Stimulus Funds Bypass Communities With Dirty Water

New America Media, Investigation, Ngoc Nguyen Posted: May 06, 2010

After Rebecca Quintana takes a shower, she shakes the sand out of her hair.

The pipes that deliver water to her house in Seville, a town of about 400 people southeast of Fresno, Calif., are over a century old. They’re corroded and leaky, and the water pressure is poor, so dirt and sediment get into the pipes and come out of the showerhead and tap.

The community of SevilleThe community of SevilleThe sand is an inconvenience, but because the town’s water system runs through an irrigation ditch, more harmful substances seep into the pipes. Quintana’s water tests for unsafe levels of nitrate – a man-made and industrial chemical that leaches from commercial fertilizers, manure, and septic tanks.

Quintana, 54, doesn’t drink the tap water. She spends about $40 a month on bottled water, on top of a water bill that averages $60 monthly. She says the added cost takes a big bite out of her budget, but the greater hardship is the effect on her family’s health.

The water gives her rashes and caused her granddaughter’s eczema to flare up during a long stay at her house, she says.

“It was really bad. [Her skin] was so raw, there was bleeding from the scratching,” Quintana said. “It had to be the water, it’s irritating her.”

Seville’s residents could be looking forward to clean, potable water. California got nearly $160 million in federal stimulus dollars to improve drinking water quality, but none of it reached Seville.

In fact, although stimulus funds were intended to clean up drinking water, most of the money bypassed communities with the most contaminated water, like Seville.

The reason? Stimulus funds could only be spent on shovel-ready projects and in many rural towns, particularly in the San Joaquin Valley, the projects were far from ready to go. Just to get shovel ready, projects require ample initial funding for design and environmental studies, and many small towns don’t have the money up-front to do this groundwork.

Seville’s water system was taken over by Tulare County, a requirement for receiving state funds to fix its decrepit water system. But after a year, Seville’s residents are still waiting for state help, and now federal funds won’t be flowing.

“[Funding for clean water] is frozen in the state, so everything is in place, but there’s no money,” she said. Quintana says the county told her Seville would be among the first in line for state funds when it comes in.

The plight of towns like Seville, desperate for clean water, is widespread, but the stimulus funds will trickle down to just a fraction of them. California has thousands of water system projects on its funding priority list. The highest priority projects pose public health threats from contamination by bacteria, nitrates and arsenic, for example.

Just 73 water projects received stimulus money and only 16 of those are ranked as having the worst drinking water. Seville’s ailing water system--contaminated with nitrates and bacteria--and was high up on the priority list, but it won’t get funds. Shovel ready projects included many water systems that merely had old pipes in need of replacement – not potentially harmful water.

Dirty Water and Rusty Pipes in SevilleOld pipes and contamination in SevilleStimulus funds flow through the state Department of Public Health, which offers loans and grants to water systems to make repairs, build treatment plants and tap into new sources of water. A department spokesperson said that only water projects that met three criteria – health impacts, environmentally green, plus a “readiness to proceed” were prioritized for funding.

And that was a deal-breaker for most.

“The biggest problem is they said you had to be shovel ready. Most of our communities didn’t meet those requirements even though they’ve been waiting for years,” said Laurel Firestone, co-director of the Community Water Center, based in Visalia, Calif. “They would have needed to submit a feasibility plan and preliminary engineering and design work. Our communities need funding to apply for funding. Only wealthy ones with more resources could apply for funding.”

The shovel-ready requirement deterred many communities from applying for the federal stimulus funds in the first place.

“If the plan wasn’t ready and in your pocket, there was no need to apply,” said Jessi Snyder, a community development specialist at Self-Help Enterprises, a Visalia-based nonprofit that works on housing, sewer and water development. The organization received stimulus funds from the state public health department to help small water systems with their applications. But Snyder admits, she ended up telling many communities not to apply.

“It was so high profile,” Snyder said. “Everyone knew the money was coming. We had to tell them it doesn’t make sense for you…to apply.”

Seville Water Co. submitted a pre-application for the stimulus funds but couldn’t follow through on submitting its design plans and environmental work required as part of the completed application.

“Basically, it’s really, really difficult for our communities to be shovel ready ever,” said Snyder. Rural towns like Seville don’t have money to outlay for construction, she explained. They invest in preliminary work if they have a guarantee of a loan from the state for construction, and if they don’t have the money up front they may need a bridge loan to do the initial assessment.

“Without that promise of construction money there,” Synder said, “the design doesn’t happen.”

Once a water system takes on debt to make repairs, it has to increase rates for its customers. These fee hikes can spike considerably for smaller systems with fewer people to spread out the costs.

Water advocates have pushed for the state to help rural communities come up with the money to do some of the groundwork, including feasibility studies. Voters passed a state water bond (Prop. 84) in 2006, which set aside $180 million for safe drinking water, and $2 million to help small water systems, Firestone says, but the state has frozen the funds due to budget woes.

In California, rural water systems – serving fewer than 500 people – have the greatest number of violations of federal drinking water standards, according to data submitted by the state to the federal government.

People served by smaller water systems also tend to live with contaminated water for longer periods of time, Firestone says, because rural communities don’t have back-up sources of water.

The San Joaquin Valley is home to some of the most persistent water contamination, including high levels of nitrate, arsenic and uranium. About half of the 80 projects on the state’s priority project list for nitrate contamination are from the San Joaquin Valley, mainly from Kern, Tulare, and Fresno counties. But only a dozen projects from the region received stimulus funding.

Jennifer Clary, a program associate based in the California office of Clean Water Action, a national organization that advocates for safe drinking water, called the bypassing of the region “shocking,” given the level of nitrate contamination there.

Projects from Tulare County, where Seville is located, received no funding.

Kara Brodfuehrer, a staff attorney with Fresno-based California Rural Legal Assistance, said she’s disappointed, but not surprised to hear that stimulus funds didn’t benefit more communities in the region. She said the San Joaquin Valley is dotted with small towns, many which grew out of farm labor camps that are still left behind.

In many cases, she says, the towns lack a local government or greater political representation, and local infrastructure such as a sewer system, streetlights, and public transit. Some have to rely on neighboring towns or counties for schools, and police and fire departments.

“These communities haven’t been invested in at all,” Brodfuehrer said.

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