Water & Drought

Bad drinking water in rural Valley towns 'unacceptable,' EPA chief says

The chief of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says the lingering dirty drinking water in many rural San Joaquin Valley towns would surprise people from other parts of the country.

Saying she is serious about the agency's role as a watchdog over federal clean-water funding, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said people shouldn't have to wait years for money that's already available for fixes.

"It is unacceptable," she told The Fresno Bee editorial board on Wednesday.

McCarthy stopped in Fresno as part of a statewide tour this week, listening to farmers, local leaders and some residents about many issues. The Valley's notorious water and air problems, chronicled for years by The Bee, were at the top of the list.

The new administrator, who was confirmed in July to replace Lisa Jackson, has a long history in public health, planning and environmental issues. Before ascending to lead EPA, she had been assistant administrator for the agency's Office of Air and Radiation since 2009.

McCarthy said she was pleased to see EPA's regional office taking action to help small towns with drinking-water problems.

The regional office in spring scolded the California Department of Public Health for not spending $455 million of federal money aimed at fixing drinking water systems. People in small, poor Valley towns, such as Orosi, Lanare and Kettleman City, have been forced to buy bottled water as they wait for the state to spend the federal money.

The public health department has responded with a plan to address the problem. The department said it would quickly dole out $84 million of the $455 million of unspent drinking-water reserves this year.

As more federal money flows into the state, the department expects to disburse more than $800 million over the next few years, four times what it has given out over similar periods in the past.

EPA leaders said they would be watching closely.

"Our patience has run out," said regional administrator Jared Blumenfeld, who joined McCarthy at the editorial board meeting.

On air quality issues, McCarthy said she hoped to be celebrating the Valley's possible attainment of the federal one-hour ozone standard, a seemingly impossible task a decade ago.

The San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District last week announced the achievement. But EPA says it will take time to sort out whether the attainment has actually happened.

The local air district's request has been sent to state and EPA air quality agencies along with explanations about two possible snags -- one about an exceedance last year in Fresno, the other about moving an air monitor in Kern County.

"We have a lot of questions," McCarthy said. "But it's wonderful that we're this close to attainment and having this conversation."