Tulare County will take control of East Orosi water system, work with state to make improvements before set deadline to return power to local water board
TULARE COUNTY – Help may be on the horizon for the about 700 residents of East Orosi dependent on bottled water. The Tulare County Board of Supervisors has directed county staff to begin negotiating the scope of work and a budget with the State Water Resources Control Board Division of Drinking Water for the county to take control of the East Orosi Community Services District public water system.
Of the thousands of water systems in the state, East Orosi CSD is one of just seven California water systems under a mandatory consolidation order by way of Senate Bill (SB) 88, which enables the state water board to order consolidations for water systems in disadvantaged communities that are consistently out of compliance.
“The community has been waiting for many, many years, people have come in and promised—done this or said that—and nothing has been done,” Supervisor Eddie Valero said, who’s district covers the unincorporated community of East Orosi. “The community is in dire need of support.”
East Orosi’s water has been plagued with nitrates from fertilizers and coliform bacteria since at least 2003, for which their water system has been cited for violating the Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL) both contaminants dozens of times. Nitrates in drinking water can cause gastric cancer and affect how the body carries oxygen through the bloodstream via hemoglobin, the cause of the potentially fatal disease methemoglobinemia—also known as blue baby syndrome—for which pregnant women and infants are particularly at risk.
Coliform bacteria are found in the environment and feces of all warm-blooded animals and humans. Their presence in drinking water indicates disease-causing pathogens could be in the water system—like E. coli—and can be temporarily fixed by boiling the drinking water. However, if the water also contains nitrates, boiling the water will actually concentrate the nitrate levels and make the resulting water more toxic.
“Imagine a community where youth only know water comes from a bottle and not from a tap,” Valero said. “That is East Orosi here in Tulare County.”
About a mile west down Avenue 416 through rural ag land lies Orosi, where kids who attend the same schools as their East Orosi neighbors have access to clean drinking water. Consolidation of East Orosi to Orosi’s water system has been on the table for years now, through a voluntary consolidation order from the state in 2018 and now a mandatory order after progress stalled. Kayla Vander Schuur, a community development specialist at nonprofit Self-Help Enterprises who helps East Orosi CSD with their technical services, said the tit-for-tat negotiations between lawyers, engineers and board members brought progress to a crawl.
“While things were always technically moving on the voluntary consolidation, the truth of the matter and the issue is that there’s certain information that Orosi wants that’s just really difficult for East Orosi to get,” Vander Schuur said. “It’s been one of those things that gets dragged on and on, especially when people have different priorities and strongly believe in those to protect their own residents.”
Additionally, Vander Schuur said East Orosi CSD has historically struggled to keep board members on the board, and is currently operating at three out of five members, the minimum required for a quorum to conduct business at meetings. Vander Schuur said serving on the board is not an attractive idea for most East Orosi residents.
“There’s only 100 homes in the community. Everyone works, everyone’s tired. At the end of the day, everyone has family obligations,” Vander Schuur said. “They have to seek time out of their evening schedules to go to meetings, they get yelled at by their neighbors sometimes…It’s been very hard for them to attract and keep their board members.”
Two of the three current members, board president Carmen Moreno and vice-president Katie Icho, have served on the board for around 10 years. At times it’s been just the two of them, unable to conduct board meetings without a quorum. Vander Schuur said they’re exhausted.
“They’re tired. These discussions of consolidation, facing the drinking water issues they have, pipe repairs and all this stuff—they’re just exhausted,” Vander Schuur said. “It’s just a very difficult situation for them, and they’ve experienced that lack of quorum more than I see some other communities have.”
The administrator program—the county takeover of East Orosi’s water system—will provide some relief for East Orosi’s worn out water board that’s been struggling with technical, managerial and financial capacity to operate itself for some time now. Under the relatively new program, adopted by the state water board in 2019, the county will have the authority to exercise complete managerial control over the public water system, including establishing operational budgets and rates.
Vander Schuur said she expects the county to make progress on the current drinking water improvement project, including building a new well and storage tank, as well as some distribution system improvements. The state water board is currently funding the planning process, and Self-Help is doing the grant writing for East Orosi CSD for construction funds from the state.
“We think the county serving as an administrator for East Orosi is going to be a really great thing for the community, we think it will help the water improvement project and the consolidation project,” Vander Shuur said.
The board will stay in place for East Orosi’s sewer system, as the county is only taking over for the water system. Vander Schuur said the administrator program will likely last until the consolidation is complete before returning power to East Orosi CSD, which has a 2024 deadline.
At the June 8 board of supervisors meeting, Valero said he believes now is the time to put pressure on Orosi and East Orosi CSD to get to consolidation as fast as possible. Supervisor Larry Micari took a more cautious approach to the delicate situation in a community with a median household income of under $30,000, less than 40 % of the state average.
“We’re taking an unknown. We may have to redo that whole system,” Micari said. “I know the people need this and this is something that needs to come. I think we need to be cautious of the unknowns and make sure that the community is completely informed. There’s some of them that are so poor that much of an increase is going to be a deal-breaker for them, they won’t be able to afford water.”