Water & Drought

‘We’ve been neglectful, and it’s outrageous.’ Newsom signs clean water bill in Fresno County

Gov. Gavin Newsom on Wednesday signed into law the Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Fund bill in the tiny Fresno County community of Tombstone Territory — where residents rely on bottled water because the water from their private wells is contaminated.

Starting next year, Senate Bill 200 will provide $130 million annually to clean up drinking water in California communities like Tombstone that lack access to safe water.

Newsom on Wednesday chatted with a small group of Tombstone residents about their struggles with failed wells and contaminated water. Also attending the event were civil rights advocate Dolores Huerta, Sen. Bill Monning, D-Carmel, who authored the bill, Assemblymember Richard Bloom, D-Santa Monica, and Sen. Anna Caballero, D-Salinas, about their efforts to get the bill through the Legislature.

After he signed the bill, residents chanted “si se peude,” “si se pudo” and sang the Spanish folk song “De Colores.”

“Nothing in the budget makes me more proud than this,” Newsom told reporters afterward. “Some folks wonder why the hell you get into politics, and this is the ‘why.’”

“The idea that we’re living in a state with a million people who don’t have access to clean, safe and affordable drinking water is a disgrace,” he said. “This is the wealthiest state. This is the wealthiest democracy in the world, and it’s happened on our watch. We own this. Those who want to criticize us are right. We’ve been neglectful, and it’s outrageous.”

Program funded via Cap and Trade

Newsom originally tried to raise the money through a tax on water bills. But after negotiations with lawmakers, he settled on using funds from the state’s greenhouse gas reduction program.

That program, known as Cap and Trade, charges companies that pollute and is supposed to generate revenue to reduce carbon emissions. The Newsom administration justified using the money for drinking water by arguing transporting bottled water causes carbon emissions.

The plight for many San Joaquin Valley communities was also worsened by the state’s most recent and devastating drought, when domestic wells and agriculture wells statewide dried up.

“We believe these investments not only help those communities by giving them safe drinking water but also fulfill the goals of the Cap and Trade program,” Newsom representative Vivek Viswanathan told a group of lawmakers during a meeting about the state budget in June.

It’s a key part of the deal Newsom struck with lawmakers last month to pass the state budget, providing funding for clean drinking water through 2030.

Newsom said the priority is to consolidate some of the state’s 7,000 water systems. The bill also provides key funding to maintain and operate that infrastructure.

Huerta joked that even though the country just celebrated the anniversary of a moon landing, in some ways it was more difficult to solve the simple problem of providing safe drinking water to residents in California.

“It shows that when residents are heard, when the government listens and takes action, we can really have a better state,” she said.

Tests show water problems

Tombstone Territory, about one mile south of Sanger, is a four-block rural community with nearly 40 homes, all on domestic wells.

Recent well water tests show the presence of nitrate, 1,2,3, trichloropropane (TCP) and coliform, all above the maximum contaminant level, according to advocates with Leadership Counsel for Justice & Accountability who have been working with Tombstone residents for about three years.

Carolina Garcia, who has lived in Tombstone about 10 years, has been using bottled water that’s trucked in and dropped off in Tombstone for nearly a year.

About two years ago, her well dried up. Out of embarrassment, she waited about a week before asking neighbors for help.

While her family can use the well water now for bathing, sometimes sand particles come through the faucet.

And, there’s not much water left. The existing water supply will only last her family one or two years. Consequently, the family tries to conserve water by doing things like bathing every other day instead of daily.

Garcia said she was really emotional during the signing of the bill Wednesday. She’s happy help is on the way, especially for her children. “I do this all for them,” she said.

Just before Newsom signed the bill, a Culligan Water truck pulled up to Garcia’s home to deliver more water jugs.

A statewide issue

Tombstone’s troubles aren’t uncommon. Communities all over California, especially ones that began as settlements where mostly farm workers live, lack infrastructure investments, said Phoebe Seaton, cofounder and codirector of Leadership Counsel.

“The way that cities developed, they often left out some of the smaller, low-income neighborhoods of color, and with that excluded them from basic services like drinking water,” she said.

The community of Tombstone already is slated to receive about $1 million to connect to Sanger’s water system, thanks in part to state Sen. Melissa Hurtado, D-Sanger, who secured $15 million in one-time funding from the state budget for safe and clean drinking water in vulnerable San Joaquin Valley communities.

Money from SB 200 for Tombstone would cover costs for additional well testing, consolidation with Sanger’s water system and potential operation and maintenance costs.

Hurtado called the signing of SB 200 a “milestone.”

“Growing up in the city of Sanger, I, along with my family and friends, encountered firsthand the challenges of limited availability to clean and affordable drinking water,” she said.

“…I applaud the governor’s actions to protect the public health of our most underserved regions which demonstrates his ongoing effort to lead not only our state but the nation in addressing our most basic human rights.”

Sacramento Bee reporter Sophia Bollag contributed to this report.

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Brianna Calix covers politics and investigations for The Bee, where she works to hold public officials accountable and shine a light on issues that deeply affect residents’ lives. She previously worked for The Bee’s sister paper, the Merced Sun-Star, and earned her bachelor’s degree from Fresno State.