Volunteers deliver bottled water to drought-stricken community

The Fresno BeeAugust 22, 2014 

— Nearly 1,000 people whose wells have gone dry due to drought received an emergency allotment of bottled water Friday.

The door-to-door giveaway of 12 gallons of water per person was the latest development in a summer of water woes in the central San Joaquin Valley.

Tulare County officials said they have received an avalanche of calls from homeowners whose wells have run dry.

"I grew up here, I've never seen this many people out of water," said Supervisor Mike Ennis, whose district includes East Porterville.

Firefighters, county employees and volunteers fanned out through the community in teams to deliver the water -- 6 gallons per box -- to more than 185 homes occupied by 960 people, the county said.

Angelica Gallegos, who works at a packing shed, lives in her family's East Porterville home with her husband, a mechanic, three children and two other adults.

Their well has been dry for four months, she said.

"It's hard," she said, holding back tears. "I can't shower the children like I used to."

The family was taking showers at her brother's home down the street until his landlord asked him to limit water use for fear that the well to the home would go dry, she said.

Like other residents, she has been getting nonpotable water from a storage tank in front of the East Porterville fire station for flushing toilets and bathing.

The fire department gets that water from a Porterville city fire hydrant, puts it in a fire department tanker truck and transfers it to the storage tank that's labeled in English and Spanish, "Do not use this water for drinking."

East Porterville is a rural area of about 1,500 homes near the Tule River that is under county jurisdiction.

A few weeks ago, Eagle Mountain Casino donated two pallets of bottled water to the Porterville Area Coordinating Council to help East Porterville.

Most homes have wells that are 25 to 50 feet deep, officials said.

When water runs in the river, the water table rises and the wells produce. But little or no water has gone down the river this year, causing the wells to go dry, officials said.

"In February, the calls started coming in," said Andrew Lockman, Tulare County Office of Emergency Services manager. "By June, it was a fire hose."

The distribution of bottled water was expected to cost about $30,000.

The county put up the money but expects to be reimbursed by the state Water Resources Control Board under a grant program.

Ennis said the county qualifies for the grant money to buy bottled water because of the large number of low-income people in East Porterville and because a sample of water from the area showed nitrate contamination.

Volunteers obtained the names of people who qualified for bottled water.

Donna Johnson, another East Porterville resident, said she started gathering names of people two months ago whose wells were running dry and personally delivered donated bottled water.

"It kept growing," she said. "United Way put me in touch with the county."

About 11,500 bottles were delivered Friday, and another 4,000 bottles were left at the fire station for people to pick up as word got around.

Fonetta Kipper, 98, an East Porterville resident since 1976, said she let the lawn die to save water in the well.

"Every time I turn it on, I don't know if it'll work," she said.

Meanwhile, Oliva Sanchez, a farmworker, said "a little bit" of water comes out when she turns on the tap.

"It came out contaminated with dirt," she said, a problem that started a week ago. "I try to use the least possible. I'll move if I have to."

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6104, lgriswold@fresnobee.com or @fb_LewGriswold on Twitter.

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