County takes steps to address water woes in Springville

Local resident of Springville expresses his frustration to the answers given by Del Oro Water during a public meeting on July 28, 2023.(Kenny Goodman)

Springville residents continue to face ongoing water quality issues and rate hikes from Del Oro Water Company; River Island residents call on county, state and media entities to voice frustrations

SPRINGVILLE – The glass is more than half empty for residents of the River Island Water District in Springville, who after over a year of going without a reliable source of clean water, are now asking for help from the county, state and anyone who will listen.

Since roughly March 2023, Springville residents who get their water from the Del Oro Water Company have dealt with various problems with their supplier, of which the key issue is a lack of reliable, clean drinking water. Now, after a year of residents’ turmoil, the county is seeking out ways it can provide aid to the impacted residents.

At the most recent Tulare County Board of Supervisors meeting on June 25, Supervisor Dennis Townsend asked the Tulare County Health and Human Services Agency (HHSA) to look into what the county could possibly do to help residents who fall under Del Oro’s service area.

“I think we have a public health emergency in that area right now because of the water. They’ve been getting ‘do not drink’ notices for quite a while – they got ‘do not use at all’ notices a couple of weeks ago,” Townsend said. “It seems like the state has been woefully slow on getting to this or enforcing the Del Oro Water Company even to provide potable water.”

Townsend relayed at the meeting that the state requires Del Oro to provide each household drinking water each week, but said it is not enough to sustain the residents.

“I’ve heard that they only provide six gallons a week for a whole household, which is not even enough for one person for a week,” Townsend said. “So I’d like to call on staff and HHSA to really look into that… and see if there’s anything we can do in the interim.”

In response to the public outcry, the HHSA is conducting surveys and putting pressure on the state to intervene.

In an interview with The Sun-Gazette, Townsend noted that Del Oro did agree to start distributing 12 gallons a household per week going forward. However, he is not optimistic that those efforts will suffice.

“Del Oro is mandated by law to do those distributions,” Townsend said. “I personally don’t think they’re doing enough.”

Community Outcry

Del Oro Water Company supplies water to Springville residents who fall under the River Islands Water District, which only makes up a portion of the overall community. Residents under this district have been asking for clean water since the wells used by Del Oro were first damaged over a year ago from the March floods of 2023.

After a year without a reliable source of clean water as well as low water pressure, the residents sent personal testimonies about the short-term and long-term effects the situation has had on their lives to various media outlets. They began sending their testimonies on June 29 and are still being sent out as of report. The main concern that all of the residents in the Del Oro service area share is not having potable drinking water.

“All we want is access to clean, affordable drinking water which is SUPPOSED to be a HUMAN RIGHT in this country! At the least, Del Oro should be providing adequate amounts of bottled water to each home AND deferring all monthly payments until the situation has been satisfactorily resolved,” Springville resident Karen Boriack said in her emailed statement.

Another thing residents have continued to report on their struggle is properly taking care of their personal hygiene, as well as keeping a clean home due to a lack of clean water.

Boriack, among many other residents, also noted that because of the huge fluctuations in water pressure, they have experienced numerous irrigation lines crack and leak requiring repair, broken sprinklers, dead trees, shrubs and plants, as well as dead lawns. Many residents reported that the landscaping around their homes is completely dead from lack of water.

“I have had tremendous damage to my home and property due to their incompetence and failure to take responsibility for this current dilemma making it impossible to sell our home as planned in 2023,” Boriack stated in emails.

“It is also quite infuriating that Del Oro is now asking for something like a 22-23% rate increase. Our lawns are dying, we can’t perform basic hygiene, but now we could be expected to pay them more money for these privileges,” Springville resident Sara Alley said via statements.

Multiple residents are also reporting that the water they do have is filled with so many contaminates that it breaks their home appliances. Residents Dennis and Jennifer Ickes, along with others, said via email statements that they have experienced major issues with their appliances, explaining that their water softener and fridge lines are clogged and damaged, while their dishwasher and washing machine are coated in a white film from the contaminated water.

Countless residents are also questioning if Del Oro will give them any reimbursement for the damage caused by their services or lack thereof.

“We have had trees, and shrubs that once beautified our property die. I even had to remove my back lawn due to it dying. A lot of extra expenses have been made due to our lack of water. My sprinkler system valves are now not working properly, due to either no water or lack of pressure. Is Del Oro going to reimburse us for costs to replace these items? I don’t think so,” Residents Mr. and Mrs. Smith (only their last names were provided) said in their statement.

While many residents have little to no usable water, all of them reported having their water rates go up since the rise of Del Oro’s water issues started.

Del Oro’s Response

Despite the numerous residents with dead lawns and trees, Del Oro affirmed in an email to The Sun-Gazette on July 2 that a big part of the problem with its water system right now is over consumption by residents.

“(River Island Water District) is currently in Stage 5 of its Water Shortage Contingency Plan, which limits outdoor watering to one designated day per week. Many customers continue to outside water daily on their non-watering days,” Janice Hanna, director corporate accounting and regulatory affairs for Del Oro said in emailed statements to The Sun-Gazette.

The water company is also blaming the loss in water pressure on resident’s water usage. This is not the first time Del Oro has held the residents responsible for not having adequate water, either. Similar remarks were made at a community meeting back on July 28, 2023.

