Fighting For Environmental Justice In The Flint of California

Matheny Tract Committee Wins Fight for Clean Water – For Matheny Tract and All California Residents

Ashley Werner, Attorney - Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability

Ashley Werner, Attorney - Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability

After years of community-led struggle, residents of Matheny Tract – a 344-home historical farmworker community in unincorporated Tulare County immediately outside of Tulare City limits –  will finally see clean drinking water run from their faucets starting June 1st.

Matheny Tract is a small, unincorporated community made up of 1,200 residents. The majority of the population is Latino, and almost a third of the residents live below the federal poverty line. Since the community is unincorporated, residents can’t vote in city elections and don’t have access to municipal services.

Matheny Tract residents first received notice in 2006 that their drinking water, provided to them by Pratt Mutual Water Company, was contaminated with an excessive amount of arsenic. Pratt Mutual’s distribution system was deteriorating, and residents were clearly paying the price.

The community rolled up its sleeves to find a solution to this problem. Through collaborative efforts between residents, the City of Tulare, the County of Tulare, and Self-Help Enterprises, Pratt Mutual received about $6 million from the State Water Resource Control Board to construct a new water system.  In 2011, the City and Pratt signed an agreement that required the City to provide potable water to Matheny Tract residents and fully consolidate its water system with the community by treating the residents as individual customers of the City. But this wasn’t the end of the story.

Three years later, the construction of the new water distribution system in Matheny Tract was almost finished when the City of Tulare announced that, due to the drought, it didn’t know if it had enough water to supply the community and stopped construction. And yet, the City had permitted hundreds of new single-family residential subdivisions, commercial outlets, and industrial developments shortly after they had signed the agreement with Pratt. Why was the City able to supply these new developments with water, but couldn’t supply Matheny Tract? This made it abundantly clear to the residents that the lack of water was simply a matter of priorities, not possibility.

The Matheny Tract Committee – a group of residents who have worked together since 2009 to advocate for the improvement of Matheny Tract – demanded that the city immediately adhere to the contract and provide residents with potable water.

The City filed suit against MTC, Pratt Mutual, and the County of Tulare and sought a Court order to relieve it of its duty and allow it to sell water wholesale to the community instead. With the support of Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability, MTC quickly counter-sued, unwilling to settle for anything less than the City’s full accordance with the contract.  

In September 2015, California selected the City of Tulare to be the first test case of SB 88, which allows the state to order a city to share its water with those of disadvantaged communities outside of City limits. The State ordered the City of Tulare to negotiate an arrangement with Pratt to consolidate the water systems under the legislation. But this still wasn’t the end of the story.

The City refused to negotiate such an agreement and, naturally, MTC fought back. The group met with state officials, mobilized the community to attend State Water Board hearings, and prepared for its April 2016 trial date.

Then, finally in March 2016, as the trial was quickly approaching, the City of Tulare agreed to consolidate its water supply with Matheny Tract’s by June 1st. This is a big victory not only for Matheny Tract Committee and the community, but for California as well. This showed that implementation of SB 88 is possible and that there are feasible solutions for communities that don’t have access to clean drinking water. Sadly, this water crisis impacts hundreds of communities throughout the Central Valley, and we hope that Matheny Tract’s victory will pave the way for other communities suffering from the same problems to receive the basic infrastructure, services, and amenities they need. 

In the news:

- Fresno Bee

- NPR California Report

- KVPR

- Politico