The state is finally beginning to address a decades-long problem of dangerous drinking water in parts of the San Joaquin Valley under a new “management zone” program but hardly anyone is paying attention.
Even the prospect of free water testing and free water hasn’t garnered much enthusiasm.
Regardless of the lackluster response, program managers will offer free nitrate testing for domestic well owners starting May 7. If the water has nitrate above the safe level, those residents can also get free bottled water.
The program is open to rural residents in parts of Stanislaus, Madera, Kings and Tulare Counties on their own wells or who are part of very small drinking water systems.
The program is required by the Central California Regional Water Quality Control Board to address nitrate contamination, which can be harmful to infants and pregnant women.
Nitrate has infiltrated large areas of the Central Valley’s groundwater through fertilizers used in farming, septic tanks, dairies and other wastewater sources.
Over the past year, nitrate dischargers in the most contaminated groundwater basins were directed to create “management zones” and come up with plans to get clean drinking water to residents immediately as they worked on long-term fixes. Members of the management zones, farmers, dairies, manufacturers and others, are funding the program that relies heavily on public outreach.
That wasn’t easy during a pandemic.
Without the ability to hold in person meetings, it was a challenge for the management zones to get the word out to rural communities.
Sarah Rutherford, executive director of the Kaweah Water Foundation, which covers northwestern Tulare county, asked a school to help get the word out about free well testing. The school blasted information about the program on social media. But there wasn’t much response.
“At the time it was January and everyone was in their eighth month of homeschooling,” said Rutherford. “And I can tell you no one cared.”
But there is hope for community engagement going forward. As pandemic restrictions begin to ease and COVID-19 rates decline, management zones are planning for more robust outreach.
Parry Klassen, executive director of the Valley Water Collaborative, which covers western Stanislaus County, said they are using map data to create mailing lists of all rural residences on private wells. Valley Water Collaborative is also working with schools such as California State University Stanislaus, where they are hiring students to canvas at farmers markets and other in person gathering spots.
The Kings Water Alliance, which oversees central Fresno and eastern Kings Counties, is creating an advisory group to help guide community outreach.
Charlotte Gallock, executive director of the Kings Water Alliance, said the advisory group, “will hopefully be comprised of community leaders and residents that are active in water quality issues.”
Management zone directors are hoping their outreach efforts produce more community interest as the program gets underway.
“That’s the big unknown,” said Klassen. “We have no idea what to expect.”