Neglected for decades, unincorporated communities lack basic public services

Garbage collects in an irrigation ditch that runs through Matheny Tract, where residents' tapwater flows from a single well with arsenic levels that exceed federal limits.
Garbage collects in an irrigation ditch that runs through Matheny Tract, where residents' tapwater flows from a single well with arsenic levels that exceed federal limits.
Carlos A. Moreno/California Watch

For a decade, Lilia Avila has lived in the Garcia Mobile Home Park in the East Coachella Valley with her 9-year-old son, Brian, who suffers from mysterious rashes that bloom on his face and legs.

A pediatrician treating Brian suspected the boy was exposed to a bacteria in his home, which doesn’t have sewer service. At one point, a social worker urged Avila to move.

But moving isn’t an option. Avila works in the fields, and her husband is an unemployed landscaper. “We are here not because we want to be here, but out of necessity,” she said.

Garcia – which residents refer to as Rancho Garcia – is one of hundreds of mobile home parks in the unincorporated community of Thermal, just outside of the city of Coachella. Thermal is not connected to nearby city sewer lines, so Avila and her neighbors flush their sewage into overloaded septic tanks and cesspools. There are no sidewalks or storm drains there. And without streetlights, the park is pitch-black at night.

If Avila had to pick one community priority, it would be modernizing the sewage system.

“More than anything is that it gets fixed for the children,” she said. “If they would try to fix it, then we could live with pride.”

Not all unincorporated communities are as bereft. Some, such as Rancho Santa Fe in San Diego County or Woodside in San Mateo County, are among the wealthiest in the state.

But across California, there are hundreds of neighborhoods like Thermal, reports the California Watch. These poor, dense and unincorporated communities on county land – which uniformly lack some combination of sewer systems, clean drinking water, sidewalks, streetlights and gutters – have been the victim of years of government neglect.

In Parklawn, an unincorporated county island within the city of Modesto, septic tanks regularly back up into toilets and showers, at times saturating yards. In Lanare, a community near Fresno, arsenic taints the tap water.

“It’s like people are living in colonies of the United States,” said Miguel Donoso, a longtime Latino community advocate in Stanislaus County. “Living in a Third World country, that’s close to what you see here today.”

Statewide, PolicyLink, an Oakland-based public policy research and advocacy institute, estimates that 1.8 million low-income and often Spanish-speaking Californians live in unincorporated communities, many without the infrastructure that would curb gastrointestinal illnesses, respiratory disease symptoms, and other public health and safety risks.

In Thermal and similar unincorporated communities, language barriers, legal status and a lack of political know-how have made it difficult for residents to navigate the governmental process.

“You’re looking at very small communities that are impoverished, and in many cases, (residents are) undocumented, and that puts them at a severe disadvantage,” said Assemblyman Henry T. Perea, D-Fresno. “There are very few people who want to take on these communities as a priority for a variety of reasons.”

No sewer connections

Among California’s forgotten unincorporated communities, some of the starkest conditions can be found in the East Coachella Valley, not far from the resort towns of Indian Wells and La Quinta. Each spring, as many as 15,000 migrant farm workers flock there for the grape harvest.

Until they moved in February, retired date palm worker Manuel Duarte and his wife, Alicia, had lived in the Garcia Mobile Home Park for 12 years. As they sat at their usual perch outside their home on a late afternoon last spring, they watched a stream of sewage spurt in their yard where a shallow pipe had burst. The stench slowly seeped into the Duartes’ kitchen.

In their bathroom, effluent gurgled into the shower nearly every time they bathed. Alicia Duarte suspected that’s why a large, purplish skin infection near her ankle didn’t heal for more than a year.

While the sewage fountain flowed at the Duartes’ home, Hermenegildo Cabrera and his family across the street finished a dinner of tamales and soda at a table outside their trailer. With his foot, Cabrera tapped a patch of soil – about a dozen paces from where his family had just dined and a few feet from his children’s tree swing – that was soggy with wastewater from a neighbor’s mobile home.

