The Battle for Matheny Tract: Demanding Water Justice in Tulare County

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The panel at Fres.Co for the Battle of Matheny Tract left to right: Leticia Corona-Gomez, Reinelda Palma, Ashley Werner and Samuel Contreras. Photo by Peter Maiden.

By Hannah Brandt

A community screening and discussion of the film The Battle for Matheny Tract took place in August at Fres.Co, a downtown Fresno meeting place next to the Crest theater. “Fres.Co is a grassroots space for conscious cultural workers, movement builders, entrepreneurs and artists.”

The facilitator for the event was Leticia Corona-Gomez, formerly part of the Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability (LCJA) and now with the Flora Hewlett Foundation. She was joined by Reinelda Palma, “a community activist living this struggle”; Ashley Werner, a senior attorney with LCJA; and the film’s producer, Samuel Contreras.

The film is 20 minutes long and depicts the suffering of low-income communities in California’s Central Valley. Corona-Gomez said that the film, which is in Spanish with English subtitles, has also been screened in Sacramento and New York City. She stressed the importance of creating social justice work in Spanish.

The film opened by stating: “In 2012 California made safe drinking water a legal right yet many still do not have it.” Matheny Tract is unincorporated land in Tulare County. A woman says that she has to pay for irrigation water but cannot use the canal water for her land. A man says his water had already been contaminated 10 years ago. “I have to keep my mouth closed when taking a shower or I could get sick.”

There are 240 homes in Matheny Tract where arsenic was found in the water. In 2014, new pipes were laid to connect the tract with City of Tulare water. By the winter of 2015, the residents were still not connected to city water lines.

Although it is dangerous, many people still drink the unsafe water because they cannot afford to buy bottled water to drink, cook and wash with. One woman ended up with a rash all over her body from the arsenic in the water. She said that the city’s lack of action to protect residents made her feel that she was being treated like an animal.

That woman is Reinelda Palma, the 75-year-old activist at the heart of the fight for clean water in Matheny Tract. She was one of the panelists at the Fres. Co discussion where she recalled that as a child she learned that you cannot keep quiet. When asked why and how long she had been organizing around the issue, she said she discovered her rashes seven years ago and has been working in the community with the founder of the LCJA for five years.

Palma attended a state water board meeting in the summer of 2015. She told the board that residents “keep being treated like panhandlers who want a handout, but we pay our water bills… First, we were told that there was no water; then, we found out that the city just wanted to give the water to contractors for new housing developments.”

There are many children in Matheny Tract. In 2017, the City of Tulare approved an industrial complex near the community. A man in the film said that he gave money to build a park in the area but now people would have to wear protective masks there.

Palma moved with her husband to the Valley after living in San Francisco. Upon relocating, she looked around the community and saw many dire needs due to poverty. Since becoming an activist for water rights in Matheny, she has traveled to Los Angeles, Sacramento and Detroit to speak out and educate people about the problem.

She said she was always aware that the water was not good just from looking at it. But it wasn’t until she went to the doctor to have her rashes tested that a blood test confirmed that she had arsenic poisoning linked to her water. This motivated her to get even more involved. She has been rewarded for her work as Matheny Tract did attain water rights.

Werner said that the LCJA has been working with the Matheny Tract community about water rights since the organization’s founding four years ago. “No political representative took responsibility for the community and the City of Tulare government tried to argue that they were not legally able to work in unincorporated areas although that happens throughout the state.”

As of 2010, 525 communities and 310,000 people within California are without safe drinking water. Film producer Samuel Contreras said that Corona- Gomez approached him about looking into the story of Matheny Tract. Contreras is from Fresno but now lives in Veracruz, Mexico. “The United States is the wealthiest nation in the world, but its people don’t have a guarantee of clean water. I live in a poor area of Veracruz and do not have to worry about having safe water to drink.”

When asked what the challenges were in making the film, Contreras said editing 70–80 hours of footage down to 20 minutes. This film was his master’s thesis so he did a lot of research about the issue. He said, “I hope people come together through this film to learn about the problem of lack of access to clean water. People respond better to visuals than hundreds of pages of research. My main goal is to make people aware of this issue, which is right in their backyard. These residents without clean water are the people who work in the fields to provide our food.”

Corona-Gomez expanded on that by saying that “people are being targeted in rural communities, particularly people of color. This case gives you hope since it is rare to have this positive outcome.” In some areas, the challenges are geographical as well as political. Some land is too geographically isolated for it physically to be connected to a viable water source. Palma says the victory in Matheny Tract is why she keeps getting involved to fight for the right to clean water everywhere.

How did Palma approach the community about the issue? She started by going door-to-door passing out bilingual flyers to 500 homes in the tract. She hosted the community in her house every month for meetings. Children took home informative literature from school.

When asked what the policy approach or strategy is going forward, Werner said that the focus right now is on SB 623, the Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Fund. It would be the first law to provide access to safe drinking water and support ongoing maintenance of water treatment facilities. She said there are a variety of barriers to access to clean water, such as in a community in Fresno County that was too poor to maintain its water treatment facility.

A question from the audience brought up an interesting fact of history. While some unincorporated areas come about because a privileged community like Fig Garden desires it, Matheny Tract was unincorporated from the City of Tulare during the era of Jim Crow. It began as a community of African-American farmworkers who migrated from the South.

The City of Tulare did not want to extend services to this population that was segregated from the White population. Ironically, in more recent years the city attempted to annex Matheny Tract to wipe out the primarily Hispanic residential area and make it into an industrial tract. They have been building industrial plants anyway, but the people refuse to leave their homes. Inspired by Palma, the people of Matheny Tract will continue to fight for their rights to a livable community.

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Hannah Brandt is the editor of the Community Alliance newspaper. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram at @HannahBP2. Follow the paper on Facebook at Community Alliance Newspaper and on Twitter and Instagram @fresnoalliance.