. There are chemicals in this water that can cause a possibly fatal blood disease in babies.

For more than a decade, people have been using this dirty water for bathing, cooking and sometimes drinking.

Seville's problem would be a dark chapter for any California county, even without the spotlight that came with a U.N. investigation in March. But this is not just an isolated mess in a small town off the beaten track. Seville is a poster child for many small communities lost in a bureaucratic maze, asking for help from state, federal and local agencies.

Even something as simple as drilling a new well can take years.

"Do people have to wait their whole lives for changes?" asked Susana DeAnda, co-director of the Community Water Center, a nonprofit environmental group in Visalia.

Many residents of Seville and dozens of other small, San Joaquin Valley towns consider themselves victims of neglect.

"We need help, but no one has been listening," said Seville resident Rebecca Quintana.

They say no agency has the responsibility to respond to their pleas for help. They want a one-stop solution with little political interference. And they say it should not take years.

Engineers say the people of Seville and other small communities are not asking for rocket science. There are fixes readily available.

For Seville and surrounding towns, there already are plans on the books to build a regional treatment plant that could provide water from the Kings River.

The real hurdle is navigating rules to apply for the money -- which means towns must hire engineers and lawyers to cross a bureaucratic minefield. Miss a step, enter the wrong project number, misunderstand a technical communication, and the application blows up.

Frustrated in Seville

There are few better examples of small-town frustration than Seville, a citrus-belt community named after a type of orange that is considered bitter.

Just this year, funding to fix the town's chronic problems seems to have been available, then yanked away, then made available again -- on two different projects.

Seville's water problems could easily be addressed by hooking up with a regional treatment plant that would provide Kings River water. Many towns in the north Tulare region also could benefit.

But the California Department of Public Health in January gave the project low priority on the funding list for an essential $500,000 study -- due to a technicality.

"This was a short-sighted decision," said engineer Dennis Keller, who works with the cities in the area. "A regional solution helps everyone involved."

State lawmaker Henry T. Perea, whose Assembly district includes the town, wrote a letter a few months later asking state health officials to move the north county area back up the priority list to fund the study for water treatment.

"If the state public health department continues to turn a blind eye to Tulare County, I will be looking at legislation to correct it," he said at the time.

But by the time Perea had sent his letter, health agency officials said they had already moved the $500,000 study back up the funding priority list. The funding has not yet been granted, but it is under consideration.

The water-treatment plant could provide fresh, healthy water for Seville, Yettem, Orosi, Cutler and East Orosi -- an obvious consolidation of service that the state would normally applaud. So why did the state waffle?

Because the lead applicant, Orosi, had managed to clear up its persistent water problem -- for the time being -- with a new well.

Experts say it's only a matter of time before Orosi's wells will again have the same nitrate problem as the other nearby towns. The entire region has nitrates moving through the underground water.

State officials did not reveal how the technicality was cleared up, but an application from a different town probably would work, say experts on such water grants and loans. The money still has not been approved, according to activists working with Seville.

If the $500,000 comes through, it will open the door to providing Kings River water to the region. The effort is led by the Alta Irrigation District, which delivers irrigation water to farmers.

The water would not come from irrigation allotments, said Alta manager Chris Kapheim. Instead, extra river water will be allowed to seep into the ground after wet winters, such as last year. It is called water banking.

Alta already has established a small ground-water banking site and a second is in the works. It would take five years to complete the water-treatment plant.

The higher-quality river water would be blended with the well water, a common way to dilute chemical contamination and meet water-quality targets.

For residents to have any peace of mind about their tap water, many believe this is the only long-term solution that makes sense.

"They really need water," said Kapheim.

But that isn't Seville's only hang-up this year with the state public health department.

Public-health officials dropped another project for the town, based again on a technicality. The town was applying for study money to start rebuilding its decaying piping system and drill a new well.

State officials rejected the application because the town's private water company had gone bankrupt and Tulare County was running it.

The town was applying for funds under the wrong category. Residents would have to form their own community-service district to get the money.

When asked about the situation, state officials replied by email, saying they would not explain the decision or talk about the details. Officials said they were working out details with Seville.

Now, the study funding for the Seville distribution system and new well is back on the table as part of a different proposal. The result, however, is still the same. The town waits for state action on its application.

Tooleville's long negotiation

About 15 miles south of Seville, Tooleville residents have been living at least a decade with bad water. The problem comes and goes, leaving people to wonder when it's safe to drink from the tap.

Over the past five years, townfolk negotiated to get safe water by connecting with Exeter, a city of 10,000 about two miles northwest. Tooleville residents want to become Exeter water customers. Exeter officials say they want to help.

The hang-up: Exeter has long feared costs would rise for its own residents. The fear persists even though state law has been changed twice to address one of the main issues -- prevailing wage law.

As a charter city, Exeter is exempt from paying high prevailing wages required in California. But if Exeter had extended its service beyond city limits several years ago, it would have violated charter city status. Residents might have been forced to absorb an overall 30% increase in labor costs.

In 2005, legislators passed a law that says Exeter would continue to get a charter-city exemption if it provided water services to a disadvantaged community.

Exeter officials still felt vulnerable and refused. In 2009, state legislators passed another law that preserves the exemption for any charter city, as long as disadvantaged communities are involved.

Exeter leaders then worried about future costs of billing and maintenance, said Mayor Ted Macaulay.

"Who knows what those costs would be in the coming years?" he asked. "But there are other options. We could sell a well to Tooleville, and they would get good water from it. As far as we're concerned, the negotiations continue."

Tooleville's lawyer, Laurel Firestone of the Community Water Center, said there is more to the story. She said the community has been trying to negotiate a solution with the city for five years and is not much closer to agreement than when they started. She said she obtained a tentative agreement with Exeter city staffers in 2009 to get a water line from Exeter to Tooleville. But the city administrator, staff attorney and public works director left Exeter shortly after the agreement, she said.

The agreement fell through before there was any discussion at the city council, and the process started again almost from square one. Exeter's council never voted on the project.

Firestone said negotiations again broke down this year over costs to provide service. She said Exeter is unwilling to tell her the operational cost of providing water to Tooleville residents, who would pay for the entire expense.

She says residents now are pursuing what may be a more expensive publicly funded option -- up to $2.8 million in state grants and loans to drill a new well.

"We have helped pass two separate pieces of legislation for the city and offered hundreds of thousands of dollars for additional water supply, but five years later we still cannot get basic information from the city on costs," Firestone said. "At some point, we just need to move forward with or without them."

How many more?

Seville and Tooleville are only two examples of drinking-water problems confronting thousands of people living in small towns, trailer parks and farmworker camps across the Valley, said Firestone.

As state officials, paid consultants, activists and residents wrestle for years with the bureaucracy to fix these problems, what about the people in these small towns? Are they getting sick or dying younger?

No one has ever studied the long-term effects. The costs are too high to justify years of study.

Drinking water advocates say there's no need to wait for scientific proof that people are harmed by nitrate contamination. Healthy water should be a basic human right, Firestone said.

"We've been working with cities for a decade," she said. "They need good drinking water. People shouldn't have to wait for something like this."

The reporter can be reached at mgrossi@fresnobee.com or (559) 441-6316.

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