“I feel bad about it,” Cabrera said in Spanish through an interpreter. “It’s an economic situation, and I don’t know where to go.”

The park is one of dozens of mobile home parks in the area without a permit. Wastewater disposal at the park is a mystery – reportedly a makeshift network of septic tanks and cesspools. One resident pointed to a 7-foot-deep hole he dug behind his rusting trailer. That’s where he pipes the sewage from his home.

Riverside County officials say the owners of the park are responsible for maintaining septic tanks, and they step in when they receive complaints that residents are being exposed to sewage. According to county records, there were three complaints of surfacing sewage at the park last year.

Residents said the park’s owners have been dismissive of their concerns. But Carlos Garcia, whose family owns the park, said the park’s septic tanks work “the way they are supposed to.”

When problems are reported, they are fixed “usually within that day,” he said. “Every once in a while, there’s a leaky toilet or the water is left open, and that’s when we have a little problem.”

Garcia said he would like to make the various infrastructure repairs needed to obtain a permit, but the county is requiring him to make them all at once. The upgrades to obtain a county permit will cost about $2.5 million.

“It is our responsibility, and I’m not saying it’s not, but we would like to have time and some kind of help,” Garcia said. “We don’t have that kind of money.”

In rural areas or tony enclaves where there’s enough space and soil for wastewater to drain properly, septic tanks work well. But for public health reasons, sewer lines are the modern standard in dense developments like the Garcia Mobile Home Park. The community would not be constructed today without them.

John Benoit, a Riverside County supervisor who represents the East Coachella Valley, said the county spends a “disproportionate amount of time trying to meet the needs of disenfranchised communities.”

“We have come in after multiple decades of neglect,” he said. “It’s frustrating. But you have to deal in reality, which is that some of these communities may be 15 miles from a water source, and it costs a million dollars a mile to connect.”

Built on the cheap for migrant farm workers from the Deep South, the Dust Bowl, Mexico and Central America, communities like Thermal proliferated in the 1940s and ’50s, and now they dot the entire California landscape. Some are tracked by the U.S. Census Bureau, but some are so small or remote that data is scarce. Census data isn’t always an accurate reflection of these communities, either.

“We don’t have the kinds of hard numbers that are really useful for presenting the residents’ reality or trying to secure resources, or even establishing that there is a problem to get resources to solve it,” said Robin Maria DeLugan, an assistant professor of anthropology at UC Merced, who is surveying two of these communities to gauge the need for services.

Lacking official recognition

Until recently, there was little official recognition of these neighborhoods. Legislation signed by Gov. Jerry Brown in October requires government officials to consider neighboring low-income unincorporated areas in city general plans, annexation decisions and other urban planning, and it finally gives them a name: “disadvantaged unincorporated communities.” Another bill, introduced this year, would allow cities and service districts to extend services to distant unincorporated communities.

PolicyLink estimates there are about 525 of these communities in the eight-county San Joaquin Valley. They can also be found across the entire state, and they take many forms: neighborhoods surrounded by cities, tracts of housing on the fringe of urban areas or a cluster of housing on rural land.

Parklawn, in Stanislaus County, is one of those communities. Residents live three miles from Modesto’s busy downtown, but because they are on an island of county land that’s not part of the city, they can’t connect to the city sewer line.

So Modesto Junior College student Arleen Hernandez wages a nearly daily battle with an aging septic tank that backs up into her toilet and shower, bringing with it “bits of paper and chunks of mold.”

Hernandez has learned to take quick showers and work swiftly with a mop. She has also tried to fix a leaking toilet herself, but her home repair skills have been no match for an outdated system that is too old to drain properly.

Stanislaus County Supervisor Jim DeMartini, who represents Parklawn, said the county has been “working for quite a few years to upgrade and get Parklawn annexed to the city.” Since 1996, the county has spent $23.7 million on improvements to six unincorporated areas in Modesto, including $296,830 for Parklawn, according to county records.