“I need your help, I truly do,” Hanna said at the July 2023 meeting. “How many people are watering three days a week?” She asked residents to raise their hands and was instead met with an angry murmur. One resident yelled, “My backyard is dead, and I’ve been showering once a week,” in response.

Hanna also stated that the company will not be reimbursing anyone for damages that might have incurred from their services.

Del Oro also explained the increase in the resident’s water rates, stating the company asked the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) to evaluate a possible rate increase for all 6,850 customers on March 9, 2023, well over a year ago.

According to Del Oro, CPUC’s Water Division independently reviewed and analyzed the request and Del Oro’s operations, and a resolution to increase the water rates again was published on June 7, 2024 and will be discussed at the CPUC meeting on July 11, 2024. If approved, the average monthly rate for customers using 2,000 cubic feet of water will increase from $130.41 to $139.00, a 6.59% increase of $8.59 per month.

Hanna also explained that Del Oro expects to address these water issues with Del Oro’s Water Treatment Plant, which is called the “River Island Project.” She explained that construction for the $9.1 million project began in October 2021. As of report, the water treatment plant is still yet to be fully operational.

“Del Oro Water, along with its engineers and contractors have been actively collaborating with the regulatory agencies to finalize and gain State Water Resources Control Board clearances to operate the treatment plant. Final plans and testing will be completed by next week,” Hanna said.

This isn’t the first time that Del Oro has promised to fix the issues with their water system, however. Back during the public meeting in July 2023, Hanna told residents that the water treatment plant was a few short months from operating.

“I was at the treatment plant today,” Hanna said at the community meeting in July of 2023. “We’re looking at starting it up in October, it’s very close to being done, the canal is full of water. Next year you will be getting treated water that your whole family can drink.”

Next Steps

In a recent interview with The Sun-Gazette, Townsend said the HHSA is making progress on getting water to these impacted Springville residents by advocating for them and conducting surveys regarding the current situation in the River Islands Water District.

The HHSA has already been making progress, according to Townsend, with their surveys, both to provide interim support and put pressure on the state. He said the HHSA will be giving a report on their progress at the next Board of Supervisors meeting on July 9.

Townsend said that the surveys will give the county a better idea of how to approach the state. On top of that, Townsend said that if they find enough evidence to declare the situation a local health emergency, then the county could provide extra potable water to the residents.

Townsend also explained that the lack of water also puts the residents at an increased risk during fire season because the fire hydrants and fire sprinklers don’t have enough pressure to operate. On top of that, the dry and dead vegetation is highly flammable because of the lack of watering.

“I’ve been working with our fire chief, and he has a notice on there that we respond to any fire call (in that area) with a (water tanker) because we’re not expecting that we’re gonna get water out of their system,” Townsend said.

Even with all of the county’s efforts, Townsend said there is only so much that the county can actually do. This is because the State Water Resources Control Board is the agency that has jurisdiction over Del Oro, not the county.

However, one of the actions the county has been able to do is recommend that the state deny Del Oro’s request to increase the residents’ water rates again when Del Oro is not providing full service. Townsend said the county wrote a letter to CPUC asking them to deny Del Oro’s request to increase the water rates.

Townsend also mentioned that the water issues have been so severe that he took part in multiple water distributions funded by Senator Shannon Grove and former Assemblyman, now Congressman, Vince Fong to bring those affected potable drinking water.

“There’s been just private individuals that live up there that have gotten donations in order to help alleviate the issue,” Townsend said.

Townsend even spoke of a concerned community member and business owner of Tek Electric, Zach Brown, who purchased and distributed six pallets of drinking water himself the last week of June.

Townsend said the best course of action residents can take right now is to continue reporting their issues to the state and county government until changes are made. He suggested that residents continue to reach out to the State Water Resources Control Board, Grove and Fong’s office.

“I don’t think it hurts to just let as many people as possible know, at the state level, that we have an issue,” Townsend said. “It’s probably helpful as well to continue to send it to Tulare County Health and Human Services. … That we can try to monitor if things are getting better or getting worse, so that we can continue to advocate (for the residents).”

Townsend noted he took a tour of the River Island Project along with representatives from Grove and Fong’s office, and that Del Oro claimed that the water treatment would be up and running in mid-June.

“Obviously it’s not online and what we’re finding out is they’re saying that there’s still punch list items they have to do from the state (before they can use the plant),” Townsend said.

He continued to explain that the water treatment plant Del Oro promised to start using has been 10 years in the making and intends to use surface water from the river, which has less contaminants than the water in their wells. Del Oro plans to fix their water problems by mixing the river water with the well water to dilute the contaminates.

According to Townsend, in order to provide water while they wait for the new treatment plant to be finished, Del Oro has been mixing the water from wells less contaminated along with wells that are more contaminated to lessen the contaminants while still maintaining enough water for all of the residents.

However, when the 2023 March floods damaged the water company’s wells, it made Del Oro’s previously existing water issues worse, limiting the wells they could use.

According to Hanna, there were six wells damaged in the floods and three that have been repaired. The other three wells have been abandoned all together. Hanna said Del Oro drilled one new well, which is in the process of being tested, and noted a second well is going through the county for permitting.

“Potable well water is scarce to find in the area,” Hanna said.

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