Tooleville documentary shines light on rural water quality

Bay Area filmmaker premiers short documentary about poor Tooleville water quality, struggles with consolidation with Exeter

By Paul Myers

EXETER – Nearly a year in the making, residents of Tooleville got to see themselves and their efforts for consolidation with Exeter’s water system, on screen. 

Casey Beck, a Bay Area filmmaker, sought out to shine a light on rural communities in California who struggle with safe drinking water with her documentary, “The Great Water Divide: California’s Water Crisis.” Last April her lights and cameras and pointed toward Tooleville’s struggle with arsenic, hexavalent chromium and other harmful chemicals that keep residents from rinsing their food with water out of the tap. 

After 50 hours of footage, Beck and her team were able to premier a 20 minutes short documentary at FoodLink Tulare County on Saturday, Jan. 25. 

The documentary does not just follow the residents of Tooleville but also the efforts of Pedro Hernandez, who was a part of Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability. Hernandez’s role was an advocate for residents, and played a vital role in communication between Exeter and Tooleville. Footage shows the grassroots strategy being built to the final decision last September when Exeter City Council officially decided not to take action on consolidation. 

Beck said the short documentary is just the beginning.

“We are seeking funding to make this a feature-length film. And this short is a complimentary piece as a part of a longer journalistic effort,” Beck said.

In a feature-length film Beck hopes to include more details about the dangers of hexavalent chromium and the danger it poses to humans. She added that the article coming out with the documentary was in partnership with the Investigative Reporting Workshop with American University.

Noted briefly by the panel following the documentary, Exeter had long identified problems of their own in their water master plan that published in August of 2019. At their Sept. 10, 2019 meeting the city council could not imagine taking on another project for a neighboring community when they were already struggling with funding for utility repairs.

My thing is, why are we still hearing crickets from the County? Why haven’t we seen Kuyler Crocker,” Exeter mayor, Mary Waterman-Philpot said in September.

Tulare County District 1 Board Supervisor, Kuyler Crocker said he doesn’t disagree that this is a county issue. But he is confident the state is going to make Exeter consolidate their system with Tooleville. Currently the County provides sewer services for Tooleville, but neither Crocker or the Board have offered any kind of direction at the County level regarding Tooleville water. Although, Crocker said he has had conversations with City staff about it, he noted that he has not spoken with any of the council members.

City councilman Frankie Alves echoed Waterman-Philpot’s sentiment noting that he seems as if everyone is punting the issue to them, and they already have a commitment to serve the residents of Exeter.

The documentary shows attorney Michael Claiborne with Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability, advocating on behalf of Tooleville and noting several incentives that had the potential to benefit Exeter as well as Tooleville. Claiborne admitted that it is a months long process and would need dedicated staff time to explore the options. However, those were staff hours Waterman-Philpot were not willing to give. She went on to deliver the most decisive words of the night.

“Our staff is already working at capacity trying to get our immediate water needs met. We can’t keep stretching [public works director] Daymon [Qualls] and his staff, and [city manager] Adam [Ennis] and his staff chasing other people’s issues. I know that sounds crass…the basic problem is we have our own issues right now,” Waterman-Philpot said.

However, the documentary showed Waterman-Philpot’s comments about how she would believe in the state’s ability to keep their promises on funding as much as Santa Clause visiting her house for Christmas.

Yolanda and Benjamin Cuevas, who moved to Tooleville almost two years ago not knowing the water problems they were facing. After the premier Benjamin said that he remains confident they will see consolidation.

“I see this ending with us getting water from Exeter sooner or later,” Benjamin said.

While Hernandez no longer works for Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability he was a part of the panel following the film. Despite not achieving consolidation, he noted this is as far as the campaign had gotten in 18 years.

“This is a very long campaign and everyone pushed this stone in the right direction,” Hernandez said. 

His statement last Saturday echoed his statement last September immediately following the Exeter City Council’s vote.

“I think resiliency is a defining characteristic for the people of Tooleville,” Hernandez said. “There is nothing stopping us from discussion with the state.”

Fortunately the opportunity for discussion came much sooner than expected. Maria Olivera, a resident of Tooleville, along with others has the ear of the State Water Board as she attended her first meeting this month as a member of the Advisory Group for the implementation of the state’s Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Fund. Olivera’s appointment to the advisory group was announced on Dec. 11 by the State Water Board. She was selected from among 50 applicants including representatives from public water systems, technical assistance providers, local agencies, nongovernmental organizations, the public and residents served by community water systems in disadvantaged communities, state small water systems, and domestic wells. 

Benjamin Cuevas was also selected to the board, giving Tooleville two of the 19 members. Tulare County, which has several communities struggling with groundwater contamination,  was well represented on the board. There will also be a resident of Pixley, Elena Saldivar, and an employee of Self-Help Enterprises, Jessi Snyder, providing technical assistance to the board among the group’s 19 members.

Crocker, said having four people on the advisory group with direct ties to Tulare County bodes well for many of the unincorporated communities here that are still struggling with contaminated groundwater issues ranging from salt to lead.

“It’s an exciting time when Tulare County is taking a leadership role on a board of statewide significance,” Crocker said. “Hopefully Tulare County can take advantage of this opportunity.” 

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