Isabel Solorio shows a glass of cloudy water at the community center in Lanare,… (Craig Kohlruss / Fresno…)
LANARE, Calif. — A bright metal drinking fountain is mounted on the wall in the community center of this tiny town west of Fresno. No one pays it any mind: The water is drawn from a well that has been contaminated with arsenic for years.
"Can't drink it, can't cook with it ... about all you can do is flush it," said Ethel Myles, 75, who came to the Central Valley from Arkansas half a century ago to pick cotton.
Lanare, like scores of other impoverished California communities where the water is unsafe to drink, could be eligible for a share of hundreds of millions of dollars in federal and state funds to improve drinking water tainted by agricultural use and naturally occurring contaminants. But the state has been agonizingly slow to spend the money, snarling small communities in red tape that has delayed fixes year after year, according to drinking-water advocates, community leaders and residents.
"It feels like they are playing bureaucratic Chutes and Ladders," said Laurel Firestone, co-director of the Community Water Center, which helps communities with contaminated water apply for grants to fix it. "You think you've gotten where you need to go, and six months later, you've hit the chute, and you have to go back to square one. It's extremely frustrating."
This spring, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued a notice threatening to cut off further funding to California because officials have been sitting on $455 million in unspent federal funds, as well as up to an additional $260 million in loan repayments that could be available to help. It is the largest share of unspent money for improving drinking water in the nation.
The EPA also faulted the state Department of Public Health for a "lack of financial accountability," according to Jared Blumenfeld, the EPA's regional administrator. The agency has given the Department of Public Health until June 24 to come up with a plan to fix its funding program.
Officials at the Department of Public Health said they were working to streamline procedures.
"In the past, the department was slow to commit and disperse the funds," said Dr. Ron Chapman, public health director. "We've made a lot of progress and significant changes in our processes."
Water projects have been held up because communities lack technical experts like engineers or because they lack official standing to apply for money. Some water systems are not properly incorporated through the secretary of state. Infighting among local governments and a lack of sophistication in applying for grants and loans also have stood in the way.
A Times review found that even when small communities have been given money for drinking water projects, the efforts have sometimes collapsed because of bad planning and a lack of coordination among government agencies. In 2006, for example, Lanare opened a new water treatment plant built with $1.3 million in federal funds. But the plant was abruptly shut down after only a few months. Officials had failed to anticipate that the enormous ongoing expense of operating it would cause water rates to shoot up beyond what residents could pay.
These days residents pay $54 a month for water they can't drink, in part to pay off debts accumulated by the idled plant.
Experts offer different estimates of how many people in California do not have access to safe drinking water. The state Department of Public Health, which coordinates drinking water improvement programs, says about 200,000 people at any time are served by water systems that violate state health standards. But some legislators say the figure is as high as 2.1 million, when communities not served by publicly regulated water systems are figured in. That includes systems with 15 or fewer connections.
"This is something the rest of California takes for granted: You wake up and expect the water coming from your faucet is safe," said Assemblyman Henry T. Perea (D-Fresno). "There are 2 million people who face a different reality, and that is wrong."
There are myriad causes for unsafe drinking water, but among the biggest culprits — particularly in the Central and Salinas valleys —- are naturally occurring arsenic and nitrates from agricultural runoff. Fixing it can entail something as simple as digging new wells or as involved as building a sophisticated water treatment plant.
In 2011, the United Nations dispatched a human rights lawyer to the town of Seville in Tulare County and called attention to the poor conditions, part of a tour that also included Bangladesh and Namibia.
Gov. Jerry Brown last year signed a law declaring that access to clean drinking water is a right of every Californian. Nevertheless, state officials have struggled to make good on that promise.
EPA officials announced earlier this month that California needs an estimated $44 billion in capital improvements in the next 20 years to keep drinking water safe.