Clean water plans need more public involvement, activists say

January 13, 2021
by Lois Henry
Lois Henry


In recent years, a number of regulations and plans to improve water quality and quantity have been established.

As most are just getting underway, it has yet to be seen how they might dovetail.

Most are public agencies and, as such, have made their monitoring and other technical data available so that other organizations can use that data, if applicable, and not have to reinvent the wheel.

Basin Plan Amendment for nitrates
Est. 2018
Oversight: Central Calivornia Regional Water Quality Control Board
Basics: Created “management zones” in each subbasin made up of all entities with permits to discharge nitrates. Those include farms, dairies, wastewater treatment facilities, food processing and more.

There are six “Priority 1” management zones, meaning they have the most nitrate pollution.

Those include: the Kaweah, Chowchilla, Modesto, Turlock, Tule and Kings subbasins.

Dischargers in those management zones are tasked with providing emergency clean drinking water to communities impacted by nitrates and creating plans for long-term solutions for nitrate-free water.

Dischargers were allowed to create organizations to provide solutions, or do so independently. Most formed nonprofit coalitions within management zones.

Sustainable Groundwater Management Act
Est. 2014|
Oversight: Department of Water Resources
Basics: Mandates the state’s groundwater basins be brought into balance by 2040.

Created Groundwater Sustainability Agencies, new public government agencies, to monitor groundwater and oversee replenishment actions to avoid water table decline, land subsidence, water quality degredation, etc.

Central Valley Salts Basin Plan
Est. Began in 2007, ongoing
Oversight: Central California Regional Water Quality Control Plan
Basics: Stakeholder-driven effort to recommend best methods to reduce salt buildup in the groundwater for eventual adoption in a new Basin Plan covering the Central Valley.

Irrigated Lands Program
Est. 2012
Oversight: Central California Regional Water Quality Control Board
Basics: Created new requirements for farmers to monitor and reduce the amount of nitrates seeping into the groundwater from fertilizers.

Most farmers joined coalitions created around each watershed. Those coalitions report to the Regional Water Quality board.

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The stage is finally set for years of talking to be translated into actual clean drinking water for potentially thousands of San Joaquin Valley residents.

But activists fear the effort will flop before the curtain rises if more isn’t done to engage the people who are drinking that water.

The issue is nitrate, which is  rife the valley’s groundwater and considered dangerous for infants and pregnant women.

As part of a larger overhaul of its salt and nitrate plan for the entire basin, the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board mandated last March that nitrate dischargers come up with two sets of plans to clean up nitrate in drinking water.

  1. Immediate clean drinking water on an interim basis for residents whose community systems or private wells are overloaded with nitrate.
  2. Long-term solutions to abate and keep nitrate out of drinking water supplies.

Those preliminary plans are due March 8.

Regulatory maze

This is a new, and different regulation from other nitrate reduction measures such as the Irrigated Lands Program. It’s also separate from the Central Valley Salts effort.  And it’s different from other groundwater regulations, such as the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act. (See sidebar)

Meanwhile, over the past year, dischargers — farmers, food processors, wastewater operators, etc. — have done a herculean amount of work getting organized into “management zones,” creating governance systems, taxing themselves and commissioning studies to identify nitrate-tainted drinking water in often vast rural areas.

And they are working on the required plans simultaneously.

That includes at least some outreach to residents, all of which was hampered by COVID-19 just as they were getting started, according to several management zone directors.

One size won’t fit

Activists are still worried residents are being left out.

“Our fear is that these plans are going to reflect drinking water solutions that benefit the pocketbooks of polluters, not meet the needs of communities impacted by nitrate pollution,” said Debi Ores, Attorney for Community Water Center.

Clean water has to be provided in ways that those who need it can get it.

Centralized water kiosks? Bottled water? Under sink filtration systems?

Each option depends on a person’s individual circumstances, such as having a vehicle to drive to a kiosk for fresh water.

There’s no one-size-fits-all way to get clean water to communities in need.

Community Water Center and others brought their concerns to the Regional Water Quality board Dec. 10  and board members took note.

“(Dischargers) can’t come up with a plan that doesn’t serve the people who are impacted,” said Board Member Denise Kadara.

And COVID-19 can’t be used as an excuse, she said, noting the board itself has found ways to reach more people than ever using digital platforms.

“I won’t put up with them (management zones) saying they couldn’t reach people,” Kadara said.

Clean water triage

That’s not going to happen, said Patrick Pulupa, Executive Director of the Regional Water Quality board.

The early action plans are meant as a “triage.”

“But it doesn’t end there. The engagement goes on,” he said. “At the emergency level, there’s not going to be the level of public engagement we’d like because there isn’t time. But that’s balanced later by engagement that will be needed for longer term solutions.”

