TOOLEVILLE, Calif. (KGPE) -Maria Olivera has lived in Tooleville since 1974. The two-block town is a small community in Tulare County, home to many farmworker families.
“It’s nice, real quiet,” Maria says. “The only problem is the water.”
“There’s about 76 homes in Tooleville and they’ve had unsafe drinking water since the late 70’s, really,” explained Michael Claiborne, a directing attorney at Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability.
The organization’s been working with families to get them safe, drinking water for years. The tap water contains carcinogens like hexavalent chromium, and sometimes nitrate.
“There’s fields around us, orange orchards. I guess all that goes into the ground and that’s why the water is contaminated,” Maria says.
“The solution is pretty clear, consolidation of the Tooleville system with the nearby city of Exeter,” said Claiborne.
Exeter is only a five-minute drive away. Consolidation would mean running a mile-long pipe to connect both communities.
“They just didn’t wanna do it,” Maria thinks.
The City of Exeter said the main issue is money.
“We had a lot of things we needed to do with our water system, and we’ve been doing those. In fact, we’re in the middle of a five-year rate increase that we implemented back in 2019,” said City Administrator Adam Ennis.
“Exeter’s main argument over the last several years is that their own system needs investment, which we agree with and we’ve always agreed with,” said Claiborne.
Negotiations have been going on for more than 20 years. Claiborne said they came close to an agreement in 2019, but it fell through.
Then last summer, one of Tooleville’s two wells had an outage.
“When people came from work, they try to shower, there was no water,” Maria said.
That’s when the State finally stepped in.
“It really took that outage to then allow us to have authority,” said Andrew Altevogt, Assistant Deputy Director with the State Water Resources Control Board. “And it wasn’t just the outage, well levels were dropping, and there wasn’t going to be a good way for Tooleville to be able to fix that over the long term.”
In late August, the Water Resources Control Board sent a letter to Exeter asking the city to draft a voluntary consolidation plan within six months or the State would step in. The deadline expired in March, and there are no solid plans still. But there’s been some progress.
“One of the big things that we identified right from the beginning was a good feasibility study that would identify all the improvements that need to be done, the cost of those, the future monthly rates that would be needed for Tooleville if the consolidation was done,” said Ennis, adding it would cost around $15 million to fix their own system and for the consolidation.
The State has $130 million a year for these projects. It’s part of the Safer Drinking Water program, a 2019 law that gave the Water Board a new set of tools, funding, and staff. It’s also meant to streamline this process, but the timeline is still long.
“Once we have an agreement, it will likely take something like a year to get funding in place and then another year or two to finish the design for the project and get it constructed,” said Claiborne.
On Tuesday, the State met with Exeter and Tooleville to discuss options and funding.
“The State Board said the [$15 million] funding request was well within what their funding limits allow,” said Claiborne.
While there is still no official agreement, residents are optimistic after Tuesday’s meeting.
“It sounded really good like they’re really thinking to connect us now,” Maria said.
According to Claiborne, the Exeter City Council will discuss the consolidation plan in late May. If it rejects the negotiation, the State can order a mandatory consolidation.
Maria hopes it doesn’t take another 20 years.
“No, no, no. I won’t be here,” she said.