California communities fight — sometimes, with their neighbors — for clean, safe drinking water.

By Austin R. Ramsey

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Updated 1/24/2022:
Ongoing drought conditions in California’s Central Valley mean Tooleville’s beleaguered water system now qualifies for mandatory consolidation, and the state government has put the nearby city of Exeter on notice. The State Water Resources Control Board has given Exeter until late February to voluntarily draft a plan that would tie Tooleville into its water system or the state will force its hand. Should the two communities come to terms, Exeter could collect more than $14 million on service collections and a $10 million zero-interest loan from the state to cover the cost of infrastructure improvements. But city officials have expressed doubts that the state government will make good on its end of the deal to help cover the cost of tapping Tooleville in.

Meanwhile, the Exeter City Council has added the city’s signature to a controversial Republican-sponsored proposed ballot initiative that would amend the state constitution to allow for the state to draw from additional sources to meet the valley’s demand. The legislation would, in part, allow the state to use public funds to dam rivers and build surface water retention basins that environmental groups believe could be damaging to the state’s already lagging water resiliency. The plan would allow the Natural Resources Agency to override decisions by public environmental protection boards to deny water infrastructure projects. Proponents of the measure hope to bring it to the ballot by this fall.

TOOLEVILLE, Calif. — An ongoing struggle between two communities less than a mile apart in one of the nation’s key farming regions is a microcosm that illustrates the challenges California faces as it tries to deliver clean, affordable drinking water to more than 1 million residents without access to what the state has called a “basic human right.”

Nestled among orange groves in the Central Valley, the community of Tooleville has just 391 residents. Hardly a town or a village, it’s a place with a name and a few dozen homes along two dead-end roads off the highway. The drinking water it draws from two nearby wells is often so contaminated with farming-related nitrates and pesticides that residents have been receiving free bottled water from state and county agencies.

Less than a mile west of Tooleville is the town of Exeter. Its 10,500 residents have paved streets and schools. They get their water from a municipal system without harmful contaminants.

Since at least 2001, Tooleville residents have been trying to persuade Exeter city officials to extend that municipal service to their community. In September 2019, the Exeter City Council turned them down once again.

Tooleville’s plight is a common one in California. Although the state was the first in the nation to identify water a basic human right, fulfilling that promise has been painfully slow.

“Water really is the story of California right now; it’s about the haves and the have nots,” said Blair Robertson, a spokesman for the state water board. “It’s a story of liquid gold.”

Most Californians who lack access to safe and affordable drinking water live here in the Central Valley, where clusters of homes and trailer parks are dotted amid vast cropland — home to nearly a tenth of the nation’s agricultural output and the farmhands who tend to it. They live in what the state calls disadvantaged unincorporated communities, or DUCs. Most of these communities are predominantly Latino. DUCs in the San Joaquin Valley are roughly 68% Hispanic, compared to just 37% in other unincorporated places.

Many DUCs are close to towns with safe drinking water, and experts say the best solution for them is to consolidate their water systems with larger neighbors.

But wealthier communities rarely choose to consolidate voluntarily, usually citing cost as a factor. Exeter’s mayor, for example, said at a recent council meeting that her city had enough trouble meeting its own water needs without taking on Tooleville’s problems.

Some experts suspect festering racial and class tensions are also to blame.

link to video
Video by Mary Cardaras and Casey Beck, produced in affiliation with the IRW.

“It’s not just money,” said Jennifer Clary, a water program manager at Clean Water Action in California, an environmental advocacy group. “It’s that they’re worried that poor people don’t pay their water bills. They think it’s OK that the poor people are going to end up paying more for their water so they don’t have to deal with a poor neighborhood.”

Officials with the California Division of Drinking Water say they don’t yet know exactly how many of the state’s disadvantaged communities would benefit from consolidation; it’s something they’re still in the process of studying. But research by the Center for Regional Change at the University of California, Davis, suggests that nearly two-thirds of 450 DUCs in the Central Valley alone would be good candidates.

There have been only about 100 consolidations statewide/ since California began monitoring voluntary consolidations in October 2016. An IRW analysis of state records indicates that state agencies or state-backed bond grants helped support only about 10% of the consolidations.

