Just as residents in rural East Orosi are getting some traction on drinking water issues, they are dealing with what they call abusive treatment over sewage services and they’ve had enough.
At a recent protest during the East Orosi Community Services District meeting, about 40 residents laid out charges of mistreatment. They alleged the district has overcharged them and even threatened to call immigration services on some residents.
They laid the blame at the feet of a single district employee and what they say is a dysfunctional board.
The problem is apparently tangled up with conjoined water issues that have separate oversight authority – sewage and drinking water.
In East Orosi’s case, help with long-standing drinking water problems appears to be moving forward. The 950-member community relies on two community wells that are contaminated with nitrates. The state Water Resources Control Board has provided bottled water for about a decade.
In 2020, the Water Board ordered the city of Orosi to connect homes served by the East Orosi CSD as part of a forced consolidation. The state appointed an administrator to oversee drinking water services and Tulare County was appointed to service the domestic wells until the consolidation is complete.
But the East Orosi CSD also provides sewage services to residents. Homes in the community are all on septic tanks, but pipelines move the sewage to a collection system, which the CSD is responsible for. Residents pay $39 a month for that service.
The state Water Board has no authority over that side of the CSD’s operations.
And that’s, apparently, where much of the trouble lies.
“Unfortunately, the reality with these small districts often is that because there’s very little requirements regarding what it takes to be on these districts, there’s often pretty low capacity to begin with,” said Janaki Anagha, director of Community Water Center, a nonprofit advocacy group that has been helping East Orosi residents.
“And in this case, when you’re dealing with a situation of potential corruption, there’s just a sort of culture of fear in this community.”
Residents who protested at the August 31 CSD meeting pointed to one employee, Lucy Rodriguez, who they allege has overcharged them, threatened to call immigration authorities for failure to pay and refused to provide billing records and other documents.
Rodriguez denies all the allegations.
“I’ve never called immigration. I can care less who has papers, who’s documented,” Rodriguez told SJV Water in response to the claims. She acknowledged it is part of her job to call the sheriff if customers commit “theft of water.”
About 170 East Orosi residents signed a petition to remove Rodriguez, which they presented to the CSD board at the Aug. 31 meeting.
The three-member board made no public decision concerning Rodriguez’ employment and said they would meet in private to discuss the issue. The board should have five members, but the CSD has been unable to fill the other two voluntary positions.
Rodriguez, the CSD secretary, has worked at the district for 20 years. She is in charge of bill collection, Anagha said.
The Community Water Center hears from about a dozen residents a month who are confused by their sewage services bills, Anagha said. She called the CSD’s accounting system a mess, noting that she has seen handwritten bills on notepaper.
“It’s really like the Wild West stuff where people are just kind of being strong armed and told to pay something that is not substantiated,” said Anagha. “And despite asking for years for billing histories, for any publicly available budget, any publicly available financial report, any documentation at all, that will indicate that these funds are being expended appropriately, we have not gotten anything.”
Rodriguez refuted all the claims and said that she has operated by the book and has treated residents with respect and fairness.
“They have, from day one, been after me,” said Rodriguez. “I don’t want to ever be accused of taking money. I was never raised to be like that.”
As far as billing, Rordriguez says the district uses a cash journal and distributes receipts to customers when they pay their bills. If they want to dispute charges, those receipts help to pinpoint when the disputed charge was issued, she said.
Some residents tell a different story.
Bertha Diaz Ochoa is one of those customers saying she has been overcharged. When Ochoa asked Rodriguez what month she was behind on to clarify the extra charges, she said Rodgriguez didn’t give an answer. The last time this happened was in February, said Ochoa.
“There is no order as to how payments are made,” said Ochoa in Spanish via Maraid Jimenez, communications associate at Community Water Center, who translated. “I just want to have a transparent bill. And this staff member [Rodriguez] doesn’t seem to have the capacity to provide that transparency and that fair service.”
Ochoa is an East Orosi resident and a member of the AGUA Coalition, a group of residents and nonprofits across the San Joaquin Valley who are fighting for water accessibility. Ochoa said she’s asked Rodriguez for records and documentation to better understand the charges. But she has never been shown any documentation.
“It is an experience that chips away at you,” said Ochoa. “It’s a sad reality. It often feels like a puzzle piece with no solution.”
Sewage and domestic water are under two different regulatory agencies, said Chad Fischer, section supervisor for the Safe and Affordable Funding for Equity and Resilience (SAFER) program, which funds short- and long-term water system solutions.
The Division of Drinking Water, under the state Water Resources Control Board, oversees compliance with drinking water standards.
Sewage is overseen by the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board.
“If we’re thinking about a water system, yes, they [small systems] often oversee both water and wastewater,” said Fischer. But in most other situations, “it’s two different regulatory authorities,” he said.
Calls to the Water Quality Control Board were not immediately returned.
Community Water Center staff has been trying to get Tulare County to take on oversight of East Orosi CSD’s sewage services to bypass Rodriguez and the board, said Anagha. But county staff told the center it was too much of a liability, she said. That was what triggered residents to call for Rodriguez’s removal, she added.