Tainted water flows from taps of rural Valley homes
By Mark Grossi / The Fresno Bee
Saturday, Oct. 01, 2011
TOOLEVILLE -- From her living room window, Valeriana Alvarado can see the Friant-Kern Canal, where pristine snowmelt flows to farm fields.
She loves walking along the canal, knowing the sparkling water will irrigate oranges, peaches and grapes that keep her farmworker family employed.
But she wouldn't mind getting some of that irrigation water at the drafty two-room trailer where she lives with eight family members.
"It's much better water than we get from the tap," she said through a Spanish interpreter. "It's not easy for us to buy bottled water all the time."
Like many rural families in the San Joaquin Valley, the Alvarados see the snow-capped Sierra, but they get tap water tainted from rotting vegetation, fertilizers, manure, septic tanks and decrepit plumbing.
Valeriana Alvarado takes two 5-gallon containers out to a friend's car before driving to Exeter to have them filled with fresh drinking water Tuesday, September 6, 2011. The Alvarados have to regularly buy fresh drinking water since the running water at their home in Tooleville has unsafe levels of nitrates in it.
The water is often laced with nitrates, a chemical linked to a potentially lethal infant illness as well as cancer.
Rural Valley residents in an area half the size of Maryland live day-to-day wondering if the next drink of water will make their children sick.
As long ago as 1995, the U.S. Geological Survey said nitrates appeared to be a greater threat to ground-water quality than thousands of tons of pesticides.
While on a worldwide investigation of dirty drinking water -- with stops in Bangladesh, Uruguay and Namibia -- a United Nations investigator visited the Tulare County community of Seville in March. After seeing conditions, the investigator urged state and federal authorities to consider healthy drinking water a human right and clean up the mess.
In a state with the world's seventh-largest economy, it wouldn't take a lot of money to clean up the Valley's small-town water problems -- $150 million total for projects on record. San Francisco last year committed the same amount of money to help homeowners and businesses finance solar panels and water efficiency.
But small-town residents face an uphill fight for the healthy drinking water that most Californians take for granted. Townfolk feel they have nowhere to turn. State public health authorities make a habit of inviting them to apply for cleanup funding, then turning them down for technicalities.
Residents, activists, engineers and local officials say the Valley's small drinking water systems are barely a blip on the state's radar.
Take a look at the California Department of Public Health, which doles out funding for small water systems. With a $3.5 billion budget, the agency has 150 broad responsibilities, covering everything from hospital licensing to regulating the movement of radioactive material.
By comparison, the California Air Resources Board -- watching over another basic human need -- is focused solely on making the air safe to breathe.
With no such agency guarding drinking water quality, residents wade through layers of rules, foot-dragging agencies and politics.
State officials say they are working on speeding up the funding process for fixes, adding more projects to their to-do list this year than ever before. They say they have several dozen projects in process for the Valley.
It all just looks like more bureaucracy and delay to residents. For instance, one project is an important study for a northern Tulare County water treatment plant. It was pushed back early this year due to a technicality. Now it's back to near the front of the line.
With little public explanation, state officials say they are trying to follow the lead of the federal stimulus program .
"We learned a lot about moving quickly from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act," said Leah Walker, chief of the public health department's division of drinking water environmental management.
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