New York Times
May 10, 2013
Why Federal Efforts to Ensure Clean Tap Water Fail to Reach Faucets Nationwide
By FELICITY BARRINGER
MONSON, Calif. — Laura Garcia was halfway through the breakfast dishes when the spigot went dry. The small white tank beneath the sink that purified her undrinkable water had run out. Still, as annoying as that was, it was an improvement over the days before Ms. Garcia got her water filter, when she had to do her dishes using water from five-gallon containers she bought at a local store.
Ms. Garcia’s well water, like that of her neighbors, is laced with excessive nitrates, a pollutant associated with agriculture, septic systems and some soils. Five years ago, this small community of 49 homes near the southern end of the Central Valley took its place on California’s priority list of places in need of clean tap water.
Today the community is still stuck on that list, with no federal help in sight.
Monson’s situation has parallels in places around the country, large and small, seeking federal funds under the Safe Drinking Water Act. The Environmental Protection Agency distributes these funds to state agencies that are supposed to identify problems and underwrite solutions. By the E.P.A.’s calculations, no state has been as inept in distributing the money as California.
The state’s most recent priority list contained 4,925 applications. Some have been on the list for a dozen years. Some have been abandoned by the original applicants. Some are getting the federal funds quickly; others are in limbo. Of $1.5 billion in federal money sent to California and cycled through a revolving fund, $455 million lay fallow earlier this year while the priority list grew.
Monson, an unincorporated town in Tulare County, has a particular bureaucratic challenge. The community has no legal status, so it cannot apply on its own. Yet other entities, like Tulare County, which has offered to add pipelines to send clean water down the road to Monson from the town of Sultana’s water system, have only recently been empowered to apply on Monson’s behalf.
Local philanthropy, in the form of a Tulare County Rotary initiative, has tried to help, donating filters like the one under Ms. Garcia’s sink. These are welcome, Ms. Garcia said, speaking through an interpreter. But, she added, “That’s not a permanent solution.”
Since this cluster of 118 people does not qualify as a town, a water district or anything else that the California Department of Public Health recognizes as a valid applicant, another group must act on its behalf.
Monson is hardly alone. According to Jared Blumenfeld, the regional administrator of the E.P.A., nearly a quarter of all the small water systems in California are in the Central Valley. One-quarter of these dispense water that fails to meet all of the E.P.A’s health requirements.
To fix the problems, however, requires access to engineering and financial management resources beyond the reach of the needy communities, Mr. Blumenfeld said. “We require the state to be sure the people they fund have managerial, financial and administrative capacity to deal” with their water issues.
Though there is hope that Tulare County will be able to get the grant for Monson, he said, “some people, smart people, are trying to solve these problems and feeling frustrated.”
Mr. Blumenfeld himself was frustrated enough to issue a public rebuke to California last month. In a letter to Ron Chapman, the director of the state’s Public Health Department, he wrote, “Many of California’s critical drinking-water infrastructure needs remain unmet.”
He added: “California needs $39 billion in capital improvements through 2026 for water systems to continue to provide safe drinking water to the public. Given this tremendous need, it is crucial that California fully utilize” the revolving fund that is the repository for the federal aid, as well as hundreds of millions of dollars in loan repayments from local water systems. The state was given 60 days to report how it was going to fix the internal accounting problems and get money out.
Does Monson’s long wait reflect a larger pattern of undistributed funds in small communities? In a written response, the spokeswoman for the California Department of Public Health, Anita Gore, replied, “Small water systems often lack the technical expertise and funding to prepare funding applications, hire consultants to get their projects ‘shovel-ready’ and to make them happen.”
She added that the state “has found that these systems require greater assistance than larger water systems, and is working to simplify its procedures and provide more technical assistance.”
More than 800 of the applicants on the state priority list represent communities of fewer than 100 people.
Maria Herrera, who works for the Community Water Center, a local nonprofit, said “the process for Monson to secure funding to solve its drinking water challenges has had many false starts and roadblocks.” She added that the difficulty in satisfying the state “has delayed Monson’s ability to get clean drinking water and forced residents to live without safe drinking water.”
At the moment, Tulare County is planning on Monson’s behalf, and has suggested alternatives, including that pipeline from Sultana.
Britt Fussel, the public works director in Tulare County, said he also hoped to use grant money not just to study different options but also to have one ready to go. “It’s easy to find money for shovel-ready projects; it’s hard to find money for planning,” he said.
This approach, too, was rejected. “I’m in the process of modifying the scope of work,” Mr. Fussel said.
The public health spokeswoman, Ms. Gore, said the state was working closely with the county to expedite things. She wrote: “Tulare County submitted an application on behalf of the unincorporated community of Monson in early 2012. We anticipate the planning project will be completed in mid-2014. Typically, construction projects run about three years to completion, but that depends on what options are identified in the planning study.”