LANARE -- In the early 1960s, Carrie Bonner was pregnant with her eighth child and widowed after her husband was shot dead in a juke joint here. She moved to a small rental and could never afford to leave Lanare.
That's fine with Bonner. She likes it here. Sitting in the Lanare Community Center, a leaky old building with no air conditioning or heating, the 89-year-old says she relishes her role as one of four members in the town's only church.
But, while Lanare has no more juke joints and violence now is uncommon, Bonner knows this isn't pristine country living. In the wide-open spaces of southwest Fresno County, the town of 590 is deceptively risky.
"We don't have a health clinic or sewers or even crosswalks," she says. "Two people were hit by cars and killed in the last year. And you don't drink the tap water if you can afford bottled water."
Scientists agree with Bonner. People in Lanare's ZIP code die a decade sooner than those in the Woodward Park area of northeast Fresno, according to "Place matters for health in the San Joaquin Valley," a Fresno State study released last year.
Last week, the California Environmental Protection Agency released an environmental health screening tool that places Lanare in the top 20% of the riskiest places in California. The tool includes environmental factors, such as pesticide exposure and water quality, and social situations, such as poverty and lack of education.
But the tool is not precise. It's an average of the entire 93656 zip code, which includes neighboring Riverdale. Lanare and Riverdale are only four miles apart, but they look like they belong in different centuries.
Riverdale has a high school, restaurants, shops, a bank, health clinic and 3,150 residents.
Lanare has few businesses, no municipal core, no public schools and no street lights. It is a collection of dwellings spread out on three streets along Mount Whitney Avenue.
Next to the decades-old community center -- the heart of Lanare -- is the town's biggest advance in the last decade. It's a $1.3 million water treatment plant built to filter out arsenic. But it's not being used.
The plant was shut down in early 2007 after only a few months of operation because it ran up $100,000 in operating debt that the community still is trying to pay off.
A few miles away, Riverdale also has naturally occurring arsenic in its well water, but the town is further along in getting state help to design and build an affordable treatment system.
Lanare, meanwhile, still seems years away from even the basics of a community -- a sewer system, access to health care, street improvements and retail stores. With a population that is nearly 90% Latino, it fits the profile of an unhealthy place where people need help, scientists say.
"Lanare really is a poster child as a risky, disadvantaged community," said John Capitman, executive director of the Central Valley Health Policy Institute at Fresno State.
Pulling themselves up
How did Lanare get this way?
Residents say the town always has struggled to improve. They say public neglect is part of the problem.
When Carrie Bonner came to Lanare about a half century ago, there was no water service at all. Other longtime residents, such as Ethyl Myles, 75, and Eulalia "Lala" Carbajal, 79, say there were just shacks and tents.
It was a step up from cramped farm-labor housing and camps. Everyone in Lanare worked the rich farm fields of the Valley's west side.
For decades in Lanare, these African Americans, known as "Black Okies," and Latinos would see a pattern of poverty and racism, said researcher Anne Bellows, a law student at University of California at Berkeley.
Bellows completed a narrative history of Lanare early this year. She interviewed residents and studied public documents, maps, deeds and historical accounts.
"The town was shaped by the people's determination to create a home," she said. "But there was also a background landscape of exclusion and neglect."
Due to a lack of planning by Fresno County, running water didn't arrive in Lanare until the 1970s, residents say. Residents hauled water in jugs from a local warehouse that had water or from Riverdale, they say.
"It was like you were out in the desert, like you been put out there and forgot about," said Myles in Bellows' narrative.
The residents eventually organized themselves, worked with federal lawmakers to get funding and drilled a well to create a water system.
Tents and shacks were slowly replaced with modest houses. Residents got federal loans and assistance from Self Help Enterprises, a Quaker organization. The residents joined together to build the homes. The town formed Lanare Community Services District, which ran the water system.
But Lanare's lone well pumped water tainted with arsenic, which occurs naturally in many places along the Valley's west side. The chemical has been linked to liver, lung, kidney and bladder cancer. The levels today are often nearly double the modern federal standard.
Several years ago, the town added another well. It, too, is contaminated with arsenic.
Then, the 2007 federally funded treatment plant financially flamed out, leaving the big debt. Two years later, the community services district was broke, out of options and going into receivership.
The California Department of Public Health stepped in and hired a private contractor to run Lanare's system. And residents continued to pay $54 a month for water that nobody wants to drink.
In over their heads
The failure of the $1.3 million filtering project was an embarrassment and an outrage to townfolk. They say it is the clearest example of how public oversight is needed in a farmworker town where engineering and legal expertise are scarce. But the experience has taught the town a lot about dealing with government bureaucracy.
The arsenic treatment plant was bankrolled with federal Community Development Block Grant funds. The money came to the community services district through Fresno County.
Yet even with the federal government, the county and the community services district involved, the cost of operating the plant somehow soared three times higher than the estimate from the contractor, Boyle Engineering of Fresno.
Turned out, the water system was used by more than just residents. Commercial and agricultural customers were hooked to the system, drawing large amounts of water. The system needed more electricity and chemicals, such as chlorine.
In addition, usage by each customer couldn't be tracked because water meters had not been installed on all connections.
"It was all wrong," said longtime resident Carbajal.
But Lanare has begun to emerge from the problem with help from the state government and California Rural Legal Assistance, the longtime defender of low-income, rural towns.
Lanare is now fully metered, which cost $491,238 -- all from public grant funding, according to the California Department of Public Health.
In December, the public health department approved a $500,000 agreement for a feasibility study to explore the most cost-effective, long-term solution to the water problem.
The agreement was signed in December with California Water Services of Coalinga, which the state had earlier hired to take over the Lanare water system. The possible scenarios for safe drinking water include drilling another well, hooking up with Riverdale Public Utility District or restarting the arsenic treatment plant next door to the community center. It will take 18 months to figure it out.
California Rural Legal Assistance officials note California Water Services is the creditor owed the most money on the bill for the mothballed treatment system. Will the company use its position to recoup its money ahead of other creditors?
No conflict-of-interest issue has been raised, but the company's relationship might have gone unnoticed a few years ago.
"Someone needs to be watching," said Veronica Garibay, a CRLA community education outreach coordinator.
By all accounts, though, Lanare still has a long way to go.
Isabel Solorio, 48, whose husband, Gerardo, is on the Lanare Community Services District board, said lack of government involvement in planning and improving Lanare makes no sense.
"I emigrated from Mexico," she said. "We had streetlights, clean water and an organized community. Here, we pay our taxes and our water bill. And we don't get basic services that everyone takes for granted in this golden valley."
The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6316, firstname.lastname@example.org or @markgrossi on Twitter.