In 2015, California gave the State Water Resources Control Board power to force communities to consolidate. But just one mandatory consolidation order has been completed.

Many disadvantaged communities, including Tooleville, have discovered they’re not eligible for mandatory consolidation, because their water doesn’t consistently fail to meet state and federal standards. Instead, it teeters on the brink of noncompliance — one day suspiciously clear, the next day cloudy and perhaps toxic.

“The way the law is written, we can’t step in,” said Caitlin Juarez, one of two division partnership coordinators at the state water board. “There’s not a lot we can do.”

A community in crisis

Tooleville, California, lies about a half-mile from the Exeter city limits, but the two communities couldn’t be farther apart from each other. Exeter has a comprehensive municipal drinking water system, but Tooleville relies on two wells that are drawing in perpetually contaminated water.Map showing Tooleville, CA

The Toolevilles of California

Remote farming communities like Tooleville were once havens for families seeking opportunity in the valley’s fertile fields.

Jose Mendoza, 75, immigrated here from Tarimoro, Mexico more than 40 years ago, because, as he put it, there was nothing left for him there.

“There was no work there, and we were very poor,” he said.

Mendoza, who is now retired, started a family in the valley. He built a life picking oranges, plums, peaches and grapes.

Tooleville was an oasis for him and other farm workers until the late ‘80s when the water turned bad. The town’s two wells began drawing in nitrates that for decades had been filtering into the groundwater from fertilizers and pesticides on the fields above.

Nitrates are colorless, odorless compounds that can cause blood disorders in infants. Tooleville’s water also frequently contains high levels of hexavalent chromium, a toxic heavy metal, and coliform bacteria, which is typically an indication of sewage contamination.

“If you think about the origin of these communities, when they were founded as just a few houses or a neighborhood, they basically stuck a straw in the ground,” said Clary, the water program manager at Clean Water Action. “Groundwater was cheap, it was plentiful and you didn’t even have to disinfect it if it was serving a small enough area. But the difficulty is, as soon as you have a problem, then you have these big expenses.”

Mendoza said white residents in Exeter came to see immigrants from Tooleville as hardworking people who were willing to do the jobs other people wouldn’t.

Today, roughly 45% of Exeter’s population is Hispanic, compared to nearly 82% in Tooleville.  Exeter’s median household income is $42,600, while Tooleville’s is just $28,500.

Mendoza said the water crisis has made the economic and racial disparities “more and more and more bad.”

The history of California’s unincorporated communities dates back to the mid-1800s during the state’s gold rush and population boom, according to Jonathan London, the faculty director at the UC Davis Center for Regional Change.

In contrast to the nation’s burgeoning eastern seaboard, land was cheap and available in California. The west offered endless expanses of wild country where towns and cities began cropping up along sources of water.

But low-income communities, or DUCs, like Tooleville were often left isolated with no means to incorporate.

“They’re like colonies, many of them,” London said, “cut off from everything and everyone around them.”

The resource divide between Tooleville and Exeter likely stretches back decades. A 1971 report by the Tulare County Planning Department actually recommended that water and wastewater resources be withheld from Tooleville and 15 other unincorporated communities it described as “non-viable.”

“These non-viable communities would, as a consequence of withholding major public facilities such as sewer and water systems, enter a process of long-term, natural decline as residents depart for improved opportunities in nearby communities,” the report stated.

In 2013, the national research and action institute PolicyLink mapped  the DUCs in the San Joaquin Valley, a portion of the Central Valley south of the California Delta. That research inspired the Center for Regional Change to measure water justice among the DUCs in that part of the state. 

The findings, London said, were disheartening.

Of the community water systems that intersect or partially intersect those disadvantaged areas, 38% consistently fail to provide safe drinking water. Nearly 75% of the people served by out-of-compliance systems are black and/or Latino.

Hidden among the masses

Since California became the first state to declare water a basic tenant of social justice, it’s carefully tracked communities in and out of compliance with state and federal regulations. At any given time, roughly 300 community water systems and 1 million people in the state lack access to safe and affordable drinking water. But communities such as Tooleville are lost in the multitude of data, teetering on the precipice of noncompliance or thrust into compliance by the vagaries of law.

Wishful thinking

Yolanda Cuevas liked to wear black. But when she and her husband, Benjamin, moved to Tooleville a little over a year ago, she faced an unexpected problem.

