LANARE, Calif. — A bright metal drinking fountain is mounted on the wall in the community center of this tiny town west of Fresno. No one pays it any mind: The water is drawn from a well that has been contaminated with arsenic for years.
"Can't drink it, can't cook with it ... about all you can do is flush it," said Ethel Myles, 75, who came to the Central Valley from Arkansas half a century ago to pick cotton.
Lanare, like scores of other impoverished California communities where the water is unsafe to drink, could be eligible for a share of hundreds of millions of dollars in federal and state funds to improve drinking water tainted by agricultural use and naturally occurring contaminants. But the state has been agonizingly slow to spend the money, snarling small communities in red tape that has delayed fixes year after year, according to drinking-water advocates, community leaders and residents.
"It feels like they are playing bureaucratic Chutes and Ladders," said Laurel Firestone, co-director of the Community Water Center, which helps communities with contaminated water apply for grants to fix it. "You think you've gotten where you need to go, and six months later, you've hit the chute, and you have to go back to square one. It's extremely frustrating."
This spring, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued a notice threatening to cut off further funding to California because officials have been sitting on $455 million in unspent federal funds, as well as up to an additional $260 million in loan repayments that could be available to help. It is the largest share of unspent money for improving drinking water in the nation.
The EPA also faulted the state Department of Public Health for a "lack of financial accountability," according to Jared Blumenfeld, the EPA's regional administrator. The agency has given the Department of Public Health until June 24 to come up with a plan to fix its funding program.
Officials at the Department of Public Health said they were working to streamline procedures.
"In the past, the department was slow to commit and disperse the funds," said Dr. Ron Chapman, public health director. "We've made a lot of progress and significant changes in our processes."
Water projects have been held up because communities lack technical experts like engineers or because they lack official standing to apply for money. Some water systems are not properly incorporated through the secretary of state. Infighting among local governments and a lack of sophistication in applying for grants and loans also have stood in the way.
A Times review found that even when small communities have been given money for drinking water projects, the efforts have sometimes collapsed because of bad planning and a lack of coordination among government agencies. In 2006, for example, Lanare opened a new water treatment plant built with $1.3 million in federal funds. But the plant was abruptly shut down after only a few months. Officials had failed to anticipate that the enormous ongoing expense of operating it would cause water rates to shoot up beyond what residents could pay.
These days residents pay $54 a month for water they can't drink, in part to pay off debts accumulated by the idled plant.
Experts offer different estimates of how many people in California do not have access to safe drinking water. The state Department of Public Health, which coordinates drinking water improvement programs, says about 200,000 people at any time are served by water systems that violate state health standards. But some legislators say the figure is as high as 2.1 million, when communities not served by publicly regulated water systems are figured in. That includes systems with 15 or fewer connections.
"This is something the rest of California takes for granted: You wake up and expect the water coming from your faucet is safe," said Assemblyman Henry T. Perea (D-Fresno). "There are 2 million people who face a different reality, and that is wrong."
There are myriad causes for unsafe drinking water, but among the biggest culprits — particularly in the Central and Salinas valleys —- are naturally occurring arsenic and nitrates from agricultural runoff. Fixing it can entail something as simple as digging new wells or as involved as building a sophisticated water treatment plant.
In 2011, the United Nations dispatched a human rights lawyer to the town of Seville in Tulare County and called attention to the poor conditions, part of a tour that also included Bangladesh and Namibia.
Gov. Jerry Brown last year signed a law declaring that access to clean drinking water is a right of every Californian. Nevertheless, state officials have struggled to make good on that promise.
EPA officials announced earlier this month that California needs an estimated $44 billion in capital improvements in the next 20 years to keep drinking water safe.
Many of the contaminated water systems are relatively small, serving a few dozen to a few thousand people. They have difficulty absorbing expensive fixes.
The town of Springfield Terrace in Monterey County, population 165, has had water contaminated with nitrates since the mid-1980s. A community worker said state funding was insufficient and fixing the problem a few years ago would have caused water rates to shoot up to $500 a month or more. The community of mostly farmworkers couldn't afford it.
The Department of Public Health said the community's application for funding was incomplete, so it wasn't accepted.
Last year, the Central Valley community of Monson teamed up with nearby Seville, the site of the U.N. visit, and other Tulare County towns to apply for a grant to bring water from the Kings River to their region. Water advocates and lawmakers thought that application had the blessing of the state public health department. But it was denied on a technicality last fall: The lead agency that had applied, the Orosi Public Utility District, had turned off its contaminated well, meaning its water briefly stopped being out of compliance with state standards, according to Firestone.
State officials said they are making more grants available to poor communities and increasing technical assistance. For example, they said, they are now working with Tulare County to help Monson and other towns there.
Some politicians and water advocates are not impressed.
"I'm frustrated and quite frankly appalled that we have a bureaucracy that is standing in the way of clean water," said Perea, the assemblyman from Fresno, who has introduced legislation that would move responsibility for the funds from the Department of Public Health to the state Water Resources Control Board. That bill has been passed by the Assembly and is awaiting a vote in the Senate.
Some Lanare residents have given up hope of drinking clean water from their taps any time soon.
After the community's treatment plant was shut down in 2007, water advocates wanted to find a common solution for Lanare and Riverdale, an adjacent town where the water is also contaminated with arsenic.
But Riverdale did not want to partner with Lanare, according to advocates. State officials informed Lanare that without Riverdale's consent to add Lanare to its application, only a solution for Riverdale would be considered.
Finally, last December, the state allocated $500,000 for a feasibility study to come up with solutions for Lanare, but it could be at least three or four more years before water starts flowing.
Last month, things got worse: Lanare residents had been driving to Riverdale to buy drinking water, but most of the machines that dispensed it were suddenly removed. Now residents must drive 20 miles to Fresno or Hanford to buy water.
Sitting in the community center, next to the drinking fountain that can't be used, Myles and fellow residents said government officials do not seem to feel any urgency.
"They don't have to drink it, so it don't bother them," she said.