Water, Water Everywhere But Better Not Drink It

by Bruce Anderson, July 28, 2010

Most of the time the water at Mendocino County's state parks is safe to drink.

Sometimes, though, it's not safe to drink, and sometimes during those periods when the water isn't safe to drink visitors to the parks don't know that the water has gone untreated.

The parks are old. They and their water systems are wearing out.

Consider the water system at Dimmick State Park on Highway 128 at the ocean end of the Anderson Valley. Its pump house sits on a giant redwood stump to keep it high and dry from the big rains when the nearby Navarro rages downstream, and the campground and the big redwood stump with the pump house on it become one with the river bed.

The whole show should have been moved to higher ground years ago, but there's no money to move even this part of the show.

The money to maintain the parks has mostly dried up and blown away over Sacramento somewhere.

The people who maintain the parks have to make do.

One of those workers is 40-year-old Joe Falanga.

“I've complained about the location of the Hendy Woods pump house. In heavy rains the whole area is under water. We have a 230 volt panel in there and I've had to wade through waist-deep floodwaters to reset after power outages.”

Falanga says his State Parks bosses want to get rid of him for complaining about maintenance standards, especially drinking water maintenance standards. Falanga says his bosses at Russian Gulch are a little too loosey-goosey when it comes to water regs.

The bosses at Russian Gulch think Falanga is a little too whitey-tighty about his responsibilities.

Relations between Joe Falanga and his supervisors at district headquarters at Russian Gulch have lately deteriorated to tense, mutually suspicious meetings attended by witnesses and formal, follow-up directives. “On the 7th of November, in the presence of....”

When you need witnesses, and you're walking around with a file box full of who-said-what-to-whom letters, and everyone involved works for a big government bureaucracy, the guy lowest on the ladder is probably headed for unemployment.

Joe Falanga is that guy, but he's not going quietly and he's not alone. He's got his Operating Engineers union behind him, he's got the whistleblower laws to protect him, he's got State Water, he's got CAL-OSHA.

You can't fire someone if all that someone has done is refuse to bend or ignore the rules.

Falanga is 40, not an age you want to be losing work that you love.

He started with State Parks in 2002 and has worked all over California, from Bodie to Santa Barbara to West Marin. Before he landed in Mendocino County his work history was unblemished.

Falanga likes hard, outside work, admitting that sometimes co-workers get annoyed at him for the pace he sets. Meeting him, you think to yourself, “Very shy, soft spoken, but clearly a determined, meticulous guy. A strictly by the rules guy. If you employed him you'd probably get ten hours of work for eight hour pay. And he'd do the job right.”

An outdoor man on and off the job, Falanga rides his bike long distances, very long distances. He's covered most of Mendocino County on two wheels, camping as he goes. He takes his vacations to coincide with hunting season. He lives in a state-owned house at Hendy Woods that he says is “way too big for me. It's beautiful, but you can get cabin fever, and when you live at the place where you work you're always on the job. ” Joe has a girl friend in the city, but “she won't go north of the Golden Gate Bridge.”

Falanga's qualified to work on small water systems. He passed the demanding state test and now he's fully qualified to make the systems work so the water stays safe. He's got a qualification that State Parks is short of.

“The manual is like the New York City phone book. There's a lot to know,” he says. “Every system is different, and being on the job is a lot different than learning all this stuff in theory.”

Falanga mastered the manual and moved himself and his state qualifications and increased pay grade to new responsibilities in Mendocino County.

Established in his state-owned three bedroom quarters at Hendy Woods, things seemed to be going along well enough. Joe could see that the water systems were old and needed more work than there were hours in the day to do it, but Joe did the best he could to make them work the way they were supposed to work.

Responsible for clean drinking water at two heavily visited parks, Hendy Woods and Dimmick, Falanga was also responsible for seeing to it that the camp sites and picnic areas at Navarro River Redwoods, Navarro beach, Montgomery Woods, and the remote Mailliard Redwood Grove were kept in the kind of order the public expects at state facilities.

