The state of California took the first step to order and potentially pay for the city of Exeter in Tulare County to extend water service to hundreds of homes in a nearby town without safe and stable drinking water.

For decades, the 340 residents of Tooleville have relied on contaminated groundwater as their main source of tap water, as reported by The Fresno Bee Aug. 18. The small town sits next to the Friant-Kern Canal, which delivers passing water to agricultural operations and other communities.

Drought and declining groundwater levels this summer only made the situation worse, as one of two community wells stopped pumping on July 21 and residents relied on bottled water for a day.

Exeter’s water system currently reaches less than a mile away.

The State Water Resources Control Board Division of Drinking Water in an Aug. 23 letter took the first step toward ordering consolidation of the Tooleville water system with the City of Exeter.

The letter, provided by advocacy organization Leadership Counsel for Justice & Accountability, says the city and Tooleville Mutual Non-Profit Water Association have six months to negotiate a voluntary agreement to consolidate before state officials step in. Requests for comments made to those agencies were not immediately returned. This story will be updated.

That does not necessarily mean the state will order consolidation at the end of the six-month period. In East Orosi, for example, a consolidation order came more than a year after the six-month letter.

Consolidation projects can take years to negotiate, design and construct. Still, the Leadership Counsel called the decision a victory for water justice.

“Communities of color throughout the San Joaquin Valley are disproportionately impacted by drinking water contamination, and communities like Tooleville were declared ‘nonviable’ and unworthy of investment by Tulare County in its 1973 general plan,” said Michael Claiborne, an attorney with Leadership Counsel.

“In Tooleville’s case, consolidation can help to right these wrongs by providing safe and affordable drinking water to a community that has struggled with water contamination and disinvestment for decades,” he said.

Tulare County supervisors have said the state is to blame for Tooleville and other communities’ water woes.

State laws adopted in 2015 and 2018 gave the State Water Board authority to order consolidation and to pay for the receiving city’s costs for any capacity lost and the expense of extending service.

The stated intention is to bring safe and affordable drinking water to disadvantaged communities, which have historically received less public funding for infrastructure.

By law, the state has authority to order consolidation in cases when a public water system or small water system, “serving a disadvantaged community, consistently fails to provide an adequate supply of safe drinking water.”

Forced consolidation is one of the State Water Resources Control Board’s primary strategies to bring safe and affordable drinking water to traditionally underserved communities without basic infrastructure.

Several water districts have agreed to voluntarily consolidate to provide safe drinking water to neighboring communities. Those actively underway include systems in and around Madera, Tulare and Rosamond.

Other active consolidation projects in the San Joaquin Valley were mandated by the state, including East Orosi CSD with Orosi Public Utility District, and South Kern Mutual Water Company and Old River Mutual Water Company with the city of Bakersfield.

A project to consolidate Ceres West Mobile Home Park with the city of Ceres was completed in 2020, and Pratt Mutual Water Company connected to the city of Tulare in a project completed in 2016, according to the State Water Board.

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