Neglect, health concerns envelope poor county areas in California

04/06/2012 12:00 AM

04/08/2012 11:50 AM

PARKLAWN – Nearly every day, Modesto Junior College student Arleen Hernandez battles 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.

When Hernandez's parents moved to Parklawn in 1986, they didn't realize the extent to which their new neighborhood, an island of county land within the city of Modesto, lacks basic public services.

Parklawn is not connected to nearby city sewer lines, so Hernandez and her neighbors flush their sewage into overloaded septic tanks. There is only one short strip of sidewalk along the southern edge of the community and not enough storm drains. During heavy rains, children dodge traffic in flooded streets on their way to school in the neighborhood that locals call "No Man's Land."

"I've lived here my whole life, and when you're a child, you don't think it's something big," said Hernandez, a member of the South Modesto Municipal Advisory Council, which advises the Stanislaus County Board of Supervisors on unincorporated communities. "But as you grow older, you start realizing that it doesn't seem fair that people have basic needs met and you skip one community."

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 Parklawn.

These poor, dense communities on unincorporated land – which uniformly lack some combination of sewer systems, clean drinking water, sidewalks, streetlights and storm drains – have been the victim of years of neglect.

In the Eastern Coachella Valley, residents in mobile home parks pipe sewage into aging septic tanks and cesspools. 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 such communities, many without the infrastructure that would curb gastrointestinal illnesses, respiratory disease symptoms, and other public health and safety risks.

In Parklawn 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

Money and jurisdiction often stand in the way of progress. Stanislaus County Supervisor Jim DeMartini, who represents Parklawn, said that in Modesto, city residents must approve a ballot measure to provide sewer service to an unincorporated area, and then the county would have to forge a service agreement with the city.

But the biggest challenge is "the cost of doing it – having to go in and completely retrofit these 50-year-old subdivisions to modern standards," DeMartini said.

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 they step in only when they get reports 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 rat, mosquito and cockroach infestations, he pours a liberal amount of bleach into the pits each week.

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 Parklawn. The community would not be constructed today without them.

Community data scarce

Built on the cheap for migrant farm workers from the Deep South, the Dust Bowl, Mexico and Central America, communities like Parklawn 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.

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."

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.

California Assemblyman V. Manuel Pérez, a Democrat who represents the Eastern 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."

California Watch: Read the full report, see video, map


Join the Discussion

The Sacramento Bee is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Terms of Service