Newsom signs water bill in Tombstone Territory, whose residents rely on bottled water

Gov. Gavin Newsom signed legislation to provide permanent funding for safe drinking water (SB 200) during a visit to the unincorporated community of Tombstone Territory near Sanger.
Gov. Gavin Newsom signed legislation to provide permanent funding for safe drinking water (SB 200) during a visit to the unincorporated community of Tombstone Territory near Sanger.

Two years ago, the well that provides water for Carolina García and her five children dried up.

The toilet was inoperable because there was no water. After a couple of days, she sucked up her pride and went to her neighbors

García went days without taking a shower.

It wasn’t until community efforts led to waters bottles being trucked in for the four-block community.

“When they brought in the water, I started to cry because I didn’t even have water to wash my hands,” said the resident of the unincorporated community of Tombstone Territory, about a mile from Sanger.

It would take a pail of water for her children to wash themselves. One day, her son used only half a pail of water and told her he left water for her use.

Jovita Torres Romo, one of the residents who live in the 40-home neighborhood, spent $30,000 on a new water well.

During the recent, historic 5-year drought when farmers had to dig deeper for water, the water table dropped and left Torres Romo and others like her high and dry.

“Our wells were left without water,” said Torres Romo, who also discovered silt in water for the washing machine. She doesn’t use her refrigerator’s icemaker because the ice is not safe to consume.

Both women rely on bottled water.

The plight of García and Torres Romo is not unique in California, where an estimated 1 million residents don’t have access to clean and affordable drinking water.

That is why Gov. Gavin Newsom showed up at García’s house Tuesday morning to sign legislation that will provide $130 million annually to help local water systems provide safe drinking water.

“The fact that more than a million Californians can’t rely on clean water to drink or bathe in is amoral disgrace,” said Newsom, who signed SB 200, which establishes the Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Fund.

The money will come from the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund.

“Parents shouldn’t have to worry about their kids drinking from the water fountain at school, and families shouldn’t have to dump water over their heads to shower every day,” said Newsom, who arrived at the García house on time dressed in jeans and rolled-up, long-sleeve shirt.

“This funding is critically important to addressing California’s long-standing safe drinking water issues.”

Newsom was accompanied by state Sen. Dick Monning, D-Carmel, who authored the bill. State Sen. Anna Caballero, D-Salinas, and Assemblymember Richard Bloom, D-Santa Mónica. Farmworker icon Dolores Huerta also sat down with the governor as he spoke with García and Torres Romo.

The Tombstone residents spoke about the difficulties of relying on bottled water.

“”We have been fighting for years. This has been 10 years in the making,” said Verónica Garibay, co-executive director of the Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability. She also served as interpreter for García and Torres Romo.

Garibay called the lack of clean drinking water in rural communities “a crisis.”

She spoke about fighting for the community of Lanare near Riverdale to get a $1.3 million grant to treat arsenic in the drinking water well.

“It only ran for six months. It rotted away because we could not afford to maintain the system,” said Garibay.

The legislation will solve that problem by providing money to maintain and operate water systems.

“There is no other funding program in California today that will pay for the operating and maintenance cost,” said Garibay. “We look for swift implementation.”

Newsom, during a 15-minute meeting with the media, said the key will be to consolidate water systems to make them financially feasible.

“There’s nothing worse than a groundbreaking where you spend millions and millions of dollars ... and people walk away because they can’t maintain it,” said Newsom. “So, this is significant.”

Newsom accepted the challenge to provide clean drinking water to poorer parts of the state.

“Nothing in the (state) budget makes me more proud than this. Some folks wonder why the hell you get into politics, and this is the ‘why,’” he said.

Tombstone Territory residents, through Self-Help Enterprises and the Leadership Counsel for Justice & Accountability, are working with Sanger city officials to get their homes hooked up to Sanger’s water system.

State Sen. Melissa Hurtado, D-Sanger, carved out $1 million to help with that project.

Sanger City Manager Tim Chapa expects the project to be completed in about 1½ years.