U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack visited the Central Valley on Friday to announce the federal government will provide emergency funds for rural communities affected by drought, including dry water wells.
Before attending a meeting with local officials at the Farmersville Community Center, he stopped by the Cameron Creek rural subdivision on the north edge of town and chatted with homeowners whose wells are empty or in danger of going dry.
"I think it's important to understand the human toll," said Vilsack, who wore cowboy boots, dark slacks and a white shirt and striped tie.
Carlen Overby, 60, told Vilsack that her well went dry July 4, and she pointed toward neighbors whose wells have also gone dry.
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She told Vilsack she has running water in her home only because her neighbor let her attach a garden hose to a faucet, and she uses the supply strictly to take showers. She hauls in store-bought water for cooking and drinking; her outdoor plants and lawn are dead or dying.
"When you get up in the morning and turn the faucet on, you wonder if the water is going to come out," she said with tears in her eyes.
The situation is so stressful that she's become "obsessive" about water, and her husband got a second job so they can pay to fix the well problem, she told Vilsack from her gravel driveway.
Vilsack said the Department of Agriculture has shifted money to fund a USDA Redevelopment program that aids rural community water systems.
Although the money does not go to individual homeowners, it will result in water supplies for rural residents such as Overby, he said.
A reliable water supply for Overby means her property value won't collapse because of a lack of water in the well, he noted.
A total of $9.7 million has been awarded to communities in 11 California counties needing water assistance in the drought, the Department of Agriculture said.
About 73,000 people would be helped.
Of 25 communities getting Emergency Community Water Assistance grants, 14 are in the San Joaquin Valley.
If the drought continues and climate change wreaks havoc on water supplies, more government money will be needed to fund projects that bring water to communities, Vilsack said.
"Candidly, we need action from Congress," he said.
Tulare County Supervisor Allen Ishida, whose district includes Farmersville, said Vilsack made a good impression in his meeting with local officials.
"He took the initiative to move money," he said. "A lot of political appointees wouldn't be so bold."
Farmersville is getting the maximum grant of $500,000.
The city will use the money, plus state funding, to connect Overby's neighborhood to the city's water mains, but the water line extension is a year from completion, Vice Mayor Greg Gomez said.
Meanwhile, the remaining residents of Cameron Creek are praying their wells don't go dry.
Bob Sams, 69, a retired truck driver, said his well is producing -- for now.
"Within a month or two, I'm going to be out," he said. "We need the water and we need to get it as quickly as we can."