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Residents of a high-poverty, rural Fresno County town want county leaders to pay off their water debt using federal pandemic stimulus funds.

On May 17, three residents of Cantua Creek, and Grecia Elenes, regional policy manager of Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability, asked the Fresno County Board of Supervisors to waive the community’s water debt and pay off any remaining debt with the American Rescue Plan Act funds.

“I think we’re all trying to come to the table to come up with a comprehensive solution that works for everyone,” Elenes said during the meeting.

Cantua Creek residents and residents from the neighboring community of El Porvenir have long struggled to pay the cost of their water bills. In 2015, they nearly had their water shut off until an emergency state grant helped the community pay down their water debt.

According to an email to The Bee from Amina Flores Becker, Fresno County Resources Division Manager, a May 2022 projection estimates that El Porvenir will owe $370,000, while Cantua Creek will owe $40,000 by the end of the current fiscal year.

During the board of supervisors meeting, a Cantua Creek resident who did not provide her name said that her water bill is $225.

“We plead…for the county to help us pay that debt,” she said through a Spanish interpreter.

“It is a struggle with prices soaring to feed and provide the necessities for families,” said Esther Ramírez, a homeowner in Cantua Creek who also asked that the water debt be forgiven.

Sonja Dosti, public information officer for Fresno County, stated in an email to The Bee on May 17 that it was “premature” to comment on the request since the Public Works and Planning Department is working with the state on water infrastructure projects within Cantua Creek and El Porvenir.

Fresno County Supervisor and Board Chair Brian Pacheco, whose district includes the west Fresno communities, told The Bee that the county “is in a bit of a holding pattern,” waiting for decisions from the State Water Board to see if the state provides any reimbursements on the Cantua Creek water bill.

“While it’s good to put it on our radar, it is a little premature because we do not know what the state is going to do,” he said.

Pacheco also said, “It will be a little difficult to use ARPA money because this debt occurred prior to COVID-19.”

But Elenes argued otherwise. “The social and economic impacts of COVID are inextricably tied to debt that accrued prior to and during the pandemic,” she said. “Recovery is inextricably tied to a sustainable and affordable drinking water system.”

In an email to The Bee on Thursday, Blair Roberston, a spokesperson for the State Water Resources Board, stated that they are waiting for the completion of the county’s rate study before they can determine the funding award amount.

Water challenges in Cantua Creek, El Porvenir

Cantua Creek is a census-designated place located on the west side of Fresno County. The community is home to about 376 residents, of which 99% are Hispanic/Latino, and 45.2% live below the poverty line, according to a Census Reporter analysis of 2020 American Community Survey census data.

Cantua Creek and neighboring El Porvenir are county service areas – special districts governed by the county’s board of supervisors.

The communities receive their water from Westlands Water District at market rates, which jumped up to $1,444 an acre-foot during the 2012-2016 drought. Cantua Creek almost had its water shut off in 2014 when residents told the county they couldn’t pay the higher rates, but thanks to a $120,000 grant from the State Water Resources Control Board to cover overdue bills, the community was able keep the water flowing.

Since then, Fresno County has secured around $11 million from the State Water Board to construct two new wells to help the community access a more affordable water source. The wells and water treatment systems are expected to go live in approximately two years, county officials said in an email to The Bee on Tuesday. California’s Department of Water Resources also funded the construction of a new water distribution system in Cantua Creek at a cost of $2.7 million.

Residents, such as Ramírez of Cantua Creek, say they are looking forward to the new well systems but hope the current debt can be paid off, too.

Cantua Creek and El Porvenir have a history of undrinkable water because of contaminants such as nitrates found in local wells in the early 2000s. In 2015, residents couldn’t drink the water due to high levels of disinfectant used to cleanse raw water from the Westlands Water District. Today, residents still do not trust the water quality, even though officials say that water from Westlands is treated in surface water treatment plants.

“We are a disadvantaged community that doesn’t have one of the human rights, potable water that we can drink from our tap,” said Ramírez. “Yet, we still pay each month for it.”

Elenes also said she appreciates “the communication that we’ve been able to have with staff in trying to come up with new solutions, trying to work with the State Water Board in addressing this.” She added that the State Water Board has committed to subsidizing water rates in El Porvenir by covering some of the existing debt.

“Although I will note it will help tremendously,” Elenes said, “these bills will still be over $100 – which I think we can all recognize is still a pretty steep incline for many farmworkers and the folks who are living at or below the poverty line.”

County leaders say they’re waiting on the State Water Board before deciding on a course of action.

Robertson of the State Water Board says the board “hope(s) to be able to make a decision regarding a commitment of funds within a few weeks,” adding that funding to help reduce water bills “will likely be focused on El Porvenir, as that area has significantly higher proposed rates than Cantua Creek.”

However, Robertson said that due to statutory limitations, reimbursements toward reducing the water bill “can’t be used toward the past costs owed to the County” and can only be directed towards the operations and maintenance portion of costs.

Fresno County’s American Rescue Plan funding

Fresno County received over $194 million in federal pandemic stimulus funding. As of February, the board of supervisors approved the county’s ad hoc ARPA committee’s recommendations to spend $112.5 million on public health and economic impacts, $15.4 million on premium pay for essential workers, $10 million on lost revenue, $18.7 million on water, sewer, and broadband projects, and $37.4 million on sub-recipient ideas and projects that are expected to be announced next month.

But not everyone agrees with how the county is spending its ARPA funds. Earlier this month, Fresno County got an overall “C” grade for how it handled the latest round of federal COVID-19 relief funding and got an “F” for not doing enough to promote racial equity, according to a report by the California Pan-Ethnic Health Network.

One reason for the “C” score was that “despite urgent health and social needs in the community, Fresno County has still not allocated any ARPA SLFRF (State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds) monies towards specific projects as of early 2022,” according to the scorecard.

Dosti said the opinion of a “C” grade in the use of funds category is “erroneous” because the county took “immediate action” to earmark a portion of the funding to the ongoing efforts in addressing COVID-19 in the county’s diverse community.

The county then “intentionally delayed allocation of funding to projects other than COVID-19 response, to ensure appropriate public outreach was conducted, and public comment was received,” she said.

Late last year, Fresno County surveyed how residents wanted the ARPA funds spent. The 607 responses show that public health response, community wellness, homelessness, and infrastructure were ranked as priorities for the spending.

“Although the county appreciates the subjective review and receiving high marks on community engagement, transparency, accessibility, and accountability, the opinion of an ‘F’ grade in the category of ‘promoting racial equity’ is flawed,” Dosti said.

Pacheco said he didn’t think it was a fair score, either. “We got dinged because we didn’t use the word ‘equity’ in our wording,” he said. “Not that we didn’t apply those standards (of equity) and not that those weren’t some of the projects that we funded.”

Overall, Pacheco said he’s “pleased” with how the county has spent the federal stimulus funds so far. However, he said he disagreed with the decision to spend $225,000 of ARPA funds on the Fresno County garlic festival because he didn’t think it was “within the spirit” of the ARPA funds.

“Disadvantaged communities could have used that money, I believe, in a lot more beneficial use than the three-day garlic festival,” he said.

Dosti said county officials say they anticipate that “most of the $194 million in funding will be spent on projects located within qualified census tracts or benefiting disadvantaged or underserved communities that have been and continue to be disproportionally impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.”

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Melissa is a labor and economic inequality reporter with The Fresno Bee and Fresnoland.