Dirty water fight brewing as Central Valley city refuses to help neighboring town

The tiny South Valley community of Tooleville faced a major setback this week in its years-long struggle for clean drinking water – but advocates say the fight isn’t over.

The Exeter City Council voted unanimously to scrap plans that would move Exeter’s water system toward consolidation with neighboring Tooleville, a rural, unincorporated community of about 80 households that has struggled for years with dirty water.

The plan could have solved Tooleville’s water issues, but Exeter officials feared the additional burden on the city’s water system, which they said is already in need of repair.

“We have to take care of Exeter first,” Exeter Mayor Mary Waterman-Philpot said Wednesday, a day after the council’s vote. “We don’t have the water capacity and the ability to service another community.”

In August, the council approved the Water Master Plan, which examined the city’s water infrastructure and its capacity to serve another community.

Waterman-Philpot said the plan showed the city would need to spend millions to upgrade its water lines, forcing officials to raise water and sewer rates for Exeter residents to fund the new services. The mayor said it wouldn’t be fair to Exeter residents and the City Council is “not interested” in adding to the city’s debt or stretching its workforce to help out Tooleville.

‘Stunning’ turn of events

Michael Claiborne is an attorney with the Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability who represented the Tooleville water board during the negotiations with Exeter.

He said Exeter’s decision Tuesday night was “stunning” since the two groups seemed to be on a promising path.

“What they really did was delay for a year and a half ... and then reach a result that it appears they were always going to reach,” Claiborne said. “They (the City Council) slammed the door shut pretty hard for completely unjustified reasons.”

Claiborne said he had discussions with state officials who said they were willing to work with Exeter to address debt refinancing and paying for new infrastructure.

Mayor Waterman-Philpot said the council never got anything in writing about how the state could fund or help Exeter in aiding Tooleville.

That’s because the state can’t commit until the water project application process is complete. Either Exeter or Tooleville must first submit a planning study for review by the state, according to Bryan Potter, State Water Resources Board Tulare District Engineer.

“They need to come to an agreement if that’s what’s going to happen,” Potter said.

Decades-long water woes

Tooleville has struggled with dirty water for decades. Tulare County reports on Tooleville’s water found the system contained high concentrations of pesticides and other contaminants. And it’s not the only Central Valley community facing the issues.

Pedro Hernandez, Leadership Counsel organizer who has worked closely with the Tooleville residents, said the plan for Tooleville now is to go straight to the state and force Exeter to help Tooleville. A similar mandate was issued for the city of Tulare to consolidate with the unincorporated neighboring community of Matheny Tract in 2016.

“We are going to have to go above the City of Exeter to the state,” Hernandez said. “The state can do this and this failure to act in good faith is only building the case to mandate the consolidation.”

Advocates said they’re also exploring other funding possibilities but have yet to find a solution that doesn’t involve Exeter throwing a lifeline to Tooleville.

City Manager Adam Ennis said the council is focused on addressing the city’s budget and other city services.

“The city’s got a lot of things going on right now,” Ennis said. “They’re (the council) seeing it as not a good time to add something else.”

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.