California Cities Struggle With Water Quality, and Poor Areas Suffer Most

Residents in northeast Fresno gathered at a community meeting in June to try to get answers about why polluted-looking water keeps spewing from their taps. Photo: Derek Walter.
Residents in northeast Fresno gathered at a community meeting in June to try to get answers about why polluted-looking water keeps spewing from their taps. Mark Standriff, Fresno’s communications director, (left, standing) and Tommy Esqueda, the city’s director of public utilities, (center) said the culprit is poorly made pipes. Photo: Derek Walter.

It’s expected that when you open the tap for water, what comes out is safe to drink.

But in some California communities, particularly the drought-starved Central Valley, that’s not the case.

In pockets of the Central Valley, residents are fighting for clean drinking water, and those in low-income areas have been impacted the most.

Nitrate, arsenic and other contaminants have been found many times in the most rural and underserved regions of the Valley, according to a 2011 report from the Pacific Institute. Because small, poor towns often lack the resources to investigate the sources of contamination, problems can take years to fix. And low-income residents, who often can’t afford pricey filters or bottled water, can be exposed to contaminants for years.

Fresno residents expressed anger and uncertainty about the state of their tap water during a recent community meeting. About 200 residents in the northeast section of the city gathered June 13 to try and get answers from the public utilities department as to why polluted-looking water keeps spewing from their taps.

Fresno residents are reporting that their pipes leak iron, zinc and, even, arsenic. Photo: Derek Walter.
Fresno residents are reporting that their pipes leak iron, zinc and, even, arsenic. Photo: Derek Walter.

According to city officials, the culprit in this case is poorly made galvanized pipes. But that means an expensive solution — replacing the pipes. Residents at the meeting said estimates for the work on most of their homes was in the $20,000 range.

“I had started to notice, why is there always rust in the bottom of my bucket?” said Alicia Ackland, a northeast Fresno resident who sometimes has brown water spewing from her faucets.

But Ackland is luckier than some. Others at the meeting reported that their deteriorating pipes leak iron, zinc and, even, arsenic.

The city is working to help the homeowners by paying some of the costs to fix the pipes. But, even if the costs are covered, the repairs will take time. For these residents, it will be a long summer where turning on the sink is like spinning a roulette wheel.

Tackling the problem in low-income communities

Fresno, the fifth-largest city in California, has significant resources to help fix water quality problems. It’s already spent around $250,000 to research the problem, and anyone in the affected area who requests a water test can get one. The city also tested six elementary schools and found no contaminant levels that were outside of the state’s guidelines of acceptability.

Fixing the problem will take a considerable amount of time and money, said Thomas Esqueda, the city’s director of public utilities.

“If it were from one builder and all could link it to that, it’d be easy peasy,” he said. “But we haven’t found a smoking gun.”

For smaller California communities with water quality problems, the picture is much bleaker.

Poorer areas suffer the most from water quality issues, according to Jenny Rempel, the Strategic Communications Coordinator for the Community Water Center. Her organization works with residents who find themselves in situations like those in Fresno — but without the money to do much about it.

“Each year over 1 million Californians are impacted by unsafe water, and it disproportionately impacts poor communities,” she said. “The drought has only worsened the existing crisis, as in addition to the prevalence of arsenic, nitrates and chemical byproducts, now we’re seeing entire communities running out of water.”

Porterville, in Tulare County, doesn’t have enough water for it’s residents. Since 2014 the state and volunteer groups have been supplying the area with bottled water to try and mitigate the lack of reliable water, an effort that has cost $500,000 per month.

According to a recent report from the Lucile Packard Foundation for Children’s Health, the number of water quality violations has increased 81 percent since 2005. These violations can impact children the most, because their bodies are smaller and they’re still developing.

“Exposure to contaminants in drinking water can result in numerous adverse health effects for children, such as impaired cognitive functioning, gastrointestinal issues, liver or kidney damage, cancer and neurological damage,” according to the Packard Foundation report.

The search for solutions

Carl Carlucci, chief of the Central California section of the state Division of Drinking Water, deals with water quality problems daily. He’s responsible for issuing compliance orders and staying on top of water quality for eight counties, stretching from Tuolumne to Kern.

Of the 1,400 water systems in his region, 1,300 are smaller entities that have fewer resources, a lack of expertise and a smaller economy of scale, which can magnify water problems.

“Our number one objective is consolidation,” Carlucci said. “We want some of these smaller systems to get out of the business and collaborate with a larger system. That’s the best approach.”

For example, his division recently worked with a water agency outside of Tulare to consolidate with the city’s water system.

Sometimes when small towns try to operate their own treatment plant, it becomes unsustainable, Carlucci said. That happened in 2007 in Lanare, in Fresno County.

“It operated for less than a year and then they just shut it down,” he said. “That’s the poster child for why we’re very, very concerned about a project’s sustainability before we’re going to fund it.”

Sarge Green, a water management specialist at the California Water Institute, said economics come into play as well. A lot of consumers don’t like the idea of higher water rates, even though that’s what may be needed to do the proper levels of treatment.

“If you see the price of water keep going up, it’s going to make you wonder if it’s worth it,” he said. “More and more people are asking for elections for veto power over raising rates.”

Carlucci helps send out compliance orders that ask a local water agency to make changes to its operation or face additional corrective action from the state. As of mid-June, Carlucci had 340 compliance orders in progress from his office.

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