The two-street town of Tooleville finally saw significant progress in a decades-long quest for clean drinking water this week when the state Department of Water Resources (DWR) announced $7.2 million in funding for an interim connection project. Tooleville will be hooked up to the nearby city of Exeter’s water system, something advocates and Tooleville residents have been asking for since the 2010s.
“We’re really excited to see progress on this,” said Michael Claiborne, directing attorney for nonprofit Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability, one of the organizations that has assisted Tooleville in its fight for water access. “It’s nice to actually see some positive momentum.”
Tooleville has been plagued by contaminated water for decades. Most residents rely on bottled water. And the ongoing drought has resulted in surrounding farmers pumping more groundwater, dropping Tooleville’s water table and repeatedly drying up its two aging community wells.
Advocates and residents started pushing for consolidation with Exeter, about a mile northeast of Tooleville, nearly 20 years ago.
But Exeter city officials refused consolidation until August of 2021 when the State Water Resources Control Board notified Exeter it was taking the first steps toward mandatory consolidation.
That finally sparked movement. Almost exactly a year later and negotiations over the consolidation process are nearing completion.
But in the meantime, Tooleville has continued to struggle with intermittent water and aging infrastructure. Its wells went dry in July, an event that has become commonplace during drought.
And consolidation will likely take about eight years to complete, said Adam Ennis, City Administrator for Exeter.
The $7.2 million from DWR will be used to build a pipeline connecting the two communities and to drill a new well in Exeter to accommodate Tooleville. Exeter will send water through the pipeline to Tooleville’s storage tanks. Tooleville will be on a master meter for the short term.
The interim project will take 1-2 years to complete, said Ennis.
The project will work to, “potentially keep them [Tooleville’s tanks] full so that they’ve got water while we work through the rest of this lengthy consolidation process,” said Ennis. “I guess you could call it kind of more of an emergency interim type solution.”
Still, the emergency connection project is a lot of work, he added.
A 1-2 year construction timeline is pretty fast for a project like this, said Leadership Counsel’s Claiborne.
The emergency connection project is part of the overall consolidation project, explained Claiborne. The pipeline will remain as the connection for the longer term consolidation. And the $7.2 million comes out of the consolidation’s overall cost, estimated at about $16 million, said Claiborne.
The multi-year remainder of the consolidation will mostly involve improvements to Exeter’s water system to make sure it can accommodate Tooleville in the long term, said Claiborne. That includes replacement of pipes to make sure they don’t fail from the additional pressure needed to send water to Tooleville, a storage tank and governance changes, such as moving from a master meter to individually metered households in Tooleville.
“I’m very happy because I’ve been trying so hard for the city to connect us to resolve our problem here in Tooleville,” said Maria Olivera, secretary and board member of Tooleville Mutual Nonprofit Water Association.
But Olivera, who has lived in Tooleville since 1974, hopes individual meters can be implemented sooner rather than later.
One of her concerns is that some residents in Tooleville are using more water than others to grow marijuana and maintain landscaping, said Olivera. Individual meters would ensure the whole community isn’t paying for a few people’s excessive water usage, she said.
That aside, she said, the funding and progress is a huge step forward.