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A fight for the right to clean water and sanitation in California’s unincorporated communities


By Sion Calabretta, Maureen Cunningham, and Katy Hansen

Editor’s note: The Environmental Policy Innovation Center (EPIC) released a report entitled Investing in America’s Onsite Wastewater Treatment Systems for Equity and Sustainability, taking a deeper look into the challenges facing failing onsite systems and potential funding solutions, as well as local and state-level examples and case studies. In the commentary below, our grantee partners from EPIC provide a case study overview describing a field visit to two unincorporated communities in California in their quest for clean water and sanitation. The field visit and report were supported by Strategic Growth Council and Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability.

An astounding 12 to 37 percent of the US population live in what are known as ‘unincorporated communities,’ which are not governed by a local municipality, and therefore may lack basic services that most towns and cities provide. Many of these communities lack access to clean water and sanitation. As a result, they face detrimental health effects. [1]

Throughout California, there are hundreds of disadvantaged unincorporated communities. Historical systemic disinvestments and structural racism have pushed predominantly BIPOC and Latino residents to establish these isolated communities, which today struggle to incorporate as local governments or be annexed by nearby municipalities.

Approximately 310,000 people in unincorporated communities in the Central Valley of California a major agricultural region of the state – lack access to adequate plumbing and wastewater services. Several of them rely on onsite systems for wastewater treatment, and the proper maintenance, repairs, and replacements of these systems are too expensive for residents. As a result, many residents face problems associated with failing onsite systems such as polluted groundwater, foul odors, and public health risks. [2]

The Environmental Policy Innovation Center (EPIC) and our partners – Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability and the California Strategic Growth Council – visited the unincorporated communities of Matheny Tract and Lanare in the Central Valley of California in June 2022. Below is a summary of the issues we encountered in these two communities.

Matheny Tract, California
Matheny Tract is a small, unincorporated community with a population of roughly 1,200 residents. It is located a couple of miles outside of Tulare, California, a town of 65,000 residents. Like many other unincorporated communities, Matheny lacks access to basic infrastructure, notably reliable wastewater infrastructure, clean drinking water, stormwater infrastructure, and street lights. Residents rely on onsite wastewater treatment systems to treat their wastewater. These systems are difficult and expensive to maintain. Many residents do not know where their onsite systems are located, and some have unintentionally paved or built over the top of them as a result.

For years, residents in Matheny have been advocating for a connection to the centralized wastewater system in Tulare. A sewer connection would be a long-term, reliable solution to their wastewater treatment challenges. Despite years of applying for funding and asking Tulare to extend sewerage to Matheny, the residents have continually been turned away. The dedication and advocacy of residents in the community, and support from the Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability, has advanced important work towards wastewater treatment solutions to limit residents’ exposure to hazardous diseases. These advances need to continue until the residents of Matheny have access to reliable wastewater treatment, and other fundamental services.

Lanare, California
The challenges in Lanare are similar to those in Matheny. Lanare is a small unincorporated community with fewer than 600 residents outside of Riverdale, a town with 3,000 residents. Access to basic services in Lanare – including emergency services and wastewater infrastructure – is limited. The residents rely on onsite systems, but many can not afford to maintain and repair them. There is limited technical knowledge to properly maintain and repair onsite systems. The constant foul odors from failing septic systems is a common complaint.

Most residents of Lanare want to connect with the centralized wastewater treatment system in Riverdale and have been advocating for this for years. As many advocate for a connection, residents also voiced concerns about whether monthly sewer bills would be affordable, whether households outside of the Lanare would be included, and whether older residents would still be alive by the time the connection is constructed. Residents need solutions now, and the residents of Lanare are mobilized to continue their advocacy for a sewer connection.

For small, unincorporated communities like Matheny Tract and Lanare in the Central Valley of California, access to reliable and affordable wastewater infrastructure is not guaranteed. These communities and their residents make valuable contributions to the agricultural sector in California and the country writ large, and they deserve access to services including adequate wastewater treatment. Connecting to nearby sewer systems is a viable solution within reach for the residents of these two communities.

The cost of extending sewers has been cited as one of the main constraints to extending sewer service to the communities of Matheny and Lanare, but there are financing and funding programs available to support this, including Clean Water State Revolving Funds (CWSRFs). California should allocate more CWSRF assistance to connect unincorporated communities like Matheny and Lanare to centralized wastewater systems, and provide resources to address additional challenges in the interim. In the face of extreme adversity, the residents of Matheny Tract and Lanare demonstrate – through their advocacy and resolve – that the basic right to clean water and sanitation are indeed worth fighting for.


  1. Purifoy, D. M. (2021) ‘North Carolina [Un]incorporated: Place, Race, and Local Environmental Inequity’, American Behavioral Scientist, 65(8), pp. 1072–1103. doi: 10.1177/0002764219859645.
  2. Seaton, Phoebe, Sinclair, Ryan (2019). An Opportunity to Improve Health Through Improved Wastewater Service: A Health Impact Assessment on Fresno County’s Pending General Plan Update [Online]. Available from; [accessed May 10, 2022].

This blog was originally published by Environmental Policy Innovation Center.