Clean drinking water is a human right. Why are so many communities in California without it?

TOOLEVILLE, CA OCTOBER 17, 2021 The Friant-Kern Canal runs east of Tooleville, ironically bypassing a town with no drinking water. (Tomas Ovalle / For The Times)
(Tomas Ovalle/For The Times)

Clean drinking water is a human right. Why are so many communities in California without it?

Op-ed, Water and Drought, California Politics

Mirjam Pavel

January 22, 2024

Just a month after taking office in 2019, Gov. Gavin Newsom traveled to a rural school in the Central Valley and chanced upon a backdrop that was more prescient than he had planned: a classroom whiteboard that asked the essential question: How do you respond to challenges?

The governor had chosen Riverview Elementary School in Parlier to dramatize his first signing of the bill, an interim solution to provide tens of millions of dollars to purchase bottled water for communities with contaminated wells. We can’t even provide basic drinking water to over a million Californians? Newsom said before posing for photo ops where drinking fountains have been closed for more than a year. Miserable.

He pledged to find money to fund permanent solutions to the problem, which is most prevalent in the Central Valley. I don’t deserve to be your governor if I can’t figure out a way to make that happen.

A few months later, he and the Legislature did indeed find money: $1.3 billion over 10 years to help hundreds of small water districts that rely on groundwater from wells that have gone dry or become contaminated by agricultural and industrial waste.

Finding the money turned out to be the easy part. Five years after the governor’s visit, Riverview students are still drinking bottled water.

Faced with attitudes toward the state government that range from mistrust to low expectations,


Officials have struggled to forge partnerships in communities divided by class and race. For once, the state has money, along with greater power to enforce change. What is missing is leadership to disrupt a process in which intolerable delays are accepted as inevitable.

The State Water Resources Control Board, which administers the $1.3 billion drinking water program, has awarded hundreds of millions of dollars in planning, technical assistance and construction grants, and some progress has been made. But water districts are just as quick to join the list of failed projects as they are to abandon them. Of California’s more than 3,000 water districts, the most recent data shows 386 systems are failing, 507 are at risk, and


403 more potentially at risk.

The inability of states to deal with the crisis is partly due to complications exacerbated by intransigence, partly due to better data and stricter security standards that imply more systems.


and partly due to drought and climate change. But it is also due to the dependence on a state agency that was built for regulatory functions and is now called upon to work with struggling and polarized communities and ensure pipelines are built. The water board was particularly outraged by the title of a recent state audit that criticized its lack of urgency; it is difficult to see how any other word could be appropriate.

The red dots on the water board map that follow


Water systems that rely on unsafe or dry wells are clustered in unincorporated, overwhelmingly lower-income areas, home to people of color, who have historically been excluded from cities by racial compacts and redlining. Forced to live in places without public facilities, they dug wells, and when the wells ran dry, they dug deeper. The most realistic solution for many of these communities is to consolidate with the local governments that have historically excluded them.

In Tulare County, the hostility is more veiled now than in the 1970s, when the General Plan deemed fifteen communities nonreligious.

It is viable and recommended to withhold public services, including water, so that they enter a process of long-term natural decline and disappear. Thirteen are still there. One of these is Tooleville, 77 houses, separated from the foothills of the Sierra Nevada by the Friant-Kern Canal, full of water that residents cannot reach. The state pays for each home to receive six five-gallon jugs every two weeks.

For decades, the solution was clear: connect Tooleville to the city of Exeters’ water supply, less than a mile away. Exeter repeatedly refused. After state money became available to cover the additional costs, and it appeared the city had run out of excuses, the council voted unanimously to end the talks. We have our own problems, Exeter Mayor Mary Waterman-Philpot told a room full of Tooleville residents, snorting at the idea of ​​the state paying for the mile-long extension. I would like Santa Claus to come and do things too.”

Ultimately the state ordered them to consolidate; An agreement was finalized last year. A short-term solution to connect Tooleville homes to Exeters waters should be ready in September, but the full project is estimated to take eight years.

In the nearby hamlet of Tombstone, a $3 million project that was supposed to be completed in 2022 is now a $6 million project with an estimated completion of late 2026, delayed by difficulties negotiating with owners of land needed to run one mile . of pipe to connect to a nearby system.

Such facts, as Newsom has said about the overall water crisis, would not be tolerated in Beverly Hills. Of the many deep-seated inequities California faces, the uncontroversial goal of clean drinking water should be relatively achievable.

The essential question on the white board at Parlier School remains as unresolved as the solution to the school’s water supply: how to meet the challenges.

Newsom says: It is a shame to live in a state with a million people who do not have access to clean, safe and affordable drinking water. In 2019, he took his cabinet to the Central Valley to convince top advisors of the significance of the drinking water issue. In his first State of the State address, the governor emphasized that correcting the crisis would require political will from each of us.

Newsom must renew and reexamine that promise, using both his power and his bully pulpit to analyze delays and impose urgency so that actions match the rhetoric.

Miriam Pawel is the author of, among others, ‘The Crusades of Cesar Chavez: A Biography’. She is working on a history of the University of California.


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