Update, July 15:
The water contamination problem in Earlimart won’t be fixed soon, yet residents won’t receive assistance from the state in obtaining bottled water.
The responsibility to provide water, state officials told The Fresno Bee, is the Earlimart Public Utility District’s.
“We can work with them and help them with technical assistance, and evaluate how they can provide people with drinking water fill-up stations,” said Leslie Loudon, deputy director of the Division of Financial Assistance for the Water Resources Control Board.
But the state’s bottled water program wasn’t really set up to help a town like Earlimart.
“Earlimart is way too big to practically do this. It’s just unfeasible to practically contemplate to bring bottled water to a community of 8,000 people,” said Darrin Polhemus, Deputy Director of the Division of Drinking Water.
The state launched a bottled water program during the last drought to provide some small water systems with interim water services in neighborhoods and households facing acute health risks from contaminants, such as nitrates.
Dozens of communities still receive assistance through that program, including Saucelito Elementary School in Tulare County and the town of Grimes in Colusa County.
Earlimart’s current water crisis began in late May when a contaminated well was turned on after an old well failed. The state assumed it was a short-term problem, but now it seems the well polluted with TCP will stay on for a few months.
Health risks of TCP are generally associated with long-term exposure.
The district has the money to drill a new well and to potentially provide residents with a fill-up station after it entered a multi-million dollar settlement agreement with Dow Chemical Co. in 2019.
The Earlimart Public Utility District Board of Directors will meet on Monday.
The cost of buying cases of bottled water for cooking and drinking is adding up for residents of Earlimart, where a contaminated well became the main source of tap water for more than 8,000 people there in late May.
The state Water Resources Control Board that is responsible for drinking water has a program to provide financial assistance for bottled water to help communities in crisis. It has not been available in Earlimart — and it is unclear why.
The Fresno Bee asked representatives from the state water boards on July 9 if residents or the Earlimart Public Utility District can receive bottled water assistance. The agency has not provided an answer as of July 13. Bryan Potter, senior water engineer with the Tulare District of the State Water Resources Control Board, said the Division of Financial Assistance is “working on a response.”
The Bee reported last week that groundwater flowing to faucets in homes and businesses since late May has come from a well on Clay Street with TCP contamination twice the legal limit, according to a May 27 water quality test reported to the state. And, from May 28 to June 8 residents were told to boil their water before using it to kill potential bacteria that could cause intestinal illness
Meanwhile, shelves where bottled water should be in the few stores in Earlimart are often empty. Residents often have to travel out of town to get water, or in some cases, rely on rations of bottled water brought by family or friends, residents said.
The price of travel and purchases of water is an added burden for families already living on tight budgets, as is the case for 40% of residents in town who live below the poverty line, according to census data.
The Bee reached out to several community organizations that advocate for communities’ drinking water to find out how Earlimart residents could get free bottled water, including representatives of Self Help Enterprises and Community Water Center. Both led to a county grant administrator for the Tulare County bottled water assistance program.
Representatives from the county and Self Help Enterprises said funding from the state couldn’t be applied for various reasons, including that the community of Earlimart is too large for the program or that state employees said Earlimart’s water is not undrinkable.
“Our funding is limited. We wouldn’t have enough grant funding at this time to take on thousands of residents,” Sandra Sabin, a grant administrator with Tulare County, told The Bee.
This story will be updated as more information becomes available.
Correction: This story has been updated to clarify who said state funding couldn’t be applied.