Rural California communities struggle to provide clean drinking water

Mo Mohsin has been trying to bring clean drinking water to the residents of the Cobles Corner mobile home park ever since he bought the property back in 2003. 

The struggle, however, has been all uphill.

The water system that serves the rural Stanislaus County community of 20 or so homes has violated state drinking water standards 25 times since 2012, mostly for arsenic and 1,2,3 trichloropropane (1,2,3-TCP), a manufactured chemical found in industrial solvents and soil fumigants, according to data from the State Water Resources Control Board.

Long-term exposure to both contaminants has been linked to numerous types of cancer by the state of California and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. 

So yes, it’s been a struggle and Mohsin sounds exhausted just talking about it, especially when it comes to what seems like the ultimate and obvious solution: incorporating his drinking water system into the one operated by Hughson, a nearby town of about 8,000 people. 

“It’s been hell for a long time,” Mohsin said. “We reached out to them. I wanted to consolidate a while back when I had this issue with all this arsenic and stuff.”

“The city at first said they don’t want to mess with me,” Mohsin said.  

Which was disappointing because for years Mohsin had been trying unsuccessfully to fix the problems on his own.

Initially, he thought he could dig his way to a solution by simply sinking his well deeper into the groundwater table, something the previous owner already tried.  

“He dug up the well and a year later I called the same (drilling) company,” Mohsin said. “They said, ‘We just dug up the well not too long ago. We can go deeper and solve your arsenic problem, but then you’ll run into nitrates.’” 

Then Mohsin tried installing a $25,000 filtration system for the little convenience store he runs that’s attached to the property and uses the same well, but that didn’t pan out either. 

“I was trying different solutions to do it by myself so they wouldn’t give me a headache,” Mohsin said, noting he’d had several interactions with the county health department and had long feared they’d just shut the whole place down. 

He realizes, however, that any lasting solution is probably financially impossible for his little water system to implement. 

“When you’re talking about millions, I ain’t got that type of money,” Mohsin said. 

The story of Cobles Corner, in a nutshell, is the story of some 300 failing systems in California that routinely supply roughly 1 million people with contaminated drinking water.

 One of the biggest factors that determines whether people have regular access to clean drinking water is the size of the water system that serves them. 

Smaller systems have fewer customers and therefore less revenue than their larger, better-financed cousins. 

“About 90 percent of California’s public water system violations occur in systems serving less than 500 service connections, underscoring the inherent risk of small size and lack of capacity,” said Gregory Pierce, associate director of the Luskin Center for Innovation at the University of California, Los Angeles. 

In addition to financial difficulties, many struggling water systems fail to pay consistent attention to the rates they charge for water, fail to provide necessary system maintenance and repairs, and aren’t well understood by or connected to the communities they serve. They also frequently suffer from high turnover rates among staff and, consequently, lack the needed expertise to keep systems running smoothly.

In an effort to address these failures, the state legislature last year established the Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Fund, which sets aside roughly $1.3 billion over 10 years to help struggling public water systems and private wells.

The money can be used to upgrade treatment and delivery systems or to hire consultants to help address technical problems or develop more effective management practices. 

It can also be used to fund the consolidation of one or more small water systems into a single, larger system – something the state has been increasingly pushing for.

“The tone has changed over the past five years,” Pierce said. “Everyone says there’s too many water systems compared to other types of utilities.”

Also, it appears as if small water system operators like Mohsin are more willing to submit voluntarily to consolidation than in years past, as water quality standards, drought, conservation pressures and scrutiny over drinking water rates have sharply intensified across the state. 

“It’s getting harder to run any water system,” Pierce said. 

In order to help ease some of that burden, Pierce and his team at the Luskin Center are currently leading an effort on behalf of the State Water Resources Control Board to identify all of the small community systems – those with 3,300 connections or fewer – and private wells that need help meeting drinking water standards. 

While the final tally isn’t expected to be complete until March 2021, the Water Board has developed an initial list of more than 300 systems that are out of compliance and could benefit from financial or technical assistance via the new fund, which prioritizes water systems in economically disadvantaged communities.

 Count of Contaminant by County Data 

“Those are all the systems that are out of compliance,” said Joe Karkoski, assistant deputy director at the Water Board’s Division of Financial Assistance. “They’ve been notified by our Division of Drinking Water that they are out of compliance and they have a certain amount of time to get into compliance.”

“This was sort of our triage needs assessment,” Karkoski added. 

As it turns out, Hughson – which has 29 state drinking water violations since 2012 – Cobles Corner and the Country Villa Apartments, a small complex across the street from the mobile home park, all made that list. 

That’s partly due to the fact that they all draw water from the Turlock Subbasin, part of the larger San Joaquin Valley Groundwater Basin. 

