Rooted in Exclusion, California Towns Fight for the Right to Water
What’s happening among unincorporated communities like Lanare, Matheny Tract and Tooleville may portend darker days ahead.
Photo Essay by David Bacon
This photo essay was originally published by the award-winning journalism nonprofit Capital & Main
Alberto Sanchez came to the United States without papers in the 1950s. After working for two decades, he found a home in Lanare, a tiny unincorporated community in the San Joaquin Valley, where he has lived ever since. “All the people living here then were Black, except for one Mexican family,” he remembers.
Lanare is one of the many unincorporated communities in rural California that lack the most basic infrastructure. According to PolicyLink, a foundation promoting economic and social equity, there are thousands of unincorporated communities throughout the U.S., mostly Black and Latino, and frequently poor, excluded from city maps — and services. PolicyLink’s 2013 study “California Unincorporated: Mapping Disadvantaged Communities in the San Joaquin Valley” found that 310,000 people live in these communities scattered across the valley.
They are home to some of the valley’s poorest residents in one of the richest, most productive agricultural areas in the world. Today, their history of being excluded from incorporated cities affects their survival around the most critical issue facing them: access to water.
Lanare: A History of Racial Exclusion
Lanare has its origin in land theft and racial exclusion, like many similar colonias. The land on which it sits was originally the home of the Tachi band of the Yokut people. It was taken from them and given by Mexican governor Pío Pico of California as a land grant to Manuel Castro, two years before California was seized from Mexico in 1848. Castro’s Rancho Laguna de Tache was then fought over by a succession of owners until an English speculator, L.A. Nares, established a town and gave it his own name. From 1912 to 1925 Lanare had a post office and a station on the Laton and Western Railway.
Lanare drew its water from the Kings River. The larger town up the road even changed its name to Riverdale to advertise its proximity to the watercourse. But big farmers tapped the Kings in the Sierras to irrigate San Joaquin Valley’s vineyards and cotton fields. Instead of flowing past Lanare and Riverdale, in most years it became a dry riverbed. By the 1950s Tulare Lake, the river’s terminus, had disappeared.
With no river, people left. The families who stayed in Lanare, or moved there, were those who couldn’t live elsewhere. Paul Dictos, Fresno County assessor-recorder, has identified thousands of racially restrictive covenants he calls “the mechanism that enabled the people in authority to maintain residential segregation that effectively deprived people of color from achieving home ownership.” One such covenant, written in 1952, said, “This property is sold on condition it is not resold to or occupied by the following races: Armenian, Mexican, Japanese, Korean, Syrian, Negros, Filipinos or Chinese.”
Excluded from Fresno, 30 miles away, as well as from Hanford, 23 miles away, and even from Riverdale, a stone’s throw down the highway, Black families found homes in Lanare. For farm laborers, truck drivers and poor rural working families, living in Lanare was cheaper. By 2000 Lanare had 540 residents. A decade later, 589. Most people moved into trailers and today are farmworkers in the surrounding fields. A third live under the poverty line, with half the men making less than $22,000 per year, and half the women less than $16,000.
With no river, Lanare had to get its water from a well. And in the late 1990s residents discovered that chemicals, especially arsenic, were concentrated in the aquifer below this low-lying area of the San Joaquin Valley. They organized Community United in Lanare and got a $1.3 million federal grant for a plant to remove the arsenic. When the plant failed, the water district they’d formed went into receivership, leaving families paying over $50 a month for water they couldn’t use.
Community United in Lanare banded together with many of those unincorporated settlements suffering the same problem, and began to push the state to take responsibility for supplying water. California Rural Legal Assistance (CRLA) filed suit on their behalf, saying California’s Safe Drinking Water Act required the state to formulate a Safe Drinking Water Plan. Then former CRLA attorneys set up a new organization, the Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability, which filed more suits.
“We organized to make the state respond,” says community activist Isabel Solorio. “We got stories in the media and took delegations to Sacramento many times.” State Sen. Bill Monning, who gained firsthand knowledge of California’s rural poverty as a lawyer for the United Farm Workers, wrote a bill to provide funding for towns like Lanare. SB 200, the Safe and Affordable Funding for Equity and Resilience (SAFER) Act, finally passed in 2019, providing $1.4 billion over a decade to fund drinking water projects, consolidate unsustainable systems and subsidize water delivery in low-income communities.
Matheny Tract: Fighting for Water and Basic Services
For many unincorporated towns, however, funding for water service alone is not a complete solution. A history of exclusion has left them without other services, near the towns and cities that excluded them. One is the Matheny Tract, just outside Tulare city limits. Vance McKinney, a truck driver who grew up there, recalls that his parents, whom he called “black Okies,” couldn’t get a loan for a home when they came up from the South in 1955. They bought a lot from developer Edwin Matheny, who’d subdivided land just outside the city limits and sold lots to Black families.
Four decades ago Tulare County’s General Plan even proposed tearing down the community. Matheny Tract, the plan said, had “little or no authentic future.” After the Matheny Tract Committee organized to pressure the state, in 2011 the city and county of Tulare agreed to connect city water lines with Matheny’s Pratt Mutual Water Company. The city then backpedaled, claiming it had no water during the drought. At the same time, however, it was providing water to its own, higher-income subdivisions and industrial developments.