But when it comes to septic tanks, county officials say those are a homeowner’s responsibility, and like in Riverside County, they step in only when they get reports that residents could be exposed to raw sewage. Last year, there were three complaints of surfacing sewage in Parklawn and 33 in all unincorporated county areas, said Sonya Harrigfeld, the county’s director of environmental resources. In the last five years, there were 205 sewage complaints in unincorporated parts of the county.

Septic tanks typically are pumped every few years. But because Parklawn lots are small and many sit on claylike soil that doesn’t drain, homeowners have to empty their tanks two to three times a year. At up to $300 a pump, that’s not an option in a community where the median household income, according to a community survey, is $19,000.

To ease the load on their tanks, some residents, like Francisco González, divert water from their sinks and washing machines into their yards. The water pools in open pits in the rear corners of González’s yard. To battle back rat, mosquito and cockroach infestations, he pours a liberal amount of bleach into the pits each week.

Community’s solution backfires

Similar portraits of disrepair can be found in unincorporated communities across the state.

About 350 miles from Thermal, the unincorporated town of Lanare also lacks sewer service, sidewalks and adequate storm drains. But foremost, residents worry about their water, which is contaminated with high levels of arsenic and, at times, E. coli.

Residents of the community, about 30 miles from Fresno, pay at least $54 a month for non-potable water. They also spend $25 each month on bottled water, which everyone in the neighborhood relies on, at least “until the money runs out,” said Ethel Myles, 74, who has lived in Lanare since 1954.

“We need clean water,” she said. “We stay in America, and there’s supposed to be clean water. Because we’re a little place, they don’t care about us. It makes me feel left out and without.”

In 2007, Lanare finally got a water treatment facility. But it was shut down just six months after it opened because some customers overextended the unmetered system and some farmers used treated water for irrigation and livestock.

Despite the prevalence of underdeveloped and unincorporated communities, they are out of sight – and, for most Californians, out of mind.

“There is a cycle of lack of investment, which leads to more lack of investment, which leads to lack of attention, which leads to more lack of attention,” said Phoebe Seaton, program director for the Community Equity Initiative at California Rural Legal Assistance, which provides free legal services in poor communities.

Public health suffers

Available public health data also doesn’t accurately reflect the conditions of these communities. Although it’s difficult to link ailments to specific environmental causes, physicians believe there is a connection.

Dr. Raul Ruiz, an emergency room physician and founder of the Coachella Valley Healthcare Initiative, said patients from communities like Thermal experience high rates of stroke, diabetes, hypertension, obesity and other chronic diseases that tend to be more common in low-income communities.

Poor infrastructure exacerbates bad health, he added. Cars and trucks on dusty, unpaved roads kick up sand and dirt, which can aggravate asthma or emphysema, Ruiz said. Improperly treated wastewater can cause gastrointestinal illnesses, and drinking water tainted with arsenic can lead to learning disabilities in children.

In the East Coachella Valley communities where Ruiz practices, his organization found there is one doctor for every 8,407 residents. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services considers an area where there is one doctor for every 3,500 patients to be medically underserved.

Ruiz said his patients, many of whom pick grapes in unforgiving triple-digit temperatures, confront health risks on a daily basis. “We are dealing with the bottom of the barrel in terms of potential health outcomes,” Ruiz said.

California Assemblyman V. Manuel Pérez, a Democrat who represents the East Coachella Valley, said he’s aware of public health problems in his district, but he’s hamstrung.

“We have Third World conditions, not only in this area, but in other areas of rural California,” Pérez said. “Some of it has to do with political will – perhaps in the past, they never had politicians willing to ensure that infrastructure goes to areas that really need it.”

This story was edited by Denise Zapata and Mark Katches. It was copy edited by Nikki Frick.

Bernice Yeung's reporting for this California Watch project was supported by the Dennis A. Hunt Fund for Health Journalism, a program of the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism's California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowships.