Most Lamont residents likely had no idea that a mini hoopla held in the middle of town Monday morning next to a newly constructed well was actually a celebration of their children’s and their grandchildren’s futures.
“This is generational,” said Lamont Public Utilities District General Manager Scott Taylor. “It allows us to provide clean and safe — the keyword there being safe — drinking water for the people of this community.”
District staff and an array of state and local dignitaries were on hand to applaud a $25.4 million grant from the state’s Safe and Affordable Funding for Equity and Resilience (SAFER) program that will allow the Lamont PUD to replace three of its eight drinking water wells. A fourth well was replaced using a $5.7 million emergency grant after it ceased working in August 2020, Taylor noted.
The $25.4 million grant will also allow Lamont PUD to consolidate a nearby 80-home community called El Adobe, where the water is severely contaminated. El Adobe residents have been waiting nearly a decade for consolidation.
The grant is the single largest SAFER grant in the program’s four-year existence.
The program was created by legislation in 2019. It receives about $130 million a year from the state’s Cap and Trade air pollution program, through which industries buy pollution “credits” allowing them to build or expand facilities.
That and other funding has been used to reduce the number of Californians without access to clean water from 1.6 million in 2019 to 850,000 in 2023, according to Joaquin Esquivel, chairman of the State Water Resources Control Board, which administers the SAFER program.
“That’s a 40 percent reduction in three years,” Esquivel told the gathering on Monday. “We know we still have so many other water systems, hundreds, that we need to bring into compliance.”
Esquivel acknowledged that sometimes “those investments took a bit too long.”
In fact, Lamont PUD has been applying for state funding to replace its aging wells and consolidate with El Adobe for at least the past decade.
State Sen. Melissa Hurtado, who introduced a bill last year calling for the Water Board to be dissolved, noted that Lamont’s quest for funding “hasn’t always been pretty” and she credited Taylor and the Lamont PUD board for never giving up.
“But it shouldn’t have to take this long, it shouldn’t have to be this difficult,” she said of the state’s response to water needs of disadvantaged communities.
She’s no longer pursuing dissolution of the Water Board but said she’s still frustrated by how long it takes communities to get state help.
In fact, a report from the California Auditor’s office last summer skewered the Water Board for a lack of urgency and calcified bureaucracy that it said has led to hundreds of thousands of residents living without clean water.
In a tacit acknowledgement of those criticisms, Water Board member Nicole Morgan told the crowd Monday that the department is working on a proposal to cut the time it takes to administer SAFER funding. That proposal should come before the board in June.
For now, though, Lamont PUD board members and staff are grateful to have the funding they need to provide the 15,000-member community with clean water now and into the future.
“This secures our ability to grow,” said Tim Prado, president of the Lamont PUD board. “And we are ready to grow.”
Lois Henry is the CEO and editor of SJV Water, a nonprofit, independent online news publication dedicated to covering water issues in the San Joaquin Valley. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The website is sjvwater.org.