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After Rebecca Quintana takes a shower, she shakes the sand out of her hair.
The pipes that deliver water to her house in Seville, a town of about 400 people southeast of Fresno, Calif., are over a century old. They’re corroded and leaky, and the water pressure is poor, so dirt and sediment get into the pipes and come out of the showerhead and tap.
The sand is an inconvenience, but because the town’s water system runs through an irrigation ditch, more harmful substances seep into the pipes. Quintana’s water tests for unsafe levels of nitrate – a man-made and industrial chemical that leaches from commercial fertilizers, manure, and septic tanks.
Quintana, 54, doesn’t drink the tap water. She spends about $40 a month on bottled water, on top of a water bill that averages $60 monthly. She says the added cost takes a big bite out of her budget, but the greater hardship is the effect on her family’s health.
The water gives her rashes and caused her granddaughter’s eczema to flare up during a long stay at her house, she says.
“It was really bad. [Her skin] was so raw, there was bleeding from the scratching,” Quintana said. “It had to be the water, it’s irritating her.”
Seville’s residents could be looking forward to clean, potable water. California got nearly $160 million in federal stimulus dollars to improve drinking water quality, but none of it reached Seville.
In fact, although stimulus funds were intended to clean up drinking water, most of the money bypassed communities with the most contaminated water, like Seville.
The reason? Stimulus funds could only be spent on shovel-ready projects and in many rural towns, particularly in the San Joaquin Valley, the projects were far from ready to go. Just to get shovel ready, projects require ample initial funding for design and environmental studies, and many small towns don’t have the money up-front to do this groundwork.
Seville’s water system was taken over by Tulare County, a requirement for receiving state funds to fix its decrepit water system. But after a year, Seville’s residents are still waiting for state help, and now federal funds won’t be flowing.
“[Funding for clean water] is frozen in the state, so everything is in place, but there’s no money,” she said. Quintana says the county told her Seville would be among the first in line for state funds when it comes in.
The plight of towns like Seville, desperate for clean water, is widespread, but the stimulus funds will trickle down to just a fraction of them. California has thousands of water system projects on its funding priority list. The highest priority projects pose public health threats from contamination by bacteria, nitrates and arsenic, for example.
Just 73 water projects received stimulus money and only 16 of those are ranked as having the worst drinking water. Seville’s ailing water system--contaminated with nitrates and bacteria--and was high up on the priority list, but it won’t get funds. Shovel ready projects included many water systems that merely had old pipes in need of replacement – not potentially harmful water.