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California and the West

Clean Water May Soon Be On Tap for Rural Towns

Health: State and federal projects are spending millions to build or modernize delivery systems in remote locales.


BRAWLEY, Calif. — Each time he turns on his squeaky kitchen faucet, Eleazar Torres watches the murky flow of what federal officials say is probably the nation's dirtiest drinking water.

At age 48, Torres lives with his ailing mother in a slumping mobile home at the end of a rutted, unpaved road in a tiny community called Poe--a cluster of 39 tumbledown trailers and homes situated amid the expansive Imperial Valley growing fields.

The water he uses to cook, bathe and sometimes brush his teeth comes from a system of narrow irrigation canals that crisscross the fields. While many Poe residents have learned not to drink it, the filthy liquid remains an intimate part of their lives.

"This water's no good," Torres says over the crowing of a backyard rooster. "But what can I do? It's the only water we have."

From burgs like Poe to isolated outposts with no names, access to reliable supplies of clean drinking water remains a chronic problem throughout rural areas of California and the nation. A 1995 study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture concluded that more than a million rural residents nationwide did not have clean drinking water in their homes.

Though they are just a fraction of the state's 6.9 million rural residents, nearly 100,000 rural Californians use contaminated water that is not filtered at all, federal officials say.

But help is on the way for places like Poe.

Through its Water 2000 Initiative, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has spent $57 million over four years on dozens of statewide projects aimed at modernizing outdated rural water systems. And a new state Safe Drinking Water State Revolving Fund will soon spend $90 million to upgrade water districts throughout California, some in rural areas.

State Department of Health Services officials have identified 3,300 potential public water projects they want to complete at an estimated cost of $7.5 billion. They range from tiny hookups at farm housing and trailer parks to larger systems.

Many needy communities are outside the reach of municipal water districts, forced to rely on well water treated by antiquated, World War II-era filtering systems. Others tap into irrigation canals, rivaling conditions of Third World nations. Users are almost always people living at or below the poverty line, in isolation that makes connecting them to existing water systems difficult and expensive.

"On the eve of the year 2000, the drinking water systems in many rural places remain straight out of the early 19th century," said Jeff Hays, a regional director for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Across the Central Valley, community wells have been polluted by nitrates and pesticides from agricultural spraying. And in rural farming areas throughout Tuolumne, El Dorado, Kern and Tulare counties, low-income residents draw their water straight from irrigation canals.

But no place has dirtier water than Poe, where a brownish flow spills from the Tamarack Canal into a shallow ditch littered with weeds, old bottles and rats, where dogs often romp.

Pipes send the brackish water directly into the homes of Poe's 150 residents. Most rarely drink it, but they use it for washing and cooking.

"I've never seen anything like it," said Hays. "This water is as contaminated as you can get, other than raw sewage."

Federal officials will soon spend $1.2 million to connect Poe to a new water treatment facility in Brawley. Clean drinking water will be a welcome change in a community that has consistently failed to meet state and federal clean-water standards.

Canal Declared Hazard in 1992

In 1992, the federal Environmental Protection Agency declared the canal water near Poe a public health hazard, a carrier of diseases from dysentery to typhoid. Recent EPA testing showed high levels of fecal bacteria and other contaminants, officials say.

Local authorities have pulled everything from abandoned vehicles to decomposing bodies from the canal system, where children swim on hot summer days and from which people still drink.

Asked senior EPA scientist John Merkle: "Would you want to drink that water?"

For the 37-year-old Hays, one of six federal rural development directors in the state, helping to provide rural residents with clean drinking water means scouting a largely desert region the size of a small country.

He is equal parts deal-maker, financier, engineer and salesman. On one proposed project to bring water to an isolated retirement community of 400 dwellings in San Bernardino County, Hays hit a bureaucratic brick wall. Residents had been promised two decades earlier that a water line would be built one day.

But the water never came, forcing elderly residents to make daily trips to county wells. Many relied on private water companies, which finally refused to negotiate the rutted dirt roads leading into the community.

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