By Reggie Ellis @Reggie_SGN
YETTEM, SEVILLE – Water is the number one issue Tulare County residents will consider this November, from who will represent them in the federal government at the top of their ballot to who is running their water district at the bottom. For communities like Exeter, they will decide who will apply pressure to fix a system that lacks pressure. In Visalia they will vote for a council that will oversee the county’s largest wastewater treatment facility ever built and the first to generate enough recycled water to take pressure of its pumps and pump water back into the ground. And for the first time in Seville and Yettem, they will vote for the right to make those decisions for themselves.
On July 17, the Board of Supervisors voted to hold an election allowing residents of Seville and Yettem, two rural communities that share a school district between Cutler-Orosi and Woodlake, to form a community services district (CSD) to jointly manage their water systems. CSDs are districts that provide a broad list of public services that can vary from one district to the next. Primarily, CSDs provide water and sewer to residents living in the jurisdiction. Known as Measure Y, the ballot text reads as follows: “Shall the order adopted on May 2, 2018 by the Local Agency Formation Commission of Tulare County ordering the formation of the Yettem-Seville Community Services District be confirmed subject to the terms and conditions specified in the order?”
It’s a crucial shift for the two communities along Highway 201 where Tulare County’s poorest residents pay some of the highest water and sewer rates yet haven’t had clean water in over 50 years. About 4 in 5 people in the two communities are living in poverty with an average household income of just $18,000 per year. The average monthly bill for sewer and water is $137.50, which represents more than 9% of the median income. That’s more than triple the state’s standard for water and sewer affordability.
Simultaneously, residents in the district will also elect five residents to sit on the board. Typically small districts have trouble finding residents to sit on their boards but that won’t be a problem for Yettem-Seville. When the filing period closed for candidates on Aug. 15, Yettem-Seville had six qualified candidates vying for five seats, which means residents will not only have a say in their water bills but a choice in who will represent them on the Nov. 6 ballot. Those running are Erik Gonzalez, Manuel Gonzalez, Gregorio Frias, Mike Villarreal, Linda Gutierrez and Christopher Kemper.
The strong showing of candidates is thanks to the work being done by Self-Help Enterprises (SHE) and the Community Water Center (CWC), a Visalia-based environmental justice group whose mission is to act as a catalyst for community-driven water solutions through organizing, education, and advocacy. CWC has been working with Seville since December of 2008. CWC helped the community establish the community-based organization Committee for a Better Seville, and helped the community address funding hurdles and secure planning money.
Adriana Renteria, Regional Water Management Coordinator, said CWC has been doing extensive outreach in many water districts, including Yettem and Seville, to ensure that rural residents have elected representatives on their water boards. In March, CWC released a report that studied water districts in Fresno, Kern, Kings and Tulare Counties and found that 87% of board members held uncontested seats and 75 of 109 districts have not held a single election in the last four years due to a lack of candidates.
In a response to the report, CWC began holding public information meetings in small water districts to educate the residents on the board’s important role in providing the most basic of human necessities. CWC followed up with training sessions on the steps to file as a candidate, how to run a meeting under California’s open meeting laws and the duties and responsibilities of a board member.
“Those who have come to the meetings, about 15 people, were active water leaders in their community who were excited about the opportunity to take a leadership role in their community,” Renteria said.
With at least five board members ready to take office, the formation of the district comes down to a simple majority vote of those living in the district, which is about 700 people, according to the 2010 U.S. Census. SHE began doing public opinion surveys on whether or not the community wanted to form a CSD and the response was extremely positive to the idea of having more say in the cost of their utility bills.
“We’re pretty confident this is going to happen,” Adriana said.
If the measure is approved by voters, Yettem-Seville will be the first Community Services District formed since 2012 and only the third since 1983. Other CSDs in Tulare County include Alpaugh, Ducor, Sultana, and Three Rivers. Ben Guiliana, executive officer for Tulare County’s Local Area Formation Committee (LAFCo) which oversees annexation and district boundaries, said it is rare to combine two smaller systems because they are usually not close enough together. Yettem and Seville are only one mile apart along Highway 201 between Orosi and Woodlake. Guiliana said CSDs act as mini municipalities with broad powers to provide all manner of utilities, including street lighting.
