Public Affairs

Water Officials, Researchers, Advocates at CSU Conference
Address Solutions – and Funding – to Fix Water
Systems in Poorer Neighborhoods

Rancho Cucamonga confluence focuses on infrastructure for safe drinking-water, properly treated wastewater, stormwater management in ‘disadvantaged communities’

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Sean Kearns or
Mike Uhlenkamp

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(June 30, 2011) - About a hundred engineers, government officials and others at a conference sponsored by the California State University’s Water Resources and Policy Initiatives (WRPI) heard the story Tuesday of Enchanted Heights. It is not a fairytale.

In a very real sense, Enchanted Heights, a community of 446 homes that straddles the boundary of the City of Perris in Riverside County, is fouled by failing septic systems, with untreated wastewater migrating through groundwater and emerging into yards and lanes. It is one of thousands of relatively poor communities in California, many classified as “disadvantaged.” In hundreds, public health is threatened by faulty wastewater treatment or contaminated drinking water. Most are served by very small water districts.

For example, a Tulare County district that serves about 100 residents, was cited 11 times over a recent 10-year stretch for excessive levels of coliform bacteria and nitrates in drinking water. In 2006, a State Water Resources Control Board study of 181 Tulare County drinking-water wells found excessive levels of coliform bacteria (in 33 percent of wells), of fecal coliform bacteria (8 percent), and of nitrate concentrations (41 percent).

Engineers, water managers, tribal representatives, health and environmental-protection officials, researchers and community advocates met in Rancho Cucamonga June 28 to discuss how to address such issues at WRPI’s conference on  “Developing Funding For Disadvantaged Community Infrastructure Projects.”

While highlighting potential funding sources, the conference also presented case studies—including one on Enchanted Heights, where this summer the three-year, $13 million installation of a sewer system will begin. (For more about the Enchanted Heights project, see the video here.)

Case study: Enchanted Heights

Maria Elena Kennedy, a City of Perris spokesperson who serves on the U.S. National Drinking Water Advisory Council, told the group, “You have to gain peoples’ trust. Once you gain their trust, they will become your partners and your project will be successful. You need to show you really care about them as people, not just as a census tract.”

Ron Sullivan, an Eastern Municipal Water District trustee, described how the city, county and district collaborated, persisted and ultimately obtained funding. The application process took years, requiring extensive preliminary engineering and environmental analyses, he said.

(This City of Perris news release describes the presentation.)

Goal: Wide-ranging center for help

The conference supports a larger WRPI effort to advance technical, social, and other ways to foster environmental restoration and economic development in disadvantaged communities by improving water infrastructure.  The CSU has proposed to create a federally designated “technical assistance center” to help California’s disadvantaged communities develop and manage effective, sustainable water and wastewater systems.

Such communities can be a challenging enigma for the districts and agencies that serve them because the entities are often unaware of available funding, according to Karl Longley, emeritus dean of engineering at Fresno State, a long-time member of the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board, and a champion of the CSU proposal.

Because small community water systems lack money, Longley said, they are often unable to pay for technical expertise, adapt to new regulations, pay for upgrades, retain qualified operators, access necessary capital, apply for grants, or pay fines and penalties.

Meanwhile, said WRPI Associate Director Susan Lien Longville, in hundreds of relatively poor communities across California, contaminated drinking water and poorly treated wastewater continue to raise concerns of public health and environmental justice.

According to Longville, who also directs the Water Resources Institute at CSU San Bernardino, periodic flooding intensifies the impacts.

“Many are in small, unincorporated agricultural communities,” she said; and, in the past, when it came to the creation of reliable infrastructure, “these are the kind of places that were just passed over.”

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Expert sources:

  • Susan Lien Longville - Director, Water Resources Institute, California State University San Bernardino; associate director, CSU WRPI; conference organizer
    Office (909) 537-7684; cell (909) 772-0843
    slongvil@csusb.edu
  • Karl E. Longley -Dean emeritus, CSU Fresno; research engineer, California Water Institute; board member, Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board
    Office (559) 278-8658; cell (209) 873-0630
    karll@csufresno.edu
  • Maria Elena Kennedy - (also fluent in Spanish) City of Perris outreach coordinator on Enchanted Heights project; executive director, Quail Valley Environmental Coalition; member, U.S. EPA's National Drinking Water Advisory Council
    Cell (626) 374-8910
    cristorey@charter.net

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