By Reggie Ellis with The Sun Gazette
EXETER – Maria Olivera is thirsty for change in Tooleville and she recently found out she will have more power than ever to turn the tide of contaminated water troubling her town.
Olivera has lived in the small, rural town east of Exeter since 1974 and never had any water problems at her home on East Morgan Avenue, one of two streets that dead end into the Friant-Kern Canal that make up the town of about 200 people, until 2001. That’s when the state began issuing boil advisories for the water coming out of her tap due to a high level of nitrates, an odorless and tasteless contaminant which can cause blue baby disease if ingested at high levels by infants or pregnant women.
She is also the secretary for the Tooleville Mutual Nonprofit Water Company which provides water to nearly 80 homes in the town. She makes sure people pay their bills, that the water company pays for testing, repairs and contractors so she knows how little money residents have to pay their water bills, which are generally twice that of someone living in a city, and how few dollars there are left over to pay for expensive fixes to the system.
“We need help from the state and we need to keep working to do something about the water,” Olivera said.
She is also her community’s biggest advocate. Olivera has spoken at several Exeter City Council meetings asking the city to connect its residents to their larger system, testified twice in Sacramento asking the California State Water Resources Control Board, better known as the State Water Board‚ to provide funding for the connection, and worked with policy advocates to create a safe water drinking fund to help other communities like her own.
“If you don’t speak up for yourself no one will,” Olivera said. “You have to keep working and keep trying to get what you need.”
Olivera will now have the ear of the State Water Board even closer as she prepares to attend her first meeting later this month as a member of the Advisory Group for the implementation of the state’s Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Fund. Olivera’s appointment to the advisory group was announced on Dec. 11 by the State Water Board. She was selected from among 50 applicants including representatives from public water systems, technical assistance providers, local agencies, nongovernmental organizations, the public and residents served by community water systems in disadvantaged communities, state small water systems, and domestic wells. Her brother Benjamin Cuevas, who moved to Tooleville last year, was also selected to the board, giving Tooleville two of the 19 members. Tulare County, which has several communities struggling with groundwater contamination, was well represented on the board. There will also be a resident of Pixley, Elena Saldivar, and an employee of Self-Help Enterprises, Jessi Snyder, providing technical assistance to the board among the group’s 19 members.
Kuyler Crocker, chairman of the Tulare County Board of Supervisors, said having four people on the advisory group with direct ties to Tulare County bodes well for many of the unincorporated communities here that are still struggling with contaminated groundwater issues ranging from salt to lead.
“It’s an exciting time when Tulare County is taking a leadership role on a board of statewide significance,” Crocker said. “Hopefully Tulare County can take advantage of this opportunity.”
The Central Valley advisory members will also see a familiar face on the State Water Board they are making recommendations. Throughout their struggles in Tooleville, the community has been guided by the Community Water Center, co-founded by attorney Laurel Firestone and advocate Susana da Anda in 2006. In February, Firestone was appointed by Gov. Gavin Newsom to the State Water Resources Control Board.
The Advisory Group was formed pursuant to Senate Bill 200, which established the Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Fund and provides $130 million a year for 10 years to help local water systems provide safe, reliable drinking water to communities across California and begin closing the safe drinking water gap for more than one million Californians. The landmark legislation was the product of a collaborative effort among community leaders, elected officials and Newsom, who signed the measure into law on July 24.
SB 200 calls for the formation of the group to advise the State Water Board in developing a fund expenditure plan. The group also will assist the Board in tracking the program’s progress, including its impact on the number of Californians with safe drinking water, the effectiveness of water system administrators, and outcomes of water system consolidations.
“The level of community interest was notable and encouraging,” said E. Joaquin Esquivel, chair of the State Water Board. “We wanted to ensure broad-based representation. Unfortunately, not all who applied could be chosen, but that doesn’t limit participation on this critical work. There will be significant ongoing opportunity for engagement at the Board and with the group, as we collectively identify community needs for safe drinking water.”
