A California town could finally get clean water – if its neighbor is willing to help

The 80 homes that make up Tooleville nestle against the mighty Friant-Kern Canal, thousands of gallons of fresh water flowing each day past the two-street town.

But none of that water can help Tooleville’s decades-old problem of contaminated water, chronicled at the start of this decade in a three-part series by The Bee on the San Joaquin Valley water crisis.

Nearby Exeter might, though, giving a rise of newfound hope.

The last year has proven to be the most productive in the town’s battle. Members of the Tooleville Mutual Nonprofit Water Association, with help from other organizations, have lobbied the neighboring city of Exeter for help. Last May, Exeter agreed to undergo a review of its own water system and consider a connection for Tooleville.

After years of unwillingness from city leaders, residents now hope the several parts in motion could soon fix Tooleville’s troubles. Exeter City Council meetings are regularly attended by members of the water board along with other interested residents.

And they’re getting help. Pedro Hernandez, policy advocate with Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability, has intervened on behalf of Tooleville as it negotiates with its neighbor a mile to the west, a slow-moving process that residents are glad is at least a possibility.

Pedro Hernandez, policy advocate for Leadership Council for Justice and Accountability, points to the far distance as water flows past him on Friday, April 12, 2019 near Tooleville, CA. Hernandez is fighing for Tooleville citizens’ right to clean water and finds it ironic a source of fresh water flows within yards of Tooleville homes, barred by fencing. ERIC PAUL ZAMORA ezamora@fresnobee.com

Residents in Tooleville say they have felt a sense of relief ever since Leadership Counsel stepped in. They’ve also been aided by Self-Help Enterprises. Delay after delay, it has been the outside help that has kept things moving forward in the tiring process, residents said.

“It’s very hard to live in these conditions,” said Yolanda Cuevas, a Tooleville resident and member of the Tooleville Mutual Nonprofit Water Association, the town’s community-run water system. “If I had the money to move out, I would do it.”

Yolanda Cuevas, resident of Tooleville in rural Tulare County, is also a member of the Tooleville Nonprofit Mutual Water Association. Photographed Friday, April 12, 2019 in Tooleville, CA. ERIC PAUL ZAMORA ezamora@fresnobee.com

It’s been almost one year since Cuevas and her husband Benjamin Cuevas Martinez moved into their home on Spruce Road. If they had known their water wouldn’t be clean, they would have chosen to live elsewhere, they said.

The problem

Two recent Consumer Confidence Reports on Tooleville’s water system indicated contaminants were present in the water, as they have been for years. Tooleville’s location, an area with a high concentration of pesticides from surrounding citrus groves, doesn’t help in combating the issue.

The most recent water assessment conducted by Tulare County Department of Health Services showed the town’s water had nitrate levels above 5 milligrams per liter but under 10, a level that is in compliance with state and federal standards but still concerning to residents.

There were traces of coliform bacteria, a sign of sewage contamination, which has potential to cause diseases; the county report showed Tooleville’s water system was out of compliance three months in 2017. The report also found a high volume of hexavalent chromium, an unregulated contaminant that experts believe can cause cancer if consumed over many years.

A bleach odor in the water and rashes that appear after showers are just some of the immediate problems with living with contaminated water, Cuevas said. During laundry, black clothes often lose their color. Rumors swirl that the water causes children’s hair to thin. And cooking requires extra steps in order to avoid washing meats and vegetables with the kitchen sink water.

In past years, Tooleville has been close to getting state funds to address its water problem, only to be left in the dust each time due to technicalities beyond local control.

As a temporary remedy, residents get shipments of 5-gallon water jugs twice a month. That’s the safe option for drinking and cooking. Cuevas said she even uses it to rinse herself after showering to wash away the contaminants that come through the pipes.

Those concerns have taken a mental toll on residents.

“It’s very, very hard,” Cuevas said. “Sometimes I get sad because I’m working and I’m not in the house to tell the kids, ‘Don’t drink that water,’ and I’m just scared that they’re going to go and wash the fruits with the faucet water and I’m not there to tell them not to do it. It’s very stressful.”

Last year, a McClatchy analysis of data from the State Water Resources Control Board found that an estimated 360,000 Californians are served by water systems with unsafe drinking water. The analysis also found that the problem was much broader when considering that 6 million Californians in the state were served by unsafe water at some point since 2012.

Residents in Tooleville have lived with the risks of unsafe water for much longer, and patience is running out. Residents here have one question in mind: Will their neighbor help them?

Downtown Exeter, shown Friday, April 12, 2019. ERIC PAUL ZAMORA ezamora@fresnobee.com

Two solutions

Two possible ways to fix Tooleville’s water problems have emerged from a back-and-forth between Hernandez and Tooleville residents and the city of Exeter in the last year and half.

The first is an option for Exeter to bill Tooleville monthly for water it sells to the small town through a master meter plan. The residents in Tooleville would still manage their own water system under that plan.

The second option is for Exeter’s full consolidation of Tooleville’s water system. That would mean the Tooleville water board would dissolve and Exeter would manage the town’s water.

Exeter City Administrator Adam Ennis said the city wants to help Tooleville, but the council doesn’t yet know how it can. A shuffle in city staff over the years has also resulted in stalling. The latest moves, though, show the city is putting aside past concerns.

A private firm has been conducting a water master plan evaluation for several months. It’s looking at Exeter’s hydraulic infrastructure and analyzing its capacity to aid, in some way, Tooleville’s water system.

“We’re trying to go through and do a comprehensive look so we really know what we’ve got,” Ennis said. “It’s a pretty big deal, so we want to understand what’s going to happen.” He said new water infrastructure, such as a new water well and pipes, will inevitably be needed under any plan to help nearby Tooleville. 

Ennis, like the Tulare Water Division, is expected to review the analysis by the private firm before it goes to the full Exeter City Council for review and possible vote.

Ennis said he’s new to the job as city administrator and has had to catch up on the previous work. At a recent council meeting, he stepped outside to speak with concerned Tooleville residents. He told them progress was being made.

Hope in Tooleville

Thinking back to that moment, Cuevas’ eyes well up. 

“Nothing is going to happen if we don’t do something about it,” she said. “So we have to do something about it. Not just for us, but for the rest of the people that live here.”

Those who make up the town’s water board say they have begun to lose confidence in their own water system and no longer see benefit in managing it or charging residents for water they should not be using.

Luckily, the monthly water rate is $40. The rate is seen as affordable since many residents have low income or are retired, like Olivera.

But there are still challenges in the small community.

The Tulare County Strategic Growth Council in 2017 assessed Tooleville and found the average income is $29,455, lower than the county’s average of $42,031 and much lower than the state’s average of $61,818.

By those standards, Tooleville falls into the category of one of the state’s “severely disadvantaged” communities. It’s data like that which has the community members pushing for change.

Maria Olivera has lived in Tooleville in rural Tulare County for a year, and is secretary of the Tooleville Nonprofit Mutual Water Association. Photographed Friday, April 12, 2019 in Tooleville, CA. ERIC PAUL ZAMORA ezamora@fresnobee.com

“We really need something serious,” said Maria Olivera, the secretary of the water board. “I am so tired, all this work that we have to do and the dirty water you can’t use.”

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Cresencio Rodriguez-Delgado is a journalist at The Fresno Bee. He covers the people and places experiencing economic and social inequity for The California Divide media collaboration. He grew up in the southern San Joaquin Valley and has a bachelor’s degree in print journalism from Fresno State.