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Dozens of Water Systems Consolidate in California’s Farming Heartland

Many small community water systems in California’s San Joaquin Valley suffer from polluted wells and financial challenges. To fix these problems, some are moving to connect with a neighboring water system. It’s not an easy process.

Written by Matt Weiser Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
Leonicio Ramirez and Guillermina Avila were the first residents of East Porterville, Calif., to receive water through a new connection to the city of Porterville in August 2016. East Porterville in Tulare County suffered many failed water wells. The linking of the town to Porterville’s water system is an example of the sort of mergers that are under way in many other communities in California’s San Joaquin Valley.Florence Low, California Department of Water Resources

In California’s San Joaquin Valley, one of the most productive farming regions in the nation, an estimated 150,000 people are stuck living with contaminated drinking water. When they open a tap to fill a cooking pot or take a shower, the water that gushes out is contaminated with nitrates, hexavalent chromium, arsenic and other nasties from polluted wells.

The good news: Help is available to many of these small community water systems, provided they can merge with a neighboring utility that has clean water.

Estimating how many such mergers are under way is difficult, because they are at different stages and some may not have reached the attention of state regulators yet. A University of California, Los Angeles study released last year estimated 32 mergers are in progress. Camille Pannu, director of the Water Justice Center at the University of California, Davis, said there are probably more than 50 mergers in the works in the San Joaquin Valley alone.

Whatever the number, the process can be expensive and laborious, despite state laws meant to ease the way.

“It’s definitely a multiyear – often many-year – process,” said Nell Green Nylen, a senior research fellow at the Wheeler Water Institute at U.C. Davis. “A big part of it is funding. And there can be a number of different agencies at different levels that need to be involved.”

Green Nylen is coauthor of a new report summarizing the challenges of water system consolidation. They range from financing problems to a lack of basic data needed to understand the water-quality problems that need solving.

There are legal and bureaucratic challenges, as well. For instance, in the unincorporated town of Tooleville in Tulare County, groundwater wells are contaminated by hexavalent chromium, also known as chromium-6 (the chemical made famous by the 2000 film “Erin Brockovich”). The town of fewer than 400 people has been trying to merge its tiny mutual water company with the municipal water system in the neighboring city of Exeter, which has more than 10,000 residents.

“We can’t cook with the water. We can’t drink it,” said Maria Olivera, a board member of the Tooleville water system and a resident of the town since 1974. “We really need help. Everybody is hoping it will be solved.”

An agreement for the merger finally appears close at hand. But now a financing problem has emerged.

The state’s water-quality standard for hexavalent chromium was struck down by a May 2017 court ruling. The lawsuit was filed by the California Manufacturers and Technology Association and the Solano County Taxpayers Association. The court agreed with the plaintiffs that the state failed to investigate whether compliance with the standard is economically feasible.

As a result, the State Water Resources Control Board was forced to withdraw its water-quality standard for hexavalent chromium while it works on revisions. With no standard in place, water systems trying to solve hexavalent chromium problems are not eligible for state grant funding. Which means Tooleville must seek another source of money to pay for the construction to connect with Exeter’s system.

In the meantime, the state is providing Tooleville with bottled water for drinking and cooking. The tainted well water is still used for cleaning, irrigating and everything else that people need water for. But recently the pump burned out at one of the town’s two wells. If the same should happen at Tooleville’s other well, the town’s water emergency will worsen considerably.

“We don’t have any money to buy a pump and then to hire a person to manage it, and then to pay the electricity bill for the water pumps,” Olivera said. “We are in a big problem right now because there’s no money.”

A state law passed in 2015, Senate Bill 88, authorized the State Water Resources Control Board to require water system consolidations to fix water quality or reliability problems. Since the law passed, the water board has notified 25 water agencies they must consolidate – all in the San Joaquin Valley.

Fortunately, the construction required to physically connect one water agency with another may be fairly easy in many cases. A U.C. Davis study released in February found that 66 percent of disadvantaged communities in the San Joaquin Valley are within 500ft of another water utility that meets drinking water standards. For the rest, the distance is 3 or more miles, which could make a connection too expensive.

Peter Aranzazu, left, and Benny Zurita install new water lines in East Porterville, Calif., so homes can connect to a new water supply provided by the city of Porterville. East Porterville lived with groundwater problems for years until the connection was finally made in 2016. (Florence Low, California Department of Water Resources)

Not all water system mergers involve full consolidation. Sometimes, water agencies might want to work together without merging completely. Neighboring water agencies might want to build an intertie, for example, in order to share water resources. But Green Nylen said state assistance programs tend to be available only for full mergers – another weakness in the regulatory process.

One possibility of a partial merger is unfolding in Sacramento County, where the San Juan Water District and Sacramento Suburban Water District have talked for several years about combining resources.

San Juan is primarily a surface-water agency, with water rights in the American River. Sacramento Suburban primarily relies on groundwater. Combined, the agencies serve around 340,000 people.

If the two could agree to work together and build the necessary plumbing connections, San Juan could use Sacramento Suburban’s groundwater during drought years when American River water might be in short supply. Then, in wet years, it could use American River water to recharge Sacramento Suburban’s aquifers.

“On the face of it, it would seem to give us more opportunity to optimize use of our water supply,” said Paul Helliker, general manager of San Juan Water District. “This is particularly important as we look at what the future holds with climate change and changing regulatory requirements.”

In 2015, board members of the two agencies held a joint meeting to discuss moving ahead with some kind of cooperating agreement. It could range from a full merger to simply collaborating on joint projects. San Juan’s board of directors voted unanimously in favor of proceeding with further negotiations. But the Sacramento Suburban board voted 3-2 against it.

The two agencies recently restarted discussions, Helliker said. Each board has formed a two-member subcommittee for more joint meetings to discuss what form of cooperation to pursue.

In any merger, some of the trickiest issues do not involve money or laws at all, Green Nylen said. Rather, the sticky issues are about who will be in charge, which employees will be retained and deciding whose operating rules are best.

Also, ratepayers often have a variety of concerns. They may fear losing control of “their” water supply. And they may worry about rate increases under a newly consolidated water utility.

“The current round of consolidations has focused on systems where water treatment is just not affordable or financially sustainable unless systems merge,” said Pannu at U.C. Davis. “My understanding is that the state is triaging cases based on the public health impact.”

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