Is safe drinking water in rural Tulare County emerging from red tape?

The Fresno BeeAugust 25, 2013 

Chris Kapheim, the head of Alta Irrigation District, worked a decade on getting fresh Kings River water for seven northern Tulare County towns where people fear their tainted tap water.

He succeeded in getting the water, but many more years may pass before people are drinking it.

River water needs to be treated before going to people's taps. But for years, a treatment plant project has been lost in a bureaucratic Bermuda Triangle. It has been a struggle to even get public money for a feasibility study.

"We've done our part," said Kapheim, general manager of Alta. "But for whatever reason, nothing else has seemed to go quickly on this project."

Could that be changing? The California Department of Public Health, which doles out public money for drinking water fixes, says it is on the verge of funding the feasibility study.

RELATED: "Don't Drink the Water" special report

Accused of footdragging for years in the San Joaquin Valley, the agency said in an email last week: "CDPH expects a planning funding agreement for the regional portion of the feasibility study to be issued shortly."

A previous attempt at such funding in 2011 looked promising, too. It folded after many months of seemingly good cooperation between public health officials and the communities.

Public health ultimately dropped the application low on the funding priority list, saying the effort was led by a utility district that was actually in compliance with water standards at the time.

Now, Tulare County is leading, but the furor following the 2011 decision and technical delays in state funding for other towns led to Assembly Bill 145, introduced by Assembly Members Henry T. Perea, D-Fresno, and Anthony Rendon, D-Lynwood.

The bill — on hold for the moment in Senate appropriations — would move drinking water programs from the Department of Public Health to the State Water Resources Control Board.

"We need to create a water governance structure we can hold accountable," Perea said this year.

Water activists in Tulare County support the bill. At the same time, they say they appreciate the state carefully considering the treatment plant, taking into account the amount of water available, the costs and the rural communities' ability to pay for maintenance.

"I just wish CDPH had done this a few years ago," said Maria Herrera of the Community Water Center, an advocacy group based in Visalia. "The process is not clear."

The public health agency has been working with northern Tulare County and the towns, according to Mark Starr, deputy director of CDPH's Center for Environmental Health.

"CDPH is currently addressing most of the water systems in the proposal by providing funds for studies, new wells and/or treatment," he said in an email. "CDPH requested a meeting last October with all stakeholders that resulted in the current regional feasibility process."

The health department has taken flak in the past few years about delays.

In 2011, The Bee published a series of stories called "Don't Drink the Water" that revealed frustrations in Tulare County and documenting delays in public funding from the Department of Public Health.

This year, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency publicly scolded the state health department for not investing more than $450 million in federal drinking water improvement money in California. The department in June issued a plan to use more than $800 million by 2016.

Many of the seven towns in northern Tulare County — Cutler, Orosi, East Orosi, Monson, Seville, Sultana and Yettem — have experienced delays in getting healthy water. The combined population of all the towns and homes in outlying areas is estimated at about 15,000.

Kings River water and a regional treatment plant probably would solve their contamination problems.

The region's underground water is tainted with nitrates, a chemical resulting from farm fertilizers, septic systems, dairy waste, waste treatment plants and rotting vegetation.

Nitrates have been linked to cancer, birth defects and a potentially deadly blood disease in infants, called blue baby syndrome. Even when town wells are pumping healthy water, residents do not trust their water supply.

For the past decade or so, the small water systems in these towns have been wading through the state bureaucracy for public money to drill new wells or try to hook up with a nearby community that has safe supplies.

Experts say it makes more sense to get Kings River water to bring the drinking water into compliance with standards. The treated river water could be blended with town well water, a common way to dilute contamination and meet water quality standards.

The extra river water would come through water banking. Alta Irrigation District would allow excess water to seep into the ground on wet years. Farmers could use the water in the groundwater bank, thus freeing up river water for communities.

The district obtained nearly $4 million in state money to set up extraction wells and other parts of the banking project.

Engineer Dennis Keller, who represents Orosi Utility Public District, said the plant could cost between $17 million and $20 million. If the feasibility study starts soon, it could be constructed and ready to go in five or six years, he said.

"Bottom line, if everything falls into place, it's still a number of years away," Keller said.


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

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