State officials, Monson residents meet about bad water

October 25, 2011 

MONSON – Lala Luengas and her husband, Benjamin, have been waiting 20 years for a new well and safe water in their farmworker town north of Visalia.

They are still waiting, they told a state official who toured their town of 200 on Tuesday.

The well water here is often laced with chemicals that come from sewage, farm fertilizers and dairy waste – a common problem in many parts of Tulare County.

Now in their 70s, the Luengas haven't given up on getting safe water, but their reasons have changed.

"At our age, we're already on our way out," Benjamin said in Spanish through a translator. "We want better water for future generations."

They were among about a dozen residents who came to the Monson Market to talk about their plight. They need planning and funding to clear their water of the chemicals – dangerous nitrates and pesticides.

Dr. Ronald Chapman, director of the California Department of Public Health, listened and thanked them in Spanish.

On the job only four months, Chapman said he was there to learn about Tulare County's problems and talk about ways to deal with them.

His department doles out the money from state bonds, federal funds and grants to small water systems that need fixing in California.

In a series of Fresno Bee stories this month, the department of public health was criticized for bureaucratic bottlenecks in getting funding to the towns, many of which have waited years for help.

Assembly Member Henry T. Perea wrote Assembly Bill 983 to assure communities such as Monson 100% funding for water fixes, not just the 80% previously provided. The bill was signed into law this month.

Perea, whose district includes many rural towns, asked Chapman to visit the troubled water systems in Monson, Cutler, Orosi, Seville and Sultana. Chapman heard about technicalities that have stopped funding for projects.

And he saw the communities up close. All have had problems with nitrates in the water.

The Monson Market well, for instance, has nitrate concentrations nearly three times the safe level. Three years ago, tests on private wells in the area also showed unhealthy levels of bacteria and a now-banned pesticide called DBCP.

Monson resident Constansa Avila told Chapman and others that the town is surrounded by agriculture and dairies.

She said residents have septic systems, not a modern sewer system.

"We don't know the source of the contamination," she said in Spanish. "Our big issue is to get safe drinking water and possibly a sewer system."

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

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