Tulare County residents say four years of drought have taken a toll on their physical and mental health.
That’s according to the results of a survey released recently by the California Department of Public Health. About 400 people responded to the survey, which was administered last October in East Porterville and Cutler-Orosi.
County officials announced the results on Monday. The state health department did not respond to requests for comment.
Nearly half of East Porterville residents who responded, and a third of those in Cutler-Orosi, said the drought has diminished their peace of mind. Fifteen percent in Cutler-Orosi, and a quarter in East Porterville, reported increased acute stress – such as agitation or trouble sleeping – in the month before the survey was done.
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California is in its fifth year of the most severe drought in recorded history. The drought has hit Tulare County hard, especially in towns where families rely on private wells.
Many wells started going dry in 2014, leaving residents with no running water. Nearly 1,500 wells have gone dry since the county started tracking them that September, affecting more than 6,000 residents. That’s almost half of the people estimated to be affected statewide.
As of Monday, 579 homes have dry wells. The remaining families either drilled deeper wells or use county-administered water tanks.
The survey asked residents about how they access help, changes in physical or mental health due to the drought and changes in household behaviors, such as water conservation.
Thirty-five percent of households in East Porterville said their greatest need was water, but only 16 percent of those in Cutler-Orosi agreed. Most Cutler-Orosi residents are on municipal water systems, whereas East Porterville residents rely on private wells.
Most people in both communities agreed the drought has negatively affected them. But people in each community said they were affected in different ways.
The survey results gave evidence to notions that the drought has worsened the pre-existing health conditions of Tulare County residents.
A series in The Bee last summer detailed the effects of the drought on physical and mental health. In East Porterville, residents and experts said not having running water and breathing increasingly dusty air has worsened pre-existing health problems and contributed to the development of new ones.
Read The Bee’s stories about the drought’s effects on health in East Porterville: Drought disaster turns to budding health crisis Water, hope run dry for East Porterville woman caught in drought In East Porterville, drought escalates mental health issues
David Rozell, Tulare County’s public health emergency preparedness manager, said the survey results reaffirmed what he knew anecdotally.
“There’s not a lot of good research or in-depth looks at what a long-term drought does, what kind of health effects it has,” Rozell said. “This gave us at least a little (data). It confirmed some of the things we suspected.”
More East Porterville residents than those in Cutler-Orosi reported that the drought has affected their health – 20 percent compared to 10 percent, respectively.
The report says it’s difficult to directly associate the worsening of a chronic disease or mental health condition with the drought because the condition may have naturally deteriorated, or could be associated with unrelated aspects of the environment.
“Nevertheless, these findings suggest that households in north and south Tulare (County) perceive a connection between worsening health and the drought,” the report says.
Almost all respondents said they have reduced their water usage in response to the drought. But most also said they changed hygienic practices, including reducing hand washing and food washing. The report said that’s worrisome because both reduce the risk of many communicable diseases and remove pesticide residue.
Officials point to the survey data as evidence that East Porterville residents have benefited from more outreach because of the community’s notoriety as one of the first and most severely impacted communities since the drought started. Among those who said they don’t have running water, most in East Porterville had sought help, while most in Cutler-Orosi had not.
Many of the recommendations made by the state Department of Public Health in the report have already been implemented, Rozell said. But he said the county is now looking at doing more television messaging, especially to ensure people wash their hands and food adequately. He also wants to encourage people to access mental health services.
Rozell said he was encouraged by how honest people were in the survey, particularly about mental health issues, which can be difficult to discuss.
“We were concerned people would try to tough it out, but we had people who spoke frankly, who said, ‘It’s got me worried.’ ”
Impacts of the drought
A state health survey in the East Porterville and Cutler-Orosi areas examined how the drought affected residents who live there.
East Porterville (percent)
Health negatively affected
Household member is medically fragile
Among medically fragile, condition worsened
Mental health diagnosis in household
Mental health worsened with drought
More mental health services sought
Stress levels increased
Income reduced by drought
Adults ate less or skipped meals
Source: California Department of Public Health, Tulare County Health and Human Services Agency