“A CSD can do just about any service a city can provide,” Guiliana said.
Steve Worthley, who represents Yettem and Seville as the District 4 seat on the Tulare County Board of Supervisors, said self-governance for small water districts has always been part of the county’s plan. Worthley said Seville and Yettem residents pay some of the highest water and sewer bills in the county. Seville’s water rates were set by a court order when their water company went into receivership resulting in an average monthly payment of $60 and about $59.75 for sewer. The situation in Yettem is more dire as they pay $58 per month for water but an exorbitant $97.25 for sewer.
Worthley said by connecting them together the costs of running the system should go down and having 30% more people sharing the cost of the system should reduce monthly bills through economies of scale.
“Los Angeles has one of the most elaborate water systems and some of the most reasonable rates,” Worthley said. “It’s all about how many connections can share the cost of running the system.”
Since the 1980s, the county has been forced to take over sewer and water systems in eight communities and take on struggling water companies unable to maintain their water systems in an effort to ensure residents have a clean and reliable water source. Unlike cities, many of these communities have grown very little since the water systems were built 50-100 years ago but the costs of providing sewer and water services has exponentially increased.
In the case of Yettem, the state required the County to build the sewer and water system in the 1990s after private wells began failing there. Seville was a privately owned water system that fell into receivership and under county control in 2009. It also means the county must act as billing and collections for these districts, which have become burden. As of July 16, about 20 water users in Seville owed more than $8,000 in unpaid water bills ranging from $60 to $720. The sewer system was worse, with 29 residents owing more than $10,000 in unpaid bills ranging from $9.25 to $933.50. In Yettem, five residents owed with unpaid water and sewer bills ranging from $39 to $9,195.
Worthley said the goal is to form more CSDs throughout the county to give residents more direct representation and to get the county out of the rural water system business.
“Once they have their own CSD they will be responsible for everything,” Worthley said. “But they will also have a direct say in decision making.”
Before self-governance can happen, the county will be responsible for handing over a system that is fully functional.
Ross Miller, chief engineer for the county, said the 100 year old water system has both water quality and water supply issues. Leaks in the lines are creating bacteria in the connections to the homes which has resulted in the community being under a permanent boil water notice. The leaks also sieve water out of the pipes leaving residents with no water pressure during peak usage times, such as the summer months.
A grant-funded well was installed in Seville several years ago and Miller said the county received $4 million from the State Water Board last month to replace the water mains and connection lines, install water meters and a 211,000 gallon water tank to provide system-wide pressure and meet state standards for fire suppression. Phase II of the project will cost another $3 million and include similar improvements in Yettem as well as the cost of interconnecting to the two water and sewer systems.
“The official transition from the county to the CSD will not come until a notice of completion is filed for the construction,” Miller said. “You don’t hand over an old and battered system until it’s replaced with a new system.”
Even after the election, the work isn’t done for the newly formed district. The newly elected board will have to secure an operator to oversee the technical aspects of running both the sewer and water system.
That could be costly and possibly threaten the notion that residents there will see a reduction in the cost of their water and sewer bills. Miller said the county will be required to conduct a rate study to ensure that monthly payments set by the CSD are enough to cover the cost of running the new sewer and water system. The rate study will be presented to the board in the next two months.
“I think the base rate will be close to what they are paying now but they could possibly pay less,” Miller said. “Once they are metered, people will be charged based on their water use.”
But there may be hope in connecting small communities with more than just pipe.
Renteria said the CWC helped form a joint powers agreement (JPA) between five small districts – Yettem-Seville, Sultana CSD, Monson, and the East Orosi Public Utility District – through a project called the Northern Tulare County Regionalization Project. The JPA could open the door for the districts to share the cost of hiring an operator for the water districts which could significantly lower their monthly costs to operate each system. Renteria said there is even the possibility of connecting these districts administratively and importing surface water when needed.
“This will allow for collaboration and comparison between these small districts to come up with long-term water solutions,” Renteria said. “By joining our network they can share their experiences and ongoing support to ensure success.”