For a San Joaquin Valley community, the largest grant in its history could mean reliable water
LAMONT, Calif. – Tim Prado hates the term “disadvantaged community.”
“Because I don’t feel that we are disadvantaged,” he says. “I feel that we were mis-equipped with the tools to move on life.”
Prado lives in Lamont, a community nestled among the oil wells and almond orchards of eastern Kern County. This region has struggled with arsenic and other contaminants in its groundwater.
But recently, a $25 million dollar grant from the state’s Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Fund gave Prado a tool in his fight for drinking water.
“One of the things this funding does secure is the growth of our community for the next 70 to 60 years,” says Prado, who also chairs the Lamont Public Utility District.
Lamont is just down the road from the Weedpatch Migrant Camp.
If that name sounds familiar, it’s because the camp is a major setting in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. The seminal novel highlighted the plight of “Okies” fleeing the Dust Bowl and resettling in the Central Valley amid the Great Depression.
A century later, Steinbeck’s story still resonates with Prado. He says the community remains largely unchanged.
“Now, it is still the same; it is a community built on farmworkers, immigrants who have come in and tried to make their part of America,” Prado says.
Joaquin Esquivel is the chair of the State Water Resources Control Board and a son of immigrant farm workers himself. He was recently at a site where a water well will be built in Lamont. He spoke about the drinking water challenges facing rural California.
“It is difficult to be able to ensure that communities have access when you don't have the ratepayer bases of say Los Angeles or larger communities,” he said.
Esquivel says the agency is making strides in its quest to ensure water access for everyone.
“We’ve reduced the number of Californians that don’t have access to clean water from 1.6 million in 2019 down to 850,000 or 900,000 now,” he said.
A long wait for Lamont
But some residents remain skeptical.
Kyle Wilkerson is president of the El Adobe Property Owners’ Association. El Adobe is a hamlet of about 400 people 6 miles down the road from Lamont.
“I'm still skeptical,” he says. “It’s just going to turn into where most of these properties are gonna end up being just dirt.”
Like Lamont, El Adobe’s wells are ancient and nearly depleted.
“They’re old ag wells. They were made to irrigate crops. They weren’t made for domestic use.”
The $25 million from the state will pay for new wells and pipes to connect El Adobe and Lamont’s water systems. The grant is the biggest in the community’s 80-year history.
Once complete, 20,000 residents from both communities will have clean water access. Construction is slated to begin this summer.
It’s good news, Wilkerson says, but a potential fix has been nearly a decade in the making. He’ll believe the state is following through, only after the project is finished.
“When I moved here in 2012, they said, ‘OK, two years. We’ll be hooked up.’ Here it is 10 years later, and we still ain’t hooked up,” he said.
The lag Wilkerson describes is a major problem that state auditors highlighted in a sharply critical report released last year.
Auditors found a quote “lack of urgency” from the state water board when approving grants to aid communities like Lamont and El Adobe.
Application processing times for drinking water projects doubled from 17 months in 2019 to 33 months in 2021, according to the audit. This despite record investments from voters and lawmakers to boost failing water systems.
Esquivel says the State Water Board is working to cut through bureaucracy that can impede applications.
“We’re trying to get out of our own way. We definitely still have a long way to go,” he said. “I think it's important to also note that there is a role at the local level that is really critical and can actually be what is delaying a lot of projects as well.”
Nearly 400 water systems in the state are considered failing. Most of those are concentrated in San Joaquin and Coachella valleys.
This report aired March 7, 2023.