CORRECTION: The original story contained inaccurate information about a House appropriations vote expected Friday, July 24. Language for the Disadvantaged Community Drinking Water Assistance Act was not included in the funding bill, because it has not yet been authorized.
Central Valley neighborhoods are a step closer to new money to fix broken water systems and access clean, safe drinking water — if the White House and Congress agree on an infrastructure package currently moving through the U.S. House of Representatives.
Earlier this month, the House passed a bill to authorize $100 million in grants for small towns and water districts to drill new wells, install filtration systems, and receive technical assistance to fix water systems that currently deliver unsafe drinking water to thousands of homes and businesses. To move forward, it would need to be passed by the Senate and signed by President Donald Trump.
Rep. TJ Cox, D-Fresno, said he shaped the language of the Disadvantaged Community Drinking Water Assistance Act to specifically address failing water infrastructure in small Central Valley communities. It was endorsed by mayors and community leaders in Parlier, Sanger, Delano and others faced with unsafe drinking water.
A June 2019 letter to Cox from Delano Councilwoman Grace Vallejo, for example, said the town needs around $6 million to fix its out-of-compliance water system that’s contaminated with 123-Trichloropropane.
In a phone interview with The Fresno Bee Thursday, Cox said small communities in the Central Valley “need a whole suite of solutions,” and their issues should get the same type of attention and investment as Flint, Mich.
“The people of the Central Valley are just as deserving as anyone else,” he said.
Data from water quality tests show hundreds of thousands of people in California’s Central Valley don’t have access to clean and safe drinking water at the tap, despite paying water bills each month.
Their water systems are out of compliance with state and federal drinking water standards.
Wells are polluted from pesticide runoff or other contaminants like nitrates or arsenic. Or, old infrastructure has failed. Or, existing well pumps can no longer reach the underground aquifers because they have been overburdened.
The state recently committed $130 million to address drinking water problems through the Water Resources Control Board, which is looking to consolidate small water systems with larger ones as part of a long term fix.
Cox says the federal government also needs to act to provide more money for infrastructure, especially in communities that don’t already qualify for certain funding programs because they’re too large to count as rural or because customer rates aren’t high enough.
“The most wealthy country in the world should be able to provide its citizens with clean, safe drinking water,” Cox said. “If we don’t, we’re failing.”
The struggle is real in Earlimart, a Tulare County town with a new and ongoing water crisis that exemplifies the health risks of old infrastructure that draws from polluted water sources.
More than 8,000 people there lost water service in late May when a 50-year-old well failed. With no other option to keep the water on, the water district turned on a well contaminated with twice the legal limit of a toxic chemical known to increase the risk of cancer, as well as kidney and liver damage.
Cox said this year’s appropriations bill that includes $240 million for California Water infrastructure would be the “largest investment in 50 years.”
“We did that,” he said, not by “getting into the farmers versus fish argument, but by putting people first.”
He said he hopes President Donald Trump would sign the infrastructure bill. In reality, it does not likely have the bipartisan support it needs.
Senator Kamala Harris did introduce language similar to Cox’s bill, which would make it easier for the two sides of Congress to move it forward to President Trump’s desk.
“(It’s) utterly unacceptable that in 2020, we still can’t guarantee clean water to communities across America. It’s a fundamental human right,” Harris said in a tweet about Earlimart. “We have the solutions to address this crisis. Congress just needs to act.”
Both Senate Republicans and the president have expressed opposition to the package. Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Tulare, and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy both voted against the House infrastructure bill July 1.
“We’ve reach out on occasion and asked them to sponsor our bills,” Cox said. “And frankly, it’s a shame they’ve declined to do so.”
The Bee reached out to Nunes’ and McCarthy’s offices to ask if they support the specific section of the appropriations bill that would provide funding for drinking water infrastructure. Neither office responded to an email.