“When I put them in to wash, they came out another color, a lighter color,” she recalled.

The well water that fed her home reeked of bleach. After showers, her skin itched.

It wasn’t until Cuevas, 57, went to a community meeting that she discovered that the water coming out of the faucets in her new home was contaminated with coliform bacteria and hexavalent chromium.

Cuevas was among the Tooleville residents who filed into Exeter City Hall on Sept. 10, 2019, to make their latest pitch for consolidation. They were accompanied by representatives of the Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability, a nonprofit that provides organizational, research and legal support for disadvantaged communities.

She addressed the city leaders at one point, pleading for help.

“I have two grandkids that I have to worry about them,” she said. “Every time that they wash their mouth, I have to take a bottle of water for them to rinse their teeth. When they take a shower, I have to take some clean water for them to rinse it out.

“Please help us,” she added.

Yolanda Cuevas standing in front of house
Yolanda Cuevas, 57, counts herself among 400 Tooleville residents who have fought for access to the municipal drinking water system in nearby Exeter. Their latest effort in September 2019 failed when the Exeter City Council voted to take no action on a proposal to join the residents in asking for state funds. (Lance M. Yamamoto)

The little group was optimistic that Tooleville’s drinking water problems would finally be solved.

Michael Claiborne, the Leadership Counsel’s senior attorney, said he had a verbal agreement with the state to fund a mile’s worth of pipeline and bolster water resources in Exeter. He said the state would even consider covering the cost of a new storage tank for Exeter and refinancing some of the town’s existing water infrastructure debt.

All the city council had to do, he said that night, was agree to engage the state water board in the remaining negotiations.

Exeter Mayor Mary Waterman-Philpot wasn’t convinced.

“I wish Santa Claus was real,” she said.

A few minutes later, the council unanimously voted to take no action on a consolidation plan.

“I think, in general, we all feel like we all need to be responsible to Exeter first and make sure that we can provide them safe drinking water at an affordable price, and, you know, make sure that ours are up and running before we would even consider expanding to Tooleville,” the mayor said.

Since that meeting, Clairborne has talked with Tulare County officials about Tooleville’s predicament. He said one of them told him there was another reason Exeter rejected Tooleville’s plea — the residents had become “too aggressive” in their push for clean-water access.

“It seems like a regular occurrence that when small communities of color like Tooleville ask for a basic service like access to safe drinking water, they get labeled as aggressive,” Claiborne said.

Water bottles under a home shrine
Water is distributed and stored at Yolanda Cuevas’ house in Tooleville, where the state has provided clean water to residents for many years. (Lance M. Yamamoto)

Between a rock and a hard place

Because Tooleville doesn’t qualify for mandatory consolidation, it can’t rely on the state for help in its battle with Exeter.

But as recently as three years ago, Tooleville would have been a candidate for the mandatory program, because its water contains high levels of a known carcinogen. The federal government classifies hexavalent chromium, or chromium-6, as an “unregulated contaminant,” which means utilities only need to test for it, not treat it in their source water. But in 2014, California became the first state to set a maximum contaminant level for chromium-6, and Tooleville’s water exceeded it.

In 2018, however, a Sacramento County court struck down the regulation, saying the water board hadn’t done enough to weigh the potential economic impact the stricter regulations could have on water utilities. The court’s action meant that Tooleville is no longer eligible for the free bottled water shipments provided through the state’s Cleanup and Abatement Account.  Instead, deliveries are provided through a Tulare County program that operates on an income-level basis. Only those families whose household income is within 80% of the state’s minimum poverty guidelines are eligible.

From 2014 to 2019, 112 communities with out-of-compliance water received 465,000 gallons of bottled drinking water, according to data the IRW requested from the state. There were 51 communities being served at an annual cost of more than $4 million.

Meanwhile, the level of chromium-6 in Tooleville’s water supply keeps rising.

Andrea Galdamez, with the nonprofit Self-Help Enterprises, has been busy knocking on doors in Tooleville, trying to persuade people to sign up for the county program. Although technically their water meets state standards, she repeats a well-known fact of life in Tooleville: “Please don’t drink the water.”

