Many valley residents struggle to access drinking water—some don’t have enough, while others face contamination. Now, a new law allows the state to step in and help those in need. In its first success story, the law didn't just bring water to a community; it helped end a standoff with a neighboring city.
It’s a sunny afternoon in Tulare County, and Reinelda Palma and Javier Medina are taking me on a tour of their neighborhood. They live in a small community called Matheny Tract, right on the outskirts of the City of Tulare. While Palma calls her chihuahuas into her front gate, Medina takes a swig from a plastic water bottle—the only drinking water he has access to.
Matheny has no sidewalks, so we walk along the potholed road. At night, with hardly any streetlights, this would be pitch black. They don’t get a lot of services out here. But we do see a bright yellow fire hydrant, shiny and smooth and partially wrapped in plastic. It looks like it’s never been used. I ask Palma and Medina: These neighborhood hydrants don’t work, do they? “No, no,” they say.
Matheny Tract is a tiny cluster of about 350 homes. Almost a third of its 1200 residents live below the federal poverty line. Most are Latino, like Reinelda Palma. She, her husband and their three dogs have lived here for 13 years.
That’s because the hydrants are waiting to be hooked up to water. They’re a little over a year old; so are the water mains that left scars underneath Matheny’s roads. But within the next two months, hydrants and pipes will be flowing with water from the City of Tulare next door. It’s a triumph for the community, but it hasn’t been easy. Palma and Medina have been fighting for access to Tulare’s drinking water for over 7 years. A new state law just ended their legal stalemate—and that law could help other disadvantaged communities as well.
“I’m a homemaker, I’m retired,” she says in Spanish. “My husband’s the only one that works sometimes. Because of the drought he’s also laid off a lot.”
They drank their tap water until Palma started having skin problems a few years ago. A doctor told her she had been exposed to arsenic, a contaminant that had been found in Matheny’s two community wells. That’s when she switched to bottled water—and began advocating for Matheny.
“It was very dramatic when the doctor told me that I had high arsenic contamination in my body,” she says. “And I thought, if this is happening to me, then this must be happening to everyone including the children.”
Effectively in local government," Werner says, "often there's no elected representatives claiming to have any responsibility to ensure that residents have access to clean water."
As we walk through Matheny Tract, we pass one- and two-story homes, palm trees and bursts of aloe vera.
Matheny could be any small Central Valley town—only it’s not. It’s unincorporated, which means it’s not a town. It has no city government and it has to get all its services from Tulare County. But according to Ashley Werner, an attorney with the Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability, in the case of Matheny, the county said it wouldn’t provide water.
Matheny could have easily fallen through the cracks. But early on, it didn’t look like it was going to. They had found a solution: Pipe in clean water from the City of Tulare, which borders Matheny. It’s so close, Palma can point to it from her backyard.
So in 2009, Matheny and Tulare signed a contract to connect their water systems. Roads were dug up, water mains installed, and hydrants put in place. But in 2014, the city sued. Officials wanted to reevaluate the contract.
“We did not have capacity to serve 300 homes at a turn of the switch,” says Martin Koczanowicz, the city attorney for Tulare. “We spent over half a million dollars in short term fixes in our infrastructure in order to get the capacity back, and we had jurisdictional issues which were a barrier.”
Construction in Matheny halted. At the same time, the city continued supplying drinking water to new developments. Koczanowicz says getting water to Matheny was always a priority—but Werner says the city’s actions said something different. Residents felt discriminated against.
“It was a lack of responsibility on the part of elected officials to the residents of Matheny Tract,” says Werner—“in a sense, by everybody involved, that they had no duty and no commitment to this community.”
“What this case shows is that SB 88 is possible and it's feasible, and that there really are solutions for communities that lack access to clean drinking water,” she says. “Especially in the case where they're right next door to a city that has clean drinking water.”
Matheny countersued. It remained without water until March of this year, when the state intervened under a new law. SB 88 authorizes the state to order a city to share its water with communities that need it. Matheny Tract is the law’s first success. Now that it’s been demonstrated, Werner hopes the new law can help the many other communities facing water problems in the valley.
Getting clean water is a huge relief for Palma’s neighbor Javier Medina. He’s a dairy worker, and he supports a family of six. Right now, he says they need six 5-gallon jugs and dozens of tiny water bottles each week.
He’s glad that the state stepped in. But he wishes it hadn’t been necessary.
“We live in best country in the world and everyone should be looking out for everyone’s well-being,’ he says in Spanish. “Everyone should try to find a way to help their neighbor.”
After a few more finishing touches, like meters, Matheny’s water system should be done by June first. Then, Matheny residents will be paying water customers—just like their neighbors in Tulare.