Finally the state Water Resources Control Board issued an order for the voluntary consolidation of Tulare and Matheny’s water systems. When the city still dragged its feet, the state issued a mandatory order and the systems were connected in 2016.
But Matheny Tract also has no sewage system, and discharges from septic tanks sometimes even bubble up in the yards of families like McKinney’s. Tulare’s wastewater plant is a stone’s throw away, but Matheny residents can’t hook up to it. According to activist Javier Medina, “On some days it smells really bad here. I went to a city council meeting once, and one of their experts said it was probably because they were using the waste to irrigate the pistachio grove next to it.”
Medina says he invited Tulare Supervisor Pete Vander Poel to come to Matheny to experience it. “He said he’d only meet with us in the cafeteria in the Target store in Tulare, because Matheny was very dangerous,” he recalls. For Reinalda Palma, another committee member, the reason for Tulare’s reluctance is simple. “There’s a lot of discrimination against Mexicans,” she charges. “We have to mobilize if we want anything to change.” Finally a threat to sue from the Leadership Counsel got the city to agree to begin planning a sewer consolidation as well.
Tooleville: “They Think We’re Nothing”
Even less cooperation has been forthcoming in Tooleville, less than a mile from the Tulare County city of Exeter. In 2001 residents of this unincorporated community began asking Exeter to extend its water lines to provide service. The city refused, thus beginning one of the longest fights for drinking water in the valley’s history.
Ironically, Tooleville’s two dirt streets end at the base of the Sierra foothills, where the Friant-Kern Canal carries millions of gallons of water from the Friant Dam on the San Joaquin River to fields at the valley’s south end. The canal was built with taxpayer funding by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation in the 1940s, as part of the Central Valley Project. It diverts so much water that the San Joaquin River disappears in areas below the Friant Dam during dry seasons. With no river water, farmers in the river basin pump water from the aquifer below, leading to land subsidence in many areas of the San Joaquin Valley. Even the canal itself has lost up to 60% of its delivery capacity because the land is sinking under it.
While Tooleville residents can watch the water flow by on the other side of a chain-link fence, they can’t touch it, much less drink it. The community gets its water from two wells. One has already gone dry. “We only have water in the morning,” says Maria Paz Olivera, secretary of the Tooleville Mutual Nonprofit Water Association. “When workers come home from the fields in the afternoon there’s no water, and they have to wait until late before they can shower.”
The state has discovered hexavalent chromium in the water as well, and people fear drinking and cooking with it. It currently supplies bottled water to residents.
Tooleville is surrounded by grape vineyards and citrus groves. “The growers beside us have sunk 400-foot wells, while our wells only go down 200 feet,” Paz Olivera says. “Growers run Exeter, and they’re all Trump people. When they look at us, all they see are poor Mexicans. They think we’re nothing.”
Blanca Escobedo, a Leadership Counsel organizer working with the Tooleville community, agrees. “The Exeter City Council members are all white, while half of Exeter is Latino,” she says. “You see this in their comments. One councilmember said they wouldn’t connect with Tooleville because people there wouldn’t pay their bills. When the community invited the Exeter mayor and council to tour, they wouldn’t talk with residents. In one meeting the mayor said consolidation was a waste of money and he wished Santa Claus was real.” When Tooleville residents attended a meeting in 2019, Escobedo says councilmembers asked to be escorted to their cars by security.
After negotiating for a year and a half with Michael Claiborne, the Leadership Counsel attorney representing Tooleville, the Exeter City Council adopted a water master plan in 2019 with no consolidation. Mayor Mary Waterman-Philpot said, “We have to take care of Exeter first,” and was “not interested” in Tooleville.
Under previous laws the state water board could only request a voluntary consolidation in a case like Tooleville’s. But this year the legislature passed SB 403, authorizing mandated consolidation where a water system is at risk of failure. The water board has told Exeter that it is prepared to issue an order, and according to Leadership Counsel co-director Veronica Garibay, the city has agreed to begin planning a consolidation.
Canaries in the Coal Mines?
Perhaps these small communities, vulnerable due to their history of exclusion, are like canaries in the coal mines. Even the large cities of the San Joaquin Valley now have burgeoning problems finding water. Roughly 80% of the water used by all California businesses and homes is taken by growers to irrigate 9 million acres of farmland.
While state legislation has given unincorporated communities more power to negotiate for their tiny portion, the system is structured to serve the needs of agriculture. And as the land sinks in many areas, and wells go even deeper, the aquifer itself is in danger.
For African Americans who began many of the valley’s unincorporated settlements, state legislation comes late. Ten years ago, Vance McKinney showed me the place where sewage welled up in front of his house. Now he has moved his family into Tulare and just comes for visits to the place where he grew up.
In another colonia, Monterey Park Tract, the community finally won a water connection to the nearby city of Ceres (itself facing rising water contamination), but the Black families who settled here are mostly gone. Betty Yelder, still on the local water board, remembers that her father came from Biloxi, Miss., in the 1930s, “when we couldn’t live in most parts of Modesto. But I’m retired now, and the rest of our family doesn’t live here anymore.”
Mary Broad, one of the last Black residents of Lanare, died a few years ago.
In the middle of the Matheny Tract, a dry canal bisects the community. It’s empty except for a few windblown papers and dead tumbleweeds. Javier Medina says residents still pay $50 a year for the privilege of having it run through town. “We have better water now,” he admits, “but I wonder if the canal is also a warning of what’s in store.”