California developed a plan to bring clean water to hundreds of communities statewide who live with contaminated water or no running water at all. In this story, The Fresno Bee reviews the program’s first year and explores why it has taken so long to bring safe drinking water to one Fresno County neighborhood.

It’s been four years since safe drinking water flowed from the tap at Jovita Torres-Romo’s home.

When the well at her rental house went dry in 2016, the only running water available to her family came through a hose stretched across the street from a neighbor’s house.

“Just close your eyes and imagine you had no water for a day or even a week to do basic things like shower, wash your hands, and use the bathroom,” Torres-Romo told The Fresno Bee. “That was my life for three months.”

The running water came back on again after her landlord drilled a new well — and her rent went up $100 a month to help pay for it. But the water it pumps tests positive for total coliforms and to this day remains unsafe to drink. She has been drinking bottled water and advocating for the community to get clean water ever since.

In July 2019, Gov. Gavin Newsom met with her when he toured her hometown of Tombstone Territory, a rural community east of Fresno. Residents there were among the million Californians who didn’t have drinkable water at the time.

Torres-Romo said she finally felt heard.

“Let’s fix all this,” Newsom had said, before he ceremoniously signed the Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Fund (SB 200) authored by Sen. Bill Monning, D-Carmel, establishing a fund of $1.4 billion over 10 years and a program to tackle the state’s drinking water crisis.

Newsom signed the law more than a year ago. Tombstone still doesn’t have drinkable water.

The plan is to expand service to residents in Tombstone from the nearby water system in the city of Sanger. New state funding would cover the cost of the project, if the state approves a $2 million funding application submitted in June. The state review is expected to take another six months.

Conservative estimates put the project’s finish line in 2022 or beginning of 2023 — a timeline consistent with government-funded construction projects, but a hard pill to swallow for people who have not been able to drink their water for years.

“What I don’t understand is, if he (Newsom) already came and became aware of the issue, signed the bill, and allocated the funds… where is the action?” Torres-Romo said. “We are fighting against the clock here.”

The Fresno Bee reached out to the Governor’s Office several times in the last month for comment. Staff and board members with the State Water Resources Control Board were made available for interviews and provided information about the drinking water program and about the process.

On Wednesday evening, the Newsom administration provided the following quote from Jared Blumenfeld, director of the California Environmental Protection Agency.

“Fighting for safe and affordable drinking water is a significant priority for this administration. The state has committed significant funding to ensuring that every Californian has access to this critical resource,” Blumenfeld said in an emailed statement.

“After historical neglect, providing long-term solutions for safe drinking water can often be complex. For communities without access to safe water, results can’t come soon enough. Only by continuing to collaborate with community members, local and state government can we ensure that families get the access to clean water they deserve.”

The administration did not respond directly to concerns about Tombstone, or to questions about how to expedite the process.

Jovita Torres-Romo, left, was there when Governor Gavin Newsom signed SB 200, which created the Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Fund, in her small community of Tombstone, Wednesday July 24, 2019. JOHN WALKER jwalker@fresnobee.com

A plan for SAFER water

The goals of the Safe and Affordable Funding for Equity and Resilience program (SAFER) include addressing funding gaps and expediting solutions for hundreds of communities that don’t have drinkable water, in part, by prioritizing consolidation of some of the state’s 7,000 drinking water systems.

California in 2012 became the first state to legally recognize the human right to safe, clean, affordable drinking water, and the SAFER program is a tool to actualize that right.

Newsom, when he signed SAFER into law, called it a disgrace that Californians don’t have access to clean, safe and affordable drinking water.

“This is the wealthiest state. This is the wealthiest democracy in the world, and it’s happened on our watch. We own this. Those who want to criticize us are right. We’ve been neglectful, and it’s outrageous,” he said while in Tombstone, adding that this was the reason he got into politics.

In reality, the path to bringing a community clean water is an obstacle course of local politics, competitive grant-based funding, lengthy government approval processes and threats to sustaining the fund.

