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Isolated Stanislaus County enclave struggles with search for clean water

MONTEREY PARK TRACT — A tiny settlement nestled among cornstalks in self-imposed isolation for nearly seven decades soon may be forced to seek a life-sustaining connection to a city.

For 69 years, people in this rural, previously tight-knit community have made do or done without, largely shielded from view by distance, dairies and lack of interest.

But a basic necessity of life -- water -- has caused trouble in recent times. And asking Ceres for an eight-mile supply pipe, or asking Stanislaus County to take over the whole thing, might represent Monterey Park Tract's best hope for survival.

Attention swung ever so briefly to this impoverished enclave in June, when Stanislaus County civil grand jurors urged the removal of Monterey Park's water board vice president. Residency is a requirement for public service in such districts, and he doesn't live there.

Sebastian Jones acknowledged that fact in a resignation letter a few weeks later, bowing to "the laws that govern our land."

But he continues to run the struggling Monterey Park Tract Community Services District, which oversees the community's drinking water. Water board members -- who give themselves free, unlimited water -- hired Jones and gave him the title of manager with an unspecified salary, he said.

The Bee was unable to reach the four remaining board members.

Meanwhile, the district's two wells are producing water tainted by nitrates, arsenic and manganese in levels deemed questionable by government standards, according to annual water quality reports.

A new resident said neighbors advised his family to buy bottled water.

"We use it for cooking and washing but not to drink," said Ramon Gutierrez. He moved from Empire two months ago, he said, because Monterey Park has no restrictions on chickens and goats.

Horses, hogs and stray dogs are common sights in this 38-home community south of Ceres and west of Turlock, where lots sold for $15 an acre in 1941. Many drivers on West Monte Vista Avenue might not even know they've passed Monterey Park, which has no park and little resemblance to the Central Coast, because its only entrance is removed from the main road. A street sign within the settlement misspells "Montery."

Back in the day, Monterey Park largely was populated by black families, many of whom relocated from west Modesto when the state bought their homes to put in Highway 99. Grady Jordan Jr. remembers many barbecues and rummage sales at the community center before it burned; its replacement, an old schoolhouse trucked in from Stockton, now is unsafe and ready for the wrecking ball, Jones said.

A majority of today's residents are Latino, several of them said, though three of the four water board members are black and two are related.

"It's hard to get anybody to run (for the water board) because of all the problems out there," said county Supervisor Jim DeMartini, whose district includes Monterey Park and its 189 residents. The water board had three vacancies before the November election but attracted no candidates.

A woman appointed in 2001 attended zero meetings and was removed nine months later, according to a county document.

Residents decry rate hikes

Another huge problem is no stranger to small districts throughout the valley: money.

Monthly water bills were $17.50 when Jones was appointed to the board seven years ago, he said. A series of increases brought them to $35, "but they're still complaining about that, and the ones complaining have all these animals," Jones said.

Monthly water board meetings typically attract no audience. "But they'll come if you say you want to raise their water bill," Jones said.

Crews were supposed to drill down 180 feet when wells were dug in the mid-1980s, replacing shallow private wells producing poor-quality water. But they went only 160 feet, and the settlement's water tank started leaking shortly afterward, Jones said.

Five years ago, the district applied for grants to improve the water system after county leaders gave Monterey Park $7,500 for engineering studies. Self-Help Enterprises, a Visalia-based organization, helped submit applications, without success.

Joining again with Self-Help, Monterey Park in September persuaded county supervisors to give it $40,000 in redevelopment money to attract a $200,000 state safe drinking water grant. It will pay for test wells in the tract or nearby, or a geologist might recommend tying into Ceres' water system.

Ceres Public Works Director Phil Scott said he's had preliminary inquiries. The city's leaders have yet to discuss it, Scott said.

DeMartini said, "The only way to get things stabilized is to take it over," an option probably not attractive to county leaders. The water district "is just going to go off a cliff," he said. "This has got to be an example of the worst there is."

Any choice likely would require higher water bills.

"The problem is, doing any sort of infrastructure repair, even on small districts, is incredibly expensive," said Sonya Harrigfeld, the county's environmental resources director. Her office regularly tests Monterey Park's water quality.

Possible solutions are costly

The board's cash balance has tripled in the past five years, suggesting spending restraint. But building from $5,600 in the bank in 2005 to $17,315 now won't go far when a new well could cost several hundreds of thousands of dollars. Treating poor-quality water with filtration or chemicals likewise is costly.

Self-Help Enterprises, known for helping low-income families with housing, also works with about 50 San Joaquin Valley communities on water or sewer problems. Ignoring developments in hopes they'll "dry up and blow away," said Self-Help's Paul Boyer, is not realistic. "If they've got roots there, we try to help them at least have basic services."

Hooking into a city's water system has worked well for many small communities, Boyer said.

Many small boards receive pay for serving, he said. None are encouraged to give their members free services in lieu of pay, he said, as is the case in Monterey Park.

"I make sure board members pay the same rate as anybody else," said Tom Keene, a Merced attorney with 30 years' experience representing similar small districts, "so when they do raise rates, the board is affected to the same extent as everyone else. I've always advised against (free service) because there is no legal authority for doing it."

Hughson attorney Stewart James, who represents other small districts, agreed and said none of his board members receives free service.

Jones said the board hasn't given him a salary but it likely will be "about $100" per month. He feels compelled to continue helping because he's more familiar with district operations than anyone, he said.

"It's a nice community, where you don't worry about people shooting you," Jones said. "This is where you want to raise your family."

Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at gstapley@modbee.com or 578-2390.

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