“The valley has some naturally occurring contaminants as well as farming lifestyle contaminants,” said Hughson Community Development Director Lea Simvoulakis.

Like much of the Central Valley, parts of the Turlock Subbasin have been contaminated for years with naturally occurring arsenic, nitrates from agricultural fertilizers and 1,2,3-TCP from soil fumigants.

“We rely solely on ground water. We deal with arsenic and nitrates on the daily  and TCPs are occurring in our drinking water, that’s the newest contaminant,” Simvoulakis said. “People want their water to be perfect but it’s not possible in the valley.”

While that may be the case, Hughson has been working to improve drinking water quality and reliability since 2008, when it installed new arsenic treatment equipment. 

In 2015, the city began working on an estimated $8.4 million project to replace two wells lost to arsenic and 1,2,3-TCP and build a 1-million-gallon storage tank to meet a state compliance order. 

The city also plans to buy and install a proprietary arsenic filtration system for the new wells and hopes to have everything up and running by next spring.

This has coincided with state efforts to encourage Hughson to consolidate both the mobile home park and the apartment complex into one city-managed water system.

“They are on the same compliance orders for nitrates, TCP, arsenic. They would never be able to build a treatment facility like we could,” Simvoulakis said. “For someone like them, there would be no way for them to comply.”

Now that the city is nearly done with its well replacement and storage tank project, it is turning its attention to bringing the park and the apartments into the fold. 

“The state encourages us to help these districts,” she said. “A lot of people out here are on individual wells, they can’t meet the compliance orders, so consolidation makes sense.” 

Which is why Mohsin had been holding out hope that Hughson would finally agree to fold Cobles Corner into its water system. 

“I’ve been on this for the past 10 years,” Mohsin said.

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City leaders expect to move forward with the design phase of the new project next year and could begin installing a new pipeline, water meters and other system elements by 2022.

Carlos Nunez, a community development specialist with Self Help Enterprises, is working with the city to secure grant money for the consolidation.

“Most systems have a tough enough time maintaining the system as is,” Nunez said. “Then, when you have something additional that you have to take care of, like a contaminant, it just makes things that much harder.”

“It’s tough maintaining a system and this is another burden,” he said.

Once the consolidation is complete, Cobles Corner and Country Villas can then simply abandon their current water sources in favor of the city’s supply, which by that point will benefit from the new arsenic treatment and water storage systems. 

“At the same time, Hughson is growing. They’re building a new subdivision and stuff,” Mohsin said. “They have to fix their water. They have to make it bigger so they have water for everybody.”

All of this is taking place during a period of tremendous growth for Hughson, which has added roughly 4,000 new residents since 2000 – an approximately 50 percent increase – and could soon add another 1,100 or so pending approval of a new housing development in the northwest corner of town. 

As part of that approval process, the developer was required to conduct an analysis of subdivision’s impact on the city’s water supply and found it is adequate for the projected number of new taps, Simvoulakis said.

“We can handle the population growth but we have to treat for the naturally occurring and non-naturally occurring contaminants,” she said. 

To that end, the developers will pay a one-time $2.4 million impact fee.

Also, once the project is built out, its residents are expected to provide the city with a little more than $190,000 a year in drinking water rate payments. 

Current rate payers are also helping foot the bill – and while some neighboring communities’ rates are catching up, Hughson has had some of the highest drinking water rates in the region. 

Partly because the city had to increase rates in order to secure a state loan for past water projects, residents went from paying a $25.75 fixed charge and $1.48 per 1,000 gallons of water in 2015 to paying a $38.20 fixed charge and $2.21 per 1,000 gallons in 2019. 

Still, the city will need to find additional state grants or other funds to cover the estimated $9 million cost of building a new 1,2,3-TCP treatment system.

Some money could emerge from Hughson’s lawsuit against the Shell Oil and Dow Chemical companies, manufacturers of the soil fumigants alleged to be the source of the contaminant.

“There are hundreds of wells and dozens of water systems in the San Joaquin Valley affected by this,” said attorney Todd Robins, who is representing the city. 

“These are some of some of the most widely used pesticides in the history of the state and they were applied at extremely high doses,” Robins said. 

The city is asking for enough money in damages to cover the cost of installing, operating and maintaining a 1,2,3-TCP treatment system.

And while it’s impossible to say if or when any money will materialize from litigation, Hughson is still considered the best hope for eventually delivering clean drinking water to Cobbles Corner and the Country Villa Apartments. 

“Drinking water is a finite resource. It’s something that needs to be taken care of,” Nunez said. “It has to be distributed in an equitable way and that’s always tough, especially if you’re a smaller system or from a disadvantaged community.”

Kiley Russell reported this story with support from the 2019 Impact Fund, a program of the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism.

[This story was originally published by Local News Matters].