So far, the agency in charge of the program — the State Water Resources Control Board — has written internal policies, built databases and an interactive map of contaminated wells, hired and trained staff and allocated the first year’s budget of $130 million.

The money went to providing emergency bottled water or water truck deliveries, to planning projects with technical assistance, and to long term solutions, like construction projects, according to the State Water Board’s funding report.

Laurel Firestone is a drinking water advocate who co-founded Community Water Center before Newsom appointed her to the board that oversees the State Water Board. She said long-term solutions take time.

“The reality is, there are barriers. Constructing a whole new drinking water system doesn’t happen overnight,” Firestone said.

State officials are thinking about how to accelerate the process, she said, adding “it shouldn’t take nine months to process an application.”

“What we need to do, and what we are committed to doing, is making sure we’re working with local leaders and we’re doing everything we can to make sure residents have safe drinking water from the tap and don’t have to wait years and decades,” Firestone said.

When the SAFER program began, 300 community water systems statewide were out of compliance with state drinking water standards, and more than 80 were in the central San Joaquin Valley. Many of those are in neighborhoods considered to be disadvantaged, meaning the annual median household income is less than 80 percent of the statewide annual figure.

Additionally, thousands of people rely on private, domestic wells that may have gone dry or are contaminated.

Before the SAFER program, funding sources were short-lived or inconsistent, and there wasn’t regular funding for operation and maintenance expenses or money for private wells. In some cases, community water systems built expensive projects funded with bond money only to have abandon them because the small water system couldn’t afford to maintain the infrastructure.

“For years, we’ve just sort of lurched from water bond to water bond. …$130 million a year for ten years is awesome,” said Jessi Snyder, an assistant program director with Self-Help Enterprises. “But it isn’t going to solve the problem once and for all.”

There are signs of progress.

About 250 communities have been allocated funding from the state and are in a process toward a solution, Firestone said. And drinking water has improved for some Californians.

In the last year, 20 systems were brought into compliance with state drinking standards, providing 250,000 more people with safe water in their homes, according to Firestone.

Those successes, however, cannot generally be attributed to the SAFER program. The path to solution in those communities was well underway before the SAFER program began, as was the case for Tombstone.

Jovita Torres-Romo waters the yard at her home in the rural community of Tombstone, near Sanger, on Thursday, Aug. 13, 2020. Last year Torres-Romo met with Governor Gavin Newsom to discuss the contaminated water situation at her home. Newsom then signed the Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Fund last year to provide $130 million a year to upkeep the access to safe water for communities like Tombstone. CRAIG KOHLRUSS ckohlruss@fresnobee.com

Waiting for water

About 350 people make up the community of Tombstone that stretches four blocks, a half-mile from the city of Sanger. The median household income for the area is $27,400, less than half the state average.

Everyone there relies on private wells that pump groundwater. Many wells are contaminated by bacteria, nitrates or long-lasting residue from pesticides, according to testing performed by Self-Help Enterprises in 2017, 2018 and 2019.

In the most recent statewide drought, at least 22 wells failed as a result of an overburdened aquifer — pumps could no longer reach the water source.

It was a traumatizing summer for Torres-Romo, 55, her husband, and 24-year-old son in 2016 when their well went dry. They had no running water in the house during the hot summer months of July, August, and September when temperatures regularly reached over 100 degrees.

When the family’s only source of water came through the neighbor’s hose, Torres-Romo carried buckets of water weighing as much as 50 pounds into her home each day — to drink, bathe, cook, wash dishes and flush the toilet.

“I was in pain carrying all that weight,” Torres-Romo said. Just six years earlier, she underwent multiple surgeries and treatment for thyroid cancer and still struggles with weakness in her bones and anemia.

Because getting water was difficult, the family limited water consumption; They avoided flushing the toilet when possible and instead poured drops of bleach in the bowl.

After nearly three months of living like that, they were relieved when the property owner dug a new 250-foot well, but they soon learned the well water tested positive for total coliforms, which indicates the presence of unhealthy pathogens.

