This story was originally published by CityLab and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration. It is part two of a three-part series on the future of the San Joaquin Valley’s unincorporated communities. Read part one here.

In Matheny Tract, Calif., the sour odor of sewage is especially strong in the morning — and so is the irony that residents can’t connect to the system it represents.

The poor, unincorporated community of roughly 300 homes sits adjacent to the city of Tulare, population 61,000. A single, dusty field is all that separates Matheny Tract’s mostly African-American and Latino residents from Tulare’s recently expanded wastewater treatment plant. Though Tulare’s sewer system is more robust than ever, Matheny Tract residents must use septic tanks, since they are not part of the city. For a dense settlement, this spells trouble.

“People can’t always afford to pump out their tanks, so sometimes they overflow,” says Vance McKinney, a 59-year-old truck driver and community leader. “I’ve watched children jump over ponds of sewage to get to school in the morning.”

The leaching tanks are likely responsible for the fecal bacteria that’s been found in the shallow community wells from which Matheny Tract gets its water. Nitrates, probably from fertilizer runoff from surrounding farms, have also been an issue. Right now, the biggest problem is naturally occurring arsenic, exacerbated by an ever-shrinking volume of groundwater — partly a result of excessive pumping by farmers in the midst of California’s record-breaking drought.

Though residents can shower and clean with the water, it is undrinkable. For McKinney and his wife, that translates to spending an average of $160 on bottled water every month.

“We’re blessed to be able to afford it, and some of our neighbors are, too,” he says, taking a break from painting his house on a rare afternoon off from work. “But there are poor people out there who can’t.”

McKinney sits on the board of Pratt Mutual, the nonprofit group that operates Matheny Tract’s water system. Since the system’s arsenic levels exceed EPA limits, Pratt Mutual is legally obligated to resolve the issue. In 2009, facing deteriorating pipes, little money, and a lack of government oversight, Pratt Mutual decided to seek a water system consolidation with the city of Tulare.

This was logical, as it is for many low-income county subdivisions that sit on the fringes of bigger towns in the San Joaquin Valley. When one water system merges into another, more people pay to a single entity. That should mean the cost of water is lower for customers, and that there’s more revenue to maintain infrastructure. Managerial and technical headaches are eliminated for the smaller community. Risk of contamination is lowered.

Consolidation also makes sense from a geographical standpoint: When precious water supplies and infrastructure are available mere blocks away, why refuse to extend it to people in need?


Caught between city and county governments, many of the San Joaquin Valley’s poor, unincorporated communities lack the most basic services. Government neglect, disenfranchisement, and poor land-use planning have helped shape these disparities, as I explored in the previous story in this series. A number of these towns have recently seen their wells go dry because of the drought. But for many more, water issues — especially contamination — are nothing new.

Because of the unprecedented drought, the gulfs in service between neighboring communities may finally begin to shrink. In June, California lawmakers passed a bill enabling the State Water Resources Control Board to mandate certain water systems to merge. The legislation was both a reaction to the plight of dried-out communities and a result of years of work on the part of clean drinking-water advocates.

Drought consolidation, as the bill is known, is flanked by the governor’s $1 billion drought emergency bond package, as well as state drinking-water revolving funds. Both funding sources can assist disadvantaged communities facing severe water problems — even those that haven’t been directly brought on by the drought.

But as with so much in the San Joaquin Valley’s poorest towns, consolidation has proven harder than it should be. Though there’s at least one success story, many cities want neither to annex nor extend services to low-income subdivisions, because the return on investment is so low. For too many thirsty people, old squabbles, inequitable planning, and deep-rooted prejudices put a fundamental need — water — even further out of reach.

Broken promises, ulterior motives

Matheny Tract was one of many pieces of far-flung county land settled by African-American farmworkers in the San Joaquin Valley during the mid-20th century. Migrating from the east, these workers and their families were often locked out of the Valley’s cities by high prices or, in many cases, overtly discriminatory real-estate practices. Land buyers — traveling salesman types — took advantage, snapping up large tracts and parceling them off to people with few other choices.

That’s why, at its founding, Matheny Tract sat a fair distance away from the city of Tulare. But Tulare has crept up to it over the years. When you look at maps of the city of Tulare’s annexation patterns going back to the 1960s, a pattern becomes clear.