Twenty minutes outside of Visalia, amidst the seemingly endless rows of citrus trees, Yolanda Cuevas packs enchiladas with shredded chicken for her husband Benjamin, their adult daughters and two teenaged grandchildren in her modest single-story home. Their house is the first one off the main drag, one of 83 lining the two crumbling roads that comprise the tiny town of Tooleville. Yolanda must wash the tomatoes for the salsa first in the sink and then again with a splash of clean water from a 5-gallon jug. The process is arduous, and though she’s resigned to do it, she’s not happy about it. Along with Tooleville’s several hundred other residents, Yolanda’s family has survived on bi-weekly delivery of water to their homes for the past12 years. It’s an annoyance for the family, and it’s expensive for the State of California, which has been paying for the replacement water since the discovery of Chromium-6 (the same chemical featured in Erin Brokovich) in the water.
The simpler solution would be to consolidate the town’s water system with that of its larger, affluent neighbor to the west, Exeter. And for this purpose, Yolanda has become a reluctant activist, attending community meetings in Tooleville and lobbying for consolidation at Exeter’s city council meetings under the expert guidance of Pedro Hernandez, an organizer with the Leadership Counsel. While Exeter has resisted the consolidation since it was first proposed, organizers like Pedro feel that this could be the year Exeter finally succumbs to the growing community pressure and brings Tooleville into the fold. The decision will echo around the Central Valley and across the state, as hundreds of similar community water systems find themselves in a nearly identical predicament.