Water & Drought

Residents in Tulare County community open taps to clean water

Matheny Tract Committee members Reinelda Palma and Tim Denney turn the valve Tuesdayto let clean drinking water flow to their community.
Matheny Tract Committee members Reinelda Palma and Tim Denney turn the valve Tuesdayto let clean drinking water flow to their community. Special to The Bee

Matheny Tract residents can finally open their taps to clean water.

Water in the low-income community south of Tulare has long been contaminated with arsenic, forcing residents to buy bottled water. In March, the State Water Resources Control Board ordered Tulare to merge its water system with Matheny Tract under a new law.

At a ceremony Tuesday morning, Reinelda Palma and Tim Denney of the community action group Matheny Tract Committee turned the valve to let the municipal water begin flowing.

Tim Doyle, Tulare’s water utility manager, said the old system will be disconnected and abandoned within the next month. From now on, Matheny Tract residents will pay into the city’s tiered system. The average household pays around $30 a month, Doyle said.

Matheny Tract resident Javier Medina, 48, told The Bee in March that he paid $35 a month for the contaminated water that came out of his taps, plus around $45 for bottled water so his family of six could cook and drink.

Tulare had until Wednesday to consolidate the city system with Pratt Mutual Water Co., which served the community of about 300 homes and 1,200 people. Half the homes are rentals, most residents are Latino, and 30 percent earn less than the federal poverty line.

Advocates, including the Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability, called the consolidation a big win.

“We are thrilled that, due to years of hard work and advocacy by residents, Matheny Tract residents secured their human right to clean drinking water today,” said Ashley Werner, a lawyer with Leadership Counsel.

In 2014, a $4.9 million water main the state paid for using Proposition 84 funds was installed between Tulare and Matheny Tract. Before the pipe was laid, Tulare agreed to deliver clean water from city wells. But the city later balked over unexpected system capacity issues and concerns about service connections outside city limits.

It sued Pratt Mutual and the Matheny Tract Committee to change the terms of the agreement, and the Matheny Tract Committee, represented by the Leadership Counsel, and Pratt countersued. The cases were settled out of court.

Doyle said Tuesday was historic, given that it’s the first time any city in California has been ordered to provide safe drinking water to an area that doesn’t have it.

But he worries about maintaining the system that already serves 62,000 people.

“We’ll find out this week what an additional 331 addresses would do to our system, with it being 100 degrees,” he said. “Typically that’s when we see water use go up.”

Doyle said that if the drought continues, the city might have to replace older infrastructure and drill deeper. Though residents have been conserving water, he said water flows have continued to decrease.

Andrea Castillo: 559-441-6279, @andreamcastillo