Impoverished rural town of Monson getting water filters

The Fresno BeeSeptember 16, 2012 

Like many small towns in Tulare County, Monson has hit a wall with the state over getting clean water to drink, but there is good news for the 200 residents in the impoverished community.

Local Rotary Clubs are paying for extensive water filters in each home -- a service the organizations usually provide for Third World communities coping with squalid conditions. Members decided it was time to help Monson.

"We just want families to have healthy drinking water," said Patrick Isherwood, president of Sunrise Rotary Club of Tulare. "The filters will last a few years."

Local authorities hope it gives them enough time to solve the funding maze of the California Department of Public Health (CDPH), the agency doling out the public money.

Monson and other small towns -- Seville, Orosi, East Orosi and Tooleville -- wrestle with widespread contamination from nitrates from fertilizers, septic tanks, animal waste and decaying vegetation. Nitrates can cause a potentially fatal blood disease in infants. They also are linked to cancer.

But rural towns needing state help with water fixes face years of technical delays.

In Monson, where there is no public water system, county leaders would like to connect residents to nearby Sultana's water district.

The state says no. The town needs to form its own water system to qualify for the public funding, which comes from a federal source.

But townfolk may not be able to afford a public water system. And there may not even be enough registered voters to form a governing board.

Britt L. Fussel, assistant director of county public works, said it's more likely that the county would turn Monson over to an existing commercial water provider in the area.

"We wrote a letter about it to CDPH in August," Fussel said. "We haven't heard anything yet. We're just trying to keep all the options open."

It's the kind of technicality that has hung up water cleanups in other rural towns. The Fresno Bee published a series of stories last October pointing out such delays.

After The Bee series, Dr. Ronald Chapman, CDPH director, visited Monson to offer hope.

Now the department confirms Monson will need some kind of water system before it can receive $500,000 to study its options. The study could investigate a possible connection to Sultana, CDPH said.

Activists don't buy that interpretation. Maria Herrera, program director with the Visalia-based Community Water Center, said her group is awaiting clarification from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

"We've wasted precious months," she said. "It's the same kind of problem we see over and over. Who knows when this will be settled?"

For Tulare County towns, the technical delays have meant years of reliance on bottled water, even though California voters have approved millions of dollars for drinking-water fixes.

Many families spend up to 10% of their income to buy safe drinking water.

But soon Monson will be spared that expense. Plumbers and other expert volunteers from Rotary will teach residents how to maintain their new filtration systems. Water in each home will be tested before and after the system installation.

"It's bad water here," said Madram Shuaibi, who owns the Monson Market. "I've tried to have water dispensers with filters, but even they go bad after a short time."

Rotary leaders say an advanced filtering system will be under kitchen sinks for residents and for Shuaibi's market. The units lower nitrates by nearly 90% and make the water safe to drink.

Called a reverse osmosis system, tainted water is forced through a high-tech membrane that traps contaminants but allows water to pass. Maintenance costs about $25 for filter replacement after several months. Once a year, replacement of the high-tech membrane costs a little more than $100.

Those costs are considered hundreds of dollars cheaper annually than buying drinking water.

The $15,000 to bankroll the filtration systems came from private donors and corporate donations, said Rotary leader Isherwood, who works for Visalia-based Self Help Enterprises, a nonprofit group aimed at helping residents with housing rehabilitation.

Said Isherwood: "The filter systems are not a long-term solution for Monson. We're interested in protecting children, the elderly and families right now."

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

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