This is the third installment in our series Contaminated, in which we explore the 300 California communities that lack access to clean drinking water. When we began the series, we introduced you to the community of Lanare, which has arsenic-tainted water while a treatment plant in the center of town sits idle.
Today, we return to Lanare to learn why infrastructure projects aren’t always enough, and how Sacramento is trying to ensure Lanare never happens again.
Water problems have plagued the Fresno County community of Lanare for so long, it may feel like there’s nothing left to do but joke about them. Like when we met with a group of Lanare residents earlier this spring—and they offered a glass of water.
Isabel Solorio is the president of the group Community United in Lanare. She advocates for basic services here and she’s fought to get clean water for decades. She remembers when the treatment center was built in 2007.
“When they built it for us, it was an exciting occasion and it was good,” Solorio says in Spanish.
This unincorporated community of 600 near Lemoore is surrounded by rows of pistachios, alfalfa and cotton. It lacks some basic infrastructure, like sidewalks and streetlights, which is one reason it was a big deal to get something as significant as a new treatment plant. But just six months after the plant was built, the locally elected Lanare Community Services District had to shut it down. Filtering and treating the water were more expensive than anticipated, and Lanare racked up $100,000 in debt.
“It felt disappointing,” Solorio says, “because believed that we were in a place where things worked.”
So why did this happen? How did Lanare get to be in this situation? To find out, we turned to Veronica Garibay, the co-director of the Fresno-based Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability. She’s been working with Lanare for almost a decade. Garibay says this project failed on multiple levels. Lanare residents didn’t know how to properly navigate the bureaucratic system, while the county and feds didn’t look beyond the price tag for the initial construction to consider the costs of maintenance—costs the community couldn’t afford.
“The county didn’t do its due diligence to really look at what was happening in drinking water,” Garibay says. “They rubber stamped $1.3 million without looking at the implications of that.”
The state and federal government do offer funding to cover one-time construction projects related to drinking water, but that’s not the end of the story. Operating and maintaining these systems can raise water rates prohibitively high. Communities across the state are having to turn away from those projects because they can’t scrape together the funding for long-term costs.
There’s now a bill in the state legislature that could provide long-term funding for projects like this. Carl Carlucci is the local supervising sanitary engineer for the California Water Board, and he says funding like that that could’ve made a big difference for Lanare.
“That unfortunately is the poster child for what we do not want to see happen again,” Carlucci says.
Lanare’s unfortunate situation is one of the reasons why Senate Bill 623 was introduced earlier this year. If signed into law, it would establish the Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Fund—essentially a pool of money available for long-term costs for water systems.
“There are no programs right now to fund O&M,” Carlucci says. “So the idea is to come up with a funding source that could be given to the administrator so they would have enough money to properly maintain and operate the water system.”
When a community needs clean water, it can explore a few options before it ends up like Lanare. First, Carlucci says the water board can try to extend water lines from a nearby community. Next, they can consider drilling a new well to hopefully tap into cleaner water. Lastly, the board can fund either household treatment options like reverse osmosis systems, or a large-scale treatment plant.
“The last thing we really want to do is burden a disadvantaged community with treatment,” Carlucci says. “Typically it’s like Lanare; they usually struggle to afford those costs.”
That last resort is where SB 623 and the Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Fund would come into play. The fund would be managed by the state water board, and could be available in the form of grants. So how much money would this fund need? Jonathan Nelson of the Visalia-based Community Water Center advocated for this bill, and his estimate is a few hundred million dollars per year.
That may sound like a large sum, Nelson says, “but in the grand scheme of CA’s economy, that’s an extremely small amount. We’d be talking about cents on Californians’ water bills. Under a dollar.”
Nelson says one of the most urgent priorities is to figure out where the money would come from. One strategy could be to charge a fee to water polluters.
“Other ideas include creating sort of a new safe drinking water fee that would go on Californians’ water bills,” Nelson says.
That kind of fee is not unheard of in California--when it comes to telecommunications like cell phones and internet, most of us already pay a so-called Lifeline Fee to help lower the costs for disadvantaged Californians.
SB 623 has passed the state Senate and is currently waiting for a vote in the Assembly. If Governor Brown signs it into law this year, Nelson says it could be up and running within the next few years.
But this fund wouldn’t solve the drinking water problem for everyone. Sue Ruiz is a community development specialist with Self-Help Enterprises, a non-profit that helps rural areas address water-related needs. She says communities like Lanare face more obstacles than money: They’re small, remote, tend to have a lot of Spanish speakers, and they’re run by volunteer water boards.
“And so, frequently the staff people have minimal or limited capacity and knowledge and experience to run these systems, too,” Ruiz says. “Would you be able to go run an arsenic treatment plant? I wouldn’t, and I work here.”
Even though SB 623 could have have helped Lanare years ago, getting the treatment plant up and running is no longer the community’s fastest or cheapest option. The water board recently approved funds to drill two new wells and install a system of new pipes throughout the community. With this system, Lanare could have clean water by the end of the year.