California pledges to fix delays in passing out clean-water funds

Poor Valley towns with contamination problems stand to benefit most

The Fresno BeeJune 25, 2013 

Valeriana Alvarado takes two 5-gallon containers out to a friend's car before driving to Exeter to have them filled with fresh drinking water Tuesday, September 6, 2011. A plan announced Monday, June 24, 2013 finally promises drinking-water relief for Valley towns like Tooleville.

CRAIG KOHLRUSS — The Fresno Bee Buy Photo

The California Department of Public Health announced a plan this week to hasten the stream of federal money to drinking-water projects, a move that could benefit poor Valley towns with contamination problems.

The plan comes at the orders of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which scolded the state this spring for leaving safe drinking-water funds unspent instead of investing them in communities where drinking-water supplies are contaminated.

Residents in such rural towns as Seville in Tulare County and Kettleman City in Kings County are forced to drink bottled water because they can't afford to clean what comes out of their taps.

The state Department of Public Health had until this week to address funding bottlenecks identified by the EPA or risk losing federal dollars.

Under the plan submitted Monday, the department will dole out $84 million of some $455 million of unspent drinking-water reserves this month. In the following three years, as more money pours into the revolving fund, the department expects to disburse more than $800 million, four times what it has given out over similar periods in the past.

The plan also lays out ways the department will better track its expenditures.

"The entire administration is committed to addressing the concerns outlined by the U.S. EPA," said Kathleen Billingsley, chief deputy director of policy and programs at the Department of Public Health.

While clean-water advocates applaud proposed improvements, some remain concerned that federal dollars still won't reach their intended targets, namely the disadvantaged communities that can't afford to improve or build new water systems.

Jennifer Clary with the nonprofit Clean Water Action said that poor areas with contamination issues often don't have the wherewithal or expertise to tap into the federal funds.

"When you have an agency under pressure to give out money quickly, the easiest way to do that is give out big chunks of money," Clary said, fearing that larger, wealthier municipalities would end up the convenient recipients of the state money dumps. "The question is: will these (disadvantaged) communities be able to take advantage of this gold rush of funding."

In the state's response to the EPA, Department of Public Health Director Ron Chapman vows to provide outreach and technical assistance to poorer communities so that they're in a better position to receive federal dollars.

Chapman says that staff and money set aside for his department in the coming year's budget -- seven more people and $2.7 million, according to the state plan -- will ensure that disadvantaged areas get attention.

Several Valley communities are included in the state's funding plan, such as Kettleman City as well as Firebaugh in Fresno County and Tooleville in Tulare County. Much of the money for these areas, though, is slated for planning, with new water systems and financing of construction costs still a ways off.

"Don't Drink the Water," a three-part series in The Bee in October 2011, first discussed the delays in getting drinking-water funds to small towns, but little improvement has been made since then. (See a video from the series about one of the profiled towns here.)

More recently, "Living in a Toxic Land," The Bee's occasional series on environmental issues in the Valley, continues to put focus on tainted drinking water.

Contamination threatens the water supplies of 250,000 people in rural Valley towns.

To date, Congress has allocated California $1.5 billion for grants or loans to communities in need of water fixes.

EPA officials said Tuesday that they're in the process of reviewing the state's corrective plan and expect to have a response by Monday.

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6679, kalexander@fresnobee.com or @KurtisInValley on Twitter.

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