Bernice Yeung/California Watch
Locals like to say that Easton is closer to Fresno than parts of Fresno, but as an unincorporated community seven miles south of downtown, residents relish its small-town ways.
“We don’t have the same commodities and resources, but we can hear the crickets at night and it’s peaceful and there are freedoms here," said Sue Ruiz, who serves as the president of the Easton Community Services District.
A 2-square-mile enclave of about 665 homes, Easton has more than a half-dozen well-attended churches and two wide-lawned schools set against a backdrop of vineyards, almond orchards and two-lane roads. Chitchat with neighbors is easy and cordial – until the conversation turns to water, an issue that has divided neighbors and families who continue to debate whether Easton needs to move away from its system of private wells.
Because of its agricultural roots and the houses built with septic tanks on small lots near water wells, Easton is prone to groundwater contamination, community health advocates said. Yet the overall water quality there is largely unknown because the majority of the community’s 2,000 residents live in homes that rely on unregulated private wells.
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Following requests from some residents and local businesses, the community services district – which primarily oversees streetlights, landscaping and recreational spaces on an annual budget of $65,000 – decided to hire a firm to test a portion of Easton wells last year.
“There are concerns about water quality, but we didn’t know for sure,” Ruiz said. "We decided to go beyond perception and find fact.”
The testing of 28 wells in Easton found that 70 percent had at least one contaminant that exceeded safe drinking water limits. The pollutants ranged from nitrates to bacteria to DBCP, a pesticide that was banned by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in the late 1970s. Testing results will be released today at a community meeting.
Many residents aren't aware that they should be testing their wells to see if they are contaminated. Teresa Ruiz, who is not related to Sue Ruiz, lives at the edge of Easton and grew up drinking water straight from the garden hose. “It tastes so good,” she said. “It’s natural.”
Now she runs an accounting business on Elm Avenue, the community’s main drag, and she said she just learned last year that as a property owner, she should be testing her well water, especially since there’s a possibility it could be tainted.
“I was shocked,” she said. “I have never had the well tested before because I wasn’t aware of it.”
Ruiz rents her childhood home to her mother-in-law and sister-in-law, and she has never tested those wells, either. “I can’t rent out a home without heated water, but there’s nothing about water quality,” she said.
Ralph Montano, a spokesman for the California Department of Public Health, wrote in an email that although the agency “does not regulate private wells, the department is aware of resident concerns about contaminated drinking water from private wells.”
The State Water Resources Control Board maintains a website that offers guidance to domestic well users, Montano said.
The state estimates that 2 million Californians rely on private wells, and their water quality is largely unknown.
“Many of these well owners are unaware of the quality of their well water, because the State does not require them to test their water quality,” said a February State Water Resources Control Board draft report to the Legislature.
The state has tested a fraction of private wells in five regions as part of its groundwater research, and similar concerns about the water quality of private wells have emerged in other regions.
In 2006, the state tested 181 private wells in Tulare County and found that 41 percent exceeded safe drinking water limits for nitrates. Additional spot testing in the Central Valley by Self-Help Enterprises, an organization that helps rural communities with infrastructure improvements, has also found high rates of contaminants in private wells. In Yettem, near Visalia, 85 percent of the wells were contaminated; 90 percent of the wells tested in Raisin City, outside of Fresno, were tainted.
Self-Help Enterprises gave the Easton Community Services District a $5,000 forgivable loan to conduct the recent water quality testing.
“There are places out there that aren’t on the radar because they are not on a public water system that gets tested on a regular basis and because people are on private wells,” said Paul Boyer of Self-Help Enterprises. “We definitely want to see people at least know what they’re drinking.”
Maria Herrera of Visalia-based Community Water Center said that across the San Joaquin Valley residents on private wells are often not aware that they must monitor and resolve their own water quality problems.
“There are people who haven’t tested their water because they presume it’s good water because it’s well water,” she said. “In most cases, the water comes out clear, and human nature is that if it looks and smells good, then you’re not worried about it.”
If the testing in Easton leads residents to seek communitywide solutions, then the community services district would seek the authority and funding to create a local public water system, Ruiz said.
When a water system was proposed a decade ago, though, the issue split the community. Longtime residents recall a community meeting that almost broke out in fisticuffs.
“People were almost slugging it out,” said Oscar Kendrick, a resident who opposes a centralized water system.
The resistance has not completely dissipated. Oscar and Carolyn Kendrick have lived in Easton since 1979 and in May, they had their well tested through the community services district for the second time since they moved there. They were surprised to discover that the bacteria levels in their well failed to meet drinking water standards, and they don’t know how long this has been the case since they hadn’t tested their well since 1997.
Oscar Kendrick blames a hole in a plastic seal cap for the bacteria contamination and has since followed the directions that came with his test results to bleach out the bacteria. “I never thought the well would have anything in it,” he said. “I’m glad we did it because I thought we were in great shape.”
But even the Hendricks are hesitant about installing a centralized water system for Easton. They tick off the reasons: the cost, the move to a metered system, and the possibility that it would lead to unwanted development.
“We love our small town and if they put in water lines, the real estate man will buy up all the land and build houses,” Carolyn Kendrick said.
“I don’t have the answer,” Oscar Kendrick added. “My position is just leave me alone.”
Opinions even differ within families. Sue Ruiz discovered through the recent testing that her water quality is fine – and so are the two wells of her grown children who live in the community.
“Why do I want to spend extra money each month on water when my water is fine, and I don’t have a job?” said Ruiz, an unemployed teacher. “I don’t know. My kids ask me, ‘Why, Mom, are you breaking your neck over this?’ ”
Ruiz ran into Pop Warner football booster and coffee salesman Darren Van Vranken at the local donut shop recently and asked him how he felt about the water. He said he would personally support a central system. “I’m for it because for me, it would help the community grow,” he said.
He noted that his brother-in-law, who just spent $14,000 on a new well, would probably feel differently.
But Nick Kazarian, an optometrist who grew up in Easton, has little ambivalence about the solution to the community’s water concerns.
“I feel really strongly that Easton needs a central water system,” said Kazarian, who found what he described as “deficiencies” in the well that services his Easton office. “I’m concerned about the health and welfare of those who live here. There are good folks here, and they need access to the same healthful things as everyone else does.”
California Lost is an occasional series examining challenges facing neglected communities around the state.