Few consolidations

Since California’s mandatory consolidation law took effect in 2015, just three consolidation orders have been issued and only one has actually been used to force a merger.  It was between the city of Tulare and the Pratt Mutual Water Co., which serves residents of Matheny Tract, a disadvantaged community south of the city.

In that case, the two communities had reached a voluntary consolidation agreement when city leaders in Tulare were sidetracked by the prospect of instead delivering water to a new housing development.

“They evaluated and thought, ‘Are we going to honor this agreement we already made with this low-income area, or, guess what, there’s this new wealthier middle-class housing development we’re thinking about building, which is clearly going to provide us with a better property tax base to the city coffers,’” said Ryan Jensen a water programming manager at the Community Water Center.

At that point, the state water board stepped in and forced Tulare’s hand, Jensen said. But all that was really left for that hand to do, he added, was flip a switch.

Ken Smith, 56, has lived in Matheny Tract his whole life.

Tract residents are so close to Tulare that they tell outsiders they live in Tulare, Smith said, even though, on paper, they really don’t.

“We love Tulare,” Smith said. “If anyone asks me where I’m from, I don’t say Matheny Tract; I say ‘Tulare, California.’ I’m proud of that, but they’re not proud of us.”

When all parties are in agreement, consolidation is the state’s focus, said Juarez, with the California water board. But consolidations can be expensive, and until recently, California hadn’t set aside a steady stream of funds to address all of its water problems.

The state water board is responsible for drafting the contaminate limits in California, weighing health concerns from the Office of Environmental Health Assessment against financial constraints so consumers are safe and their water bills are manageable. But Robert Brownwood, assistant deputy director for the board’s drinking water program management branch, said there’s a lack of reliable medical data, particularly for contaminants that aren’t regulated by the EPA.

He said the effects these contaminants may already be having on the public are largely unknown. Is a mysterious rash that comes and goes — or birth defects in a newborn — caused by the water faucet at home? In most cases, it’s impossible to say for sure.

“My soul struggles with that so much,” Brownwood said.

It’s not uncommon. Flint, Michigan, and Newark, New Jersey, didn’t know their drinking water supplies were causing health concerns until it was arguably too late. It’s impossible for a state alone to gauge the health effects of thousands of water constituents — some of which are yet to even be discovered, he said.

Brownwood said his office’s charter gives it authority but not the funding to study the effect of California’s water on public health.

“We have not been given a penny in the 30 years I’ve been here to do anything like that,” he said. “(It’s a) flaw in the system. I’ve been beating that drum for four years now.”

Last year, Gov. Gavin Newsom pushed through a set of controversial fees on larger water systems and farmers that are expected to generate $130 million a year to begin addressing some of these problems. It’s unclear whether any of the funding would be made available for public health research, but the money will help fund the costs of mandatory consolidations and supplement operating and maintenance budgets for systems that opt to treat their own water rather than consolidate.

This year, that fund was renamed the Safe and Affordable Funding for Equity and Resilience Program, and a portion of it has been designated specifically for small, disadvantaged communities.

“I cannot underestimate how big a deal this bill was,” said Jensen, of the Community Water Center. “I remember us talking about a source of funding to help cover operations and maintenance costs for water systems as if we were talking about the goose that laid the golden egg, you know? It was something that was never going to happen. Five — almost six — years later, we got it done. It happened.”

Small community funding is expected to clear the way for areas where drinking water is consistently out of compliance, but the way forward for communities like Tooleville remains uncertain. Still, CalEPA Secretary Jared Blumenfield told the state water board in August that Newsom is committed to long-term solutions for California’s ongoing drinking water crisis.

“There are communities that have not had affordable or safe drinking water for, in some cases, decades,” he said. “And that, I think, is the thing that this governor was really motivated by. How, in the fifth largest economy in the world, can we have a million-plus people who don’t have access to safe and affordable drinking water?”

Boxes of bottled water
Tooleville residents who are part of an income-based water shipment program receive enough free drinking water to last them about a week. But the program doesn’t always provide enough water for everyone’s bathing or cooking needs. (Lance M. Yamamoto)

Ramsey reported from Washington. Contributors David Rodriguez reported from Tooleville, and Lucas Smolcic Larson reported from Washington and New York. Maps by Kelly Martin / IRW