ALLENSWORTH — Firefighters emptied this town's entire drinking water supply in minutes trying to snuff a grass fire in June — and a tense battle unfolded over the next few hours.
Bringing in water from other areas, they fought the stubborn blaze as it torched three homes, three outbuildings, three trailers, a mobile home and three vehicles. No one was hurt, but residents say their little water-holding tank is a disaster in the making.
And it may not be the biggest hazard in the water system. People in Allensworth live with water tainted by too much arsenic.
Bottled water is a way of life for some in this southwestern Tulare County town of 471. But others here drink tap water sometimes laced with arsenic, which is linked to cancer of the bladder, lungs, skin, kidney, liver and prostate.
For the past 10 months, The Fresno Bee has investigated life in San Joaquin Valley places such as Allensworth where a toxic environment and poverty often create Third World conditions. The series is called "Living in a Toxic Land."
The legacy of water problems in Allensworth dates back as far as the early 1900s when the first colony of African-Americans settled at the site now called Colonel Allensworth State Historic Park. Present-day Allensworth is next to the park.
Allen Allensworth, a former slave, wanted this to be a model community for African-Americans. But water quickly became a major reason this tenacious settlement withered and nearly disappeared.
"Our water problem and our fight to keep this town going have been part of our rich history here," said Netti Morrison, 78, who has lived in Allensworth since the 1970s. "This town won't die."
Allensworth has survived, but its population is not dominated by African-Americans. It's a poor, Latino farmworker town.
The population is 92% Latino, according to the U.S. census. Residents rank among the poorest and least educated in California, a state Environmental Protection Agency analysis shows.
The town needs help to get healthy water, says the Allensworth Community Services District. Board President Sherry Hunter, daughter of Netti Morrison, says the district has a $390,000 grant through the state Department of Public Health to study a new fix. A plan is expected in about a year.
"We're looking at a few ideas, including a regional solution that might bring together our neighbors in Alpaugh and Angiola Water District," Hunter said.
Clearing up the arsenic problem and rebuilding the water system are the main goals. Preliminary findings in the study suggest Allensworth needs a new town water tank with a capacity of 500,000 gallons — roughly 12 times the size of the tank now in place.
Allensworth has long been on the radar for Self Help Enterprises, a Visalia nonprofit providing guidance for rural communities. Paul Boyer of Self Help assisted in getting funding more than 30 years ago when Allensworth's only well produced water with arsenic three times higher than the standard.
A shallow pool of better-quality water was found three miles east of town, Boyer said. Two wells were drilled. But now those wells exceed the newest, more stringent federal arsenic standard.
The state first discovered Allensworth's arsenic problem in 1966. Authorities said the problem probably had been here all along. No arsenic-related illnesses or health issues have been documented, but residents suspect there have been problems.
"People have gotten sick," Morrison said. "I'm on dialysis for kidney problems myself now."
Morrison attended the ceremony in 1976 when the state designated the historic park. She said she won't let go of Allensworth's dream.
As a 12-year-old in Kentucky, Allensworth had been sold away from his family because he was trying to learn to read. He escaped slavery during the Civil War, joined the Union forces and eventually became a lieutenant colonel.
He retired around the turn of the century and started Allensworth in 1908 at a time when African-Americans around the country were forming their own communities to escape discrimination.
He bought nearly 3,000 acres of alkali flats in the old Tulare Lake Basin halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco.
Hundreds of families flocked to Allensworth, and the town flourished for a few years. There was a church, library, schoolhouse, restaurant and hotel. By 1914, the community was in decline, partly because of Allensworth's tragic death in a Southern California traffic accident.
The town couldn't get help from surrounding communities as wells began drying up. Agricultural demand had lowered the underground water table. People soon started leaving Allensworth.
Some determined residents always hung on. They persisted through the Great Depression and World War II, but, all the while, people continued to leave for jobs elsewhere.
Now the town of Allensworth is a mix of houses, trailers and abandoned structures, not far from rail lines. Amtrak passes through regularly but will only stop if there are 20 or more passengers who notify train officials that they want to get off here.
The memories of past glories continue among those who remain, said resident Kayode Kadara, 60, who moved to Allensworth in 2010 with his wife, Denise, 60, another daughter of Netti Morrison. They call Morrison the unofficial mayor of Allensworth.
The Kadaras bring a combination of skills for city planning, engineering and grant writing from all over California to Allensworth. They have helped the town secure funding to fix the water problems.
But their true connection to Allensworth is an affair of the heart.
"We've spent so much time visiting here over the years," Kayode Kadara said. "We took early retirement to come here and help Netti keep it alive. It must continue."
The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6316, firstname.lastname@example.org or @markgrossi on Twitter.