Blanca Escobedo, policy advocate for the Leadership Counsel on Justice and Accountability, said SB200 is unique because it makes a state level board accessible to people in some of the smallest rural communities in the state. She also points out how crucial it is for disadvantaged community members to have input going into 2020 as the State Water Board will begin enforcing the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SiGMA) of 2014, which requires all watersheds to maintain or recharge their groundwater levels in the next 20 years. The plans to do that are being developed by Groundwater Sustainability Agencies, of which there are no members from small, rural communities like Tooleville.
“This advisory board really brings people to the table who would not have been there otherwise,” Escobedo said. “It’s really the first of its kind in the state.”
Escobedo’s organization worked closely with Tooleville in its efforts to consolidate with Exeter. She said Olivera was a tireless advocate for her community, from explaining the situation to her fellow residents, to helping the water company pay its bills, to traveling up and down the state to testify on her town’s behalf. Escobedo said people like Olivera comprise much of the advisory group, paving the way for the funding to be prioritized according to the most immediate needs, such as Tooleville which has struggled with contaminated water for more than two decades.
“There was so much interest from community residents in Tooleville I’m glad they were selected,” Escobedo said. “They will help impact these funds to go where they are needed most.”
Tooleville’s troubled water began in the 1990s when the California Department of Health Services shut down one of its two water wells. In 2001, the 77 homes nearly lost all of their water pressure when a pump on one of its two remaining wells broke. Later that year became the first time the rural community sought help from their incorporated neighbor in Exeter. The Exeter City Council refused on the grounds that connecting residents outside of its boundaries would violate its charter status with the state, which at one time exempted cities from paying prevailing wage. Three years later, the town’s final well tested for unsafe levels of nitrates, forcing residents to buy bottled water to drink. In 2006, Self-Help Enterprises was able to secure funding to drill a new well, but that well produced more salt water than water. The following year, Exeter tentatively agreed to filter Tooleville’s water through its treatment plant if they drilled a well on the city’s west side. When Tooleville was unable to gather enough funds to drill the well and build the infrastructure to receive water from Exeter’s system, Community Water Center stepped in to open a dialogue with Exeter about Tooleville purchasing water from Exeter, which would lower their rates but put a strain on Exeter’s supply in 2014. The state squelched that idea in 2014 and suggested Exeter consolidate the two water systems but did not offer any funding for a new well, or the trenching and piping to connect Exeter to Tooleville. After declaring a drought emergency, Tulare County began delivering bottled water through the California Office of Emergency Services and several continue to receive deliveries today.
In 2018, Self-Help Enterprises and the Leadership Counsel worked together to present their case for consolidation. Exeter opted to wait until after it had completed a master plan of its water system to understand the extent of their own needs. The Leadership Counsel discussed the possibility of a $10 million, zero percent interest loan from the state to cover the consolidation costs but ultimately the Exeter City Council could not afford the staff time and significant decay costing millions in their own water system.
“There were so many late nights for them trying to connect to Exeter,” Escobedo said. “It took a toll on them but they are still fighting.”
FLOWING TO THE CAPITAL
On Jan. 13, Olivera will return to Sacramento for the first time since testifying on the need for the safe drinking water fund last year. But this time she will be a member of the advisory group deciding how the money will be spent.
Members of the Advisory Group will serve on a voluntary basis but will receive travel reimbursement so financial burdens do not discourage participation. Future members will be appointed to staggered two-year terms so the board will be able to receive input from different people and organizations over the decade-long life of the fund.
Much of the investment over the next decade is expected to target water systems in need of infrastructure upgrades, including modernizing water treatment facilities to address chronic contamination involving arsenic, nitrates and an array of other chemicals, and likely to involve public participation. Until then, such short-term remedies as community filling stations, point-of-use treatment options or bottled water deliveries will be part of the SB 200 expenditures.
“No one should have to suffer these conditions,” Olivera said. “I will do what I can to help my community and others.”