The curse of the drought lingered this year for Lala and Ben Luengas — even smacking them a second time after it dried their well in June.
The Luengases struggled for months without running water until the nonprofit Self-Help Enterprises in October provided a 1,500-gallon water tank and hooked it up to their plumbing. They would get hot water and flushing toilets again.
Then they found they couldn’t afford the water to fill it.
But here in parched northern Tulare County, they count themselves among the lucky to still be in the house they bought 40 years ago.
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“We have a wonderful neighbor who still has a well and helps us with water,” said Lala, 73. “You do whatever you can to get by without a well.”
Neighbors, public funding, Self-Help Enterprises and county agencies are easing the impact of the cruel three-year drought, but there have been hiccups and hurdles. Nothing is simple, but tank water systems have become the makeshift savior.
And it’s time to get them going. Now.
It’s mid-November, and the evening chill of the San Joaquin Valley winter is not far away. Bathing and showering without indoor plumbing and a hot-water heater will take on a whole new meaning.
There are 810 dried wells at Tulare County homes, and water tanks may be their best chance to get running water for the winter. At the same time, county officials say the cost of all this triage could be $12 million annually — a cost the state would pick up.
Using funds from a $50,000 donation from Bank of the Sierra, Self-Help Enterprises installed a 1,500-gallon system for the Luengas home in Monson.
It also installed one in Seville for the Magana family, and another at a home next to Farmersville. A 250-gallon system for the Martinez home in Monson was covered by a donation from a Rotary International service club in Visalia.
The Visalia-based housing improvement organization also has set up water tanks around Seville and Farmersville. The cost is $1,200 to $1,500 in materials, plus labor, said Paul Boyer, community development manager for Self-Help.
The water is funneled from the tanks into the home plumbing — and that includes the water heater. Nobody wants to lug water into the house and heat it before bathing.
“Apparently people were having less trouble during the summer months because the heat was keeping the water warm,” said Maria Herrera of Self-Help Enterprises.
Residents are quickly learning ways to cope. For instance, drinking water doesn’t come out of the tank. They get deliveries of bottled water weekly, bankrolled by the State Water Resources Control Board.
As the Luengases discovered, water is not cheap. A typical water delivery runs from $110 for 1,000 gallons, $200 for 2,000 gallons, and $350 for 2,600 gallons, Boyer said.
Lala Luengas said it would cost about $300 a month to keep enough water in the tank for her household of four. She and Ben can’t afford it, she said.
More and more, people are beginning to find that suppliers can’t even find water to deliver.
Water hauler Ken Enns of Porterville — one of only two in Tulare County licensed to deliver potable water — said he stopped his deliveries because the municipal supply could no longer provide drinkable water for him.
But Andrew Lockman, manager of the Tulare County Office of Emergency Services, said he’s confident that the county can get water to deliver to residents who have tank systems. There’s even discussion of drilling a well to make water available, he said.
Self-Help Enterprises helped the Porterville Area Coordinating Council install eight smaller systems using 250 gallon tanks. It’s expected that those smaller tanks will be replaced by larger ones if the drought continues.
Starting next month, the county expects to start helping people whose wells have run dry get a system like the ones Self-Help has developed, Lockman said. The state Office of Emergency Services will reimburse the county and participating nonprofits for the costs of installation and water delivery.
The tank systems are not supposed to be permanent. And dry wells are only part of the drinking water problem in the region.
In northern Tulare County, for instance, water contamination also plagues many community water systems. Even if dry wells are replenished in the coming years, they are still likely to be contaminated, engineers say.
The northern county solution could be construction of a regional water treatment plant to provide Kings River water for seven communities in the area: Cutler, Orosi, East Orosi, Monson, Seville, Sultana and Yettem. The combined population of the region is 15,000.
Alta Irrigation District in Dinuba already has completed a project to make water available. River water would be banked in the ground during wet years and pumped back out for use on farms, thus making a supply of river water available for the towns. Alta has completed a draft study of the treatment plant, but it could be three or more years before it is constructed.
Since the 1980s, Lala Luengas has been interested in getting Monson, population 200, on a townwide water distribution system, but efforts have long been stymied by lack of money and bureaucratic snags. The water crisis now may give Self-Help the opportunity it needs to find federal funding to install such a distribution system.
“It might be possible to drill a deeper well that the whole town could use,” said Herrera of Self-Help.
Across the street from the Luengases’ home is a plum orchard, slowly losing leaves as autumn progresses. A small country road makes the perfect place for Ben, 83, who drove farm tractors before he retired, to take his walks in the morning.
They don’t want to leave their home where they raised two children, Perla, 51, and David, 49. But they might have to eventually.
“No,” says Lala, “we won’t be doing Thanksgiving here. We’ll go to our son’s place in Visalia.”
Ben adds: “And we will pray for rain.”