The state does provide funding for the residents of Tombstone to receive drums of water every two weeks at no cost. That is the water Torres-Romo and her family currently rely on to drink and cook with, but it’s not enough. The family of three still purchases additional five-gallon jugs of water, at $5 each, to make up the shortage.

Residents still shower and bathe in contaminated water. Torres-Romo says she fears for her compromised health and that of her family because the side effects of the contaminants are unknown to her.

The experience of having no running water remains fresh in her mind, and she said she lives in constant, extreme anxiety not knowing how much time is left before their well dries up again. Still, she remains determined.

People have asked why she doesn’t just move.

“That’s not the solution,” she said. “If I leave, another family will just come here and have the same issue.”

Consolidating Tombstone and the city of Sanger

Before Newsom came to visit Tombstone, drinking water advocates with Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability and Self-Help Enterprises were working with residents to find a solution.

It was a milestone this summer when the city of Sanger and Self-Help Enterprises submitted an application to the State Water Board to fund engineering, design and construction of a mile-long pipeline to connect lots in Tombstone to Sanger’s water system, at a cost of $3 million.

“I am really grateful for the partnership with Sanger to move this along,” said Leslie Martinez, a policy advocate with Leadership Counsel who has worked for years with Tombstone residents, including Torres-Romo.

“Often the hardest part is getting the cities to agree to take this additional capacity,” she said.

It’s not a plan that came easy. Not everyone wants Tombstone and Sanger to consolidate.

Sanger has its own water issues to address: failing wells and a need to increase storage. When first approached about consolidation, city officials directed staff not to work on a project to extend service to the neighboring community and instead serve residents in its jurisdiction, according to Josh Rogers, an engineer who has contracted with the city for years.

Self-Help Enterprises, with funding from the State Water Board, worked on the initial engineering and studies that city staff might usually take care of.

Then, the project gained more momentum in 2019, when Senator Melissa Hurtado secured $3 million to fix Sanger’s water infrastructure and an additional $1 million to connect Tombstone to Sanger’s water system.

Tombstone residents have been reluctant or even opposed to the plan to connect to Sanger.

Some want Tombstone to build its own water system, and others are wary of adding a monthly $50 bill to pay for water service, according to Leslie Martinez, a policy advocate with the Leadership Counsel who has worked closely with residents like Torres-Romo for years.

Last year, she said, a home burned down because there wasn’t enough water pressure for firefighters to fight the flames. When residents learned the consolidation project includes fully-functional fire hydrants, “it was a total switch” and some said, “we’re in.”

Others didn’t want to shutter their own private wells, which is usually required of people who join a water system. Knowing that Tombstone residents use well water for irrigation, the Sanger officials decided to allow residents to keep their own wells, Martinez said.

Now, the coalition pushing for consolidation is in the position of waiting for the state to approve the application for funding. The State Water Board allowed applicants to go through the process to apply for financial assistance and the environmental review at the same time to speed up the process.

Still, Rogers, the city engineer, said he expects that review process to take another six months. And after the project is financed, it’ll take another two years to engineer, design and construct.

That places the delivery of clean water to every house in Tombstone in 2023. It’s still faster than expected, he said.

“You’re dealing with a municipality whose first priority is residents. Tombstone is not in their sphere of influence, let alone their city limits. We’re struggling to make sure our own people have water,” Rogers said.

“Self Help and Senator Hurtado have really moved it forward faster than I would expect.”

Martinez isn’t satisfied with the timeline, but she is hopeful for Tombstone.

She said after the coronavirus pandemic forced shelter orders and strained the state’s budget, there was concern that the $1 million set aside for Tombstone would be removed from the state budget.

“The governor kept it in. I think it shows there is a commitment,” Martinez said, adding that “there’s still work to be done to expedite these projects.”

In her work, she advocates for numerous communities fighting to get clean drinking water into their homes. Not many have been visited by the governor.

“I think about how so many communities have had to wait for 10 years to get to the point where Tombstone is now,” she said. “How many other Tombstones are out there that aren’t getting this support from the Governor’s Office?”

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