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Local Residents Sue State Agency for Safe Drinking Water Plan

For Immediate Release: San Joaquin Valley Residents Sue California Dept. of Public Health for Safe Drinking Water Plan
[FRESNO, CALIFORNIA- , April 8, 2010] California Rural Legal Assistance Inc. filed an appeal on behalf of the AGUA coalition and other residents of unincorporated communities with contaminated drinking water to request that the California Department of Public Health develop and submit to the legislature a Safe Drinking Water Plan, as required under the state Safe Drinking Water Act.

Frustrated by the lack of action to solve the region’s growing drinking water crisis, residents from communities that have been without safe water for over a decade hoped that the plan would help highlight the persistent lack of safe water in many small communities and force the state to invest in solving it. On behalf of these residents, California Rural Legal Assistance filed a writ of mandate against the California Department of Public Health to prepare the state mandated Safe Drinking Water Plan. However, citing budgetary limitations, a state court in Fresno County ruled on February 5th that the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) does not have to prepare the plan. Plaintiffs are appealing this decision.

“Our water is still contaminated, we are in debt, and now we are facing yet another rate increase” said Juventino Gonzalez, a petitioner in the case and a current resident of Lanare, California in Fresno County. Lanare’s drinking water is contaminated with high levels of arsenic and residents currently pay $46 a month for water they cannot drink. The community received over 1.3 million dollars in Federal funding to construct an arsenic treatment plant between 2002 and 2007. However, due to the high costs of arsenic treatment, the community incurred extreme debt, and was forced to turn the plant off 6 months after it started operating.

Advocates argue that had the Department of Public Health completed the Safe Drinking Water Plan, as mandated by state law, state and local officials would have known that the arsenic treatment plant was not a feasible way of delivering clean water to small communities such as Lanare, and would have been able to identify more cost effective and viable treatment options. “If we had access to this information ahead of time everything would be different” said Gonzalez.

The Safe Drinking Water Plan, which is required by the California Safe Drinking Water Act and is to be completed every five years pursuant to state law, must include an analysis of the California's overall drinking water quality, with an emphasis on water systems with fewer than 10,000 service connections and contaminated water sources, as well as recommendations on ways to improve water quality in those systems. The Plan must also include a five year implementation program to improve the quality of drinking water in California.

Contrary to this legislative mandate, the agency has not submitted the Plan to the State since 1993. “Currently the State does not even have a comprehensive list of all of the communities that are suffering from contaminated drinking water. This plan would provide them with this information” said Kara Brodfuehrer, an attorney with California Rural Legal Assistance Inc.

“When agencies like this fail to do what they are supposed to do, it tells us that our issue is not a priority for the state. It feels like our problems are invisible when there is no plan to solve the problem or even proposed recommendations on how to solve it – but we know the problem is real because we live it every day,” said Maria Herrera, AGUA member. AGUA, which stands for La Asociacion de la Gente Unida por el Agua (The Association of People United for Water), is a coalition of more than 17 communities with contaminated water sources including youth and 5 nonprofit organizations in the San Joaquin Valley working to secure safe, clean and affordable drinking water.

“This isn’t a problem that can be dealt with on a case-by-case basis alone.” explained Susana De Anda, Coordinator of the AGUA coalition and Co-Executive Director of the Community Water Center, an environmental justice nonprofit based in Tulare County that focuses on community drinking water challenges. “Tens of thousands of residents in the San Joaquin Valley have lacked access to safe drinking water in their homes and schools for years and continue to do so in 2010”. We need to demand that the state agency does its job and develops this plan to help ensure that every Californian has access to clean and safe drinking water once and for all.”
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