Solutions to tap-water crisis frustratingly tough to come by

October 3, 2011 

Don't expect a rush to clean up the tap-water mess in the San Joaquin Valley, say those closest to the problems.

The issues are being studied, litigated and, according to many small-town residents, avoided.

It might take more than a decade of unsnarling red tape before rural residents can stop lugging home five-gallon bottles of drinking water, says the nonprofit watchdog Community Water Center in Visalia.

That just doesn't work, say folks in small towns.

So what would?

Several answers emerge from interviews with water engineers, local leaders, water system managers and the residents themselves:

  • Fix as many existing water problems as possible right now so people can stop buying bottled water. Drill new wells for some towns. Replace pipes for others. Make the water safe, at least temporarily.
  • Figure out how to get river water to people. It's the long-term fix, eliminating the reliance on tainted groundwater. It would require capturing extra water in wet years, possibly by allowing it to seep into underground basins called water banks. Farmers would use banked underground water, allowing some of their river water to go to people.
  • Provide a one-stop place where state and local leaders can find the information they need to understand and compare each town's money request. Prioritize the problems.
  • Clarify often confusing rules and priorities of the California Department of Public Health, which doles out money for fixes.

Assembly Member Henry T. Perea says these ideas should have been set in motion by now.

"Studies are nice, but I think we have enough information in front of us to know the problem exists," said Perea, whose district includes several small Tulare County towns.

Perea's Assembly Bill 983 -- waiting for the governor's signature -- would help small towns get full state funding for rebuilding their water systems. At the moment, they can only get 80% of the funding from the California Department of Public Health. Some towns can't afford the other 20%.

Full funding won't fix the bureaucratic morass that keeps money from going to known problems, though.

A top state official, Hanford native Diana Dooley, said the state is aware of the nitrate problem and is "streamlining" its funding process for grants and loans to small towns.

But the emailed statement from Dooley, secretary of California Health and Human Services Agency, to The Fresno Bee did not carry the kind of urgency that residents crave.

"With recent increases in federal funding and resources from Proposition 84, we expect to substantially address nitrate issues in public water systems over the next decade, if funding remains at current levels and affordable solutions can be identified," she said.

The state has taken some action. Officials have approved a $2 million study, led by Tulare County, to account for the cleanup problems needed in a 6,000-square-mile swath of the Valley from the San Joaquin River to the Grapevine. The region is called the Tulare Lake Basin.

But the study won't be complete until 2013. Solutions might take years to fund and build.

The state needs to do more, water activists say. They say the state Department of Public Health needs to update the Safe Water Drinking Plan, which targets the needs of smaller water systems.

The department is supposed to update the plan every five years, providing the latest information for decision-makers. The last update was in the mid-1990s.

The legal watchdog California Rural Legal Assistance, representing small-town residents, is suing over it in Fresno County.

Said the plaintiff's attorney, Kara Brodfuehrer: "This plan is very important because it outlines all the problems, identifies funding sources and takes into account the affordability of the solving the problems."

Affordability is a key, says Tulare County Supervisor Allen Ishida, who has taken a lead role in water cleanup for his county. Towns must be able to pay for maintenance and updates to any fixes.

Ishida said he wants to see regional solutions, such as hooking small towns to larger city systems. He said longer-term thinking is needed as well.

He cited western Tulare County's troubles with arsenic. Because of tighter standards, the area might be better off getting river water instead of building treatment plants for the underground water.

He said he knows that would take a long time, but it might be cheaper in the long run than building treatment plants for ever-tightening water standards on arsenic.

"Government has been very reactive but never looked at long-term solutions," Ishida said. "Everybody's trying to address problems on an individual basis. It's time to look at a bigger picture."

It is also time for the state to take leadership, says lawyer Laurel Firestone, co-director of the Community Water Center in Visalia.

She said 75% of the water systems with nitrate violations in California are in the Valley. Yet the state lacks any kind of plan to address the problem, she said.

"Right now, all they have is a project list for current projects, few of which seem to be actually moving," Firestone said. "And at the end of 10 years, there will likely be at least $150 million more in projects waiting."

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

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