In recognition of the complexities involved in this effort, activists commissioned their own study looking at this issue and released a report with recommendations and even a “cost calculator”for implementing those recommendations in early January.

The cost calculator includes initial and ongoing community outreach costs, according to Jonathan Nelson, policy director for Community Water Center.

“The report shows this will cost real money to do it equitably,” Nelson said.

According to the report calculator costs for water quality analysis and outreach just in the Kings County management zone could be nearly $1.5 million in the first year and more than $75,000 a year for outreach on an ongoing basis.

“But we’re believe impacted residents should have a direct say in solutions that are purportedly for their families,” Nelson said. “It’s not optional.”

Directors of the management zones have received the report and some had initial conversations with Community Water Center.

“We are all talking now,” said Sarah Rutherford, Interim Director of the Kaweah Water Foundation in Tulare County. “(Community Water Center) has been very helpful and given us a lot of good feedback.”

Kaweah held its first public meeting, virtually, Jan. 7 and will continue virtual meetings through February with materials in Spanish and English provided ahead of time and real-time translation services during the meetings.

“What’s becoming clear is, we can present options for residents, but that’s not as useful until we know what the problems are in each home,” she said. “For instance, RO wouldn’t be appropriate for a home that also has TCP.”

RO is reverse osmosis used for nitrate removal and TCP refers to 1,2,3-TCP a carcinogen found in a pesticide additive that must be removed using carbon filtration.

Building trust

Directors of several management zones said they have been moving fast over the past year and haven’t had as much community involvement as they would have liked, so far.

Even for the Kings Water Alliance, a management zone that covers portions of Fresno and Kings counties, which got a special grant and jump start on the regs, getting interest was tough, said Director Charlotte Gallock.

The Alliance tried conducting a webinar to explain the nitrate problem and coming regulations.

Even after sending out 6,000 direct notices, putting up fliers in more than a dozen locations and contacting community leaders through public utility and other districts, they only got about 50 people.

“And more were from environmental justice type groups,” Gallock said.

Over the past year, though, she said participation has ramped up.

Gallock said the alliance has been working with environmental justice groups, communications consultants and is contracting with Self-Help Enterprises, a Visalia-based community organization that helps low-income, rural residents with housing and water issues.

“We’re working to build trust between the management zone and the people who need the water,” Gallock said.

The Alliance is using the Kings River Water Quality Coalition website to post info until its own website is up and running.

Bridging the gaps

The Kaweah Water Foundation has contracted with the Center for Collaborative Policy at California State University, Sacramento and put together a 40-page outreach plan that drills down to the individual landowner level.

“Really, our starting point was in September after getting all the dischargers and getting organized,” Rutherford said. “We have a lot of unincorporated communities with domestic wells and we’re working to identify those now and make sure those areas are targeted for clean drinking water. We are listening to what people want and we also need to be very clear so people understand the options.”

Clean water solutions are complex and sometimes confounding, Rutherford said.

For example, the community of Lemon Cove got a grant to drill new wells, but no money to connect them so they still have substandard water, Rutherford said.

“The foundation hopes to be the bridge to solutions for some of these issues,” she said.

That might involved coordinating with other agencies for funding, which Community Water Center is also advocating.

California created a special fund to fix dangerous drinking water systems called the Safe and Affordable Funding for Equity and Resilience (SAFER), which is administered under the State Water Resources Control Board.

And Groundwater Sustainability Agencies can apply for Proposition 68 funding, through the Department of Water Resources, in order to pay for groundwater improvement programs.

In a perfect world, those funding sources could dovetail with management zone efforts so there wouldn’t be a situation where one well is being tested by three different groups for three different issues.

Yes, Rutherford said, management zones, GSAs and others see the benefit to coordination.

But each funding source has its own strings and requirements and every time another agency is added to the mix it can mean weeks or months of additional discussions, policy review and planning.

“Including SAFER and Prop. 68 might be great, but it might slow things down,” Rutherford said.

In for the long haul

Most management zones are planning to have their early action plans out to the public sometime in late January.

“Then we’re really going to be pushing for community meetings,” said Parry Klassen, director of the Valley Water Collaborative, a management zone that includes Turlock and Modesto.

He said this process has already played out in Salinas where he was hired to do outreach and sent mailers, advertised and knocked on doors.

It wasn’t easy.

“We had a hard time getting people to accept free water, even in the disadvantaged communities,” he said. “People are skeptical.”

The San Joaquin Valley won’t be any easier as the collaborative is targeting mostly rural residents, many on private wells.

“But we will meet these requirements. We have the funds to get it done and we’re committed,” he said. “The EJ (environmental justice) groups have to remember, this is a marathon, not a sprint.”

SJV Water is an independent, nonprofit news site dedicated to covering water in the San Joaquin Valley. Get inside access to SJV Water by becoming a member.


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