Soon, though, Falanga was at odds with Parks headquarters at Russian Gulch, forty-five minutes away. He was insisting that the water systems weren't up to their crucial tasks. His supervisor soon claimed “Joe spends more time complaining than working.”

A year of water disputes ensued. Russian Gulch said make do.

Joe Falanga said “I'll make do the best I can but the water has to be safe to drink.”

Falanga said his supervisor, Matt Liebenberg, began yelling at him over the phone — “tirades,” as Falanga characterized Liebenberg's supervisory phone calls.

Liebenberg said Falanga wasn't getting everything done while Falanga worried that the water systems at Hendy Woods and Dimmick needed more attention than he had time to devote to them. And he was responsible for them. The systems needed basic repairs that were beyond his training and abilities to do. Falanga says field mice were nesting in the asbestos-rich work sheds and on top of one of the water storage tanks. The ladder was so rickety he was afraid to use it. And Liebenberg was flipping out on him. Everyone at Russian Gulch's cozy headquarters was lining up against him. One guy even said Joe was “wacky” among other insults lobbed Falanga's way.

When Liebenberg got on his case, Joe cited the rule book: “Water treatment plant operation volume two basically says disregarding an unsafe work environment, requiring work to be performed in haste, or causing unsafe acts to take place can lead to consequences, including jail time.”

Few bosses want to hear that.

When Falanga had taken his first vacation, “a person who was not qualified to work on water systems was mixing the chemicals in the pumphouse at Dimmick. The chlorinator ran out and untreated water was supplied to the public. The system at Hendy was also out because of a power failure. The public was drinking unchlorinated water there, too.”

And Joe Falanga was the fall guy. He was the water maintenance man. Someone got sick and there he was.

Falanga thinks Public Health should have been notified and the systems posted to warn the thirsty that the water they were drinking hadn't been treated.

Falanga said he was warned “by my supervisor that if I talked to State Health he'd write me up.”

State Health told Falanga they were on his side.

There was lots of unhappy back and forth between Falanga and his supervisors until Liebenberg told Falanga that he was no longer the water guy at Dimmick and Hendy Woods.

Pulled from water duty means less pay, and no matter how the demotion is described in Falanga's personnel file it looks like the job was too big for him. But as Falanga points out, he was working with two systems that his supervisors themselves had set up, and those two systems had repeatedly failed.

When the bosses took Falanga off water duties, they told him, “This isn't a demotion or a disciplinary action.” Then they told him, “It's because of operational needs; we're concerned about your record keeping.”

Falanga countered, “But I've been telling you that setup isn't working since you guys set it up. There are problems with 10 out of 11 systems in the Mendocino District and no one else has been demoted because of problems with water systems. I'm being singled out here.”

Still worried that the water at the two parks might not be entirely potable, and having made his bosses eager to see the last of him for what they seemed to view as his nit-picking, Falanga was called to the district office at Russian Gulch for a meeting.

“They offered me the same job at a different park, and I could live in a state-owned house. They also wanted me to sign a write-up that the water system at Hendy Woods had been repaired. I refused the offer and I wouldn't sign the statement. They put 'refused to sign' on the write-up and put it in my personnel file. Then a tree fell and took out our chlorinator shed at Hendy and we were still under a health advisory seven months later. My uncertified supervisor comes by the park on my days off and 'works' on the system, usually not telling me or anyone else what he's doing.”

Falanga found himself in the impossible position of getting all the plumbing at two parks repaired as summer visitors descended “when I should have been making repairs over the winter when the water was off.”

And water is only one of his responsibilities. Falanga, assisted by only three park aides, is also responsible for the restrooms and general upkeep of five parks.Falanga finds himself between a big bureaucracy and bad water.

“They're trying to fire me, he says, “but to me it's more about public safety. If I go the water at Dimmick and Hendy Woods still won't be safe.”

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