Tulare County officials are urging East Porterville residents to opt into the city’s water system for free before the extended deadline of March 1.
For some, it’s not much of a choice. Those with dry wells are advised that if they choose not to participate, their property will be in violation of health and safety laws and subject to enforcement, including marking their homes as uninhabitable.
About 60 percent of those eligible for the relief have agreed to connect to the city of Porterville’s water system. But county officials say that’s not enough.
“We did not get as many signups for connections as we had hoped,” said county spokeswoman Carrie Crane. The original deadline was September, but Crane said that the lack of signups, plus delays in construction of a new city well, caused them to move the deadline.
With no central water system, families in the town of about 7,500 have relied on shallow private wells, which started drying up after the nearby Tule River stopped flowing. Rain and snowmelt usually replenish water below the ground, but 2013 and beyond saw many rainless months.
At the height of the drought in 2015, nearly half of East Porterville residents had dry wells. Tulare County began supplying 2,500-gallon water tanks, towering black plastic jugs that take up most of the front yard at some residences and carry nondrinkable water so people could shower and wash dishes again.
Not everyone who needs a tank has one, as demand outpaced supply. Some people survived without running water for months or longer. Many in the farmworker community can’t afford to drill deeper wells, which can cost as much as the median family income of $30,000.
Last summer, The Bee found that the drought had led to a growing health crisis in East Porterville, one of the first communities to go dry in 2014. The town’s problems already include air pollution, water contamination and poverty. Drought upped the burden for sick residents, worsened respiratory conditions, and elevated stress and other mental conditions.
Then the state stepped in. The first East Porterville home was connected to the city’s water system in August. State officials hope to add more than 1,100 homes before the end of 2018.
The California Department of Water Resources is paying for the program. Hookup costs can be as much as $10,000 per home, but the hookup service is free to East Porterville residents.
Porterville residents pay $54 a month for water, on average, which is what East Porterville residents likely will pay.
Steve Doe, East Porterville water supply program manager for DWR, estimates the state will pay $45 million that will cover the cost of three new city wells, a 1.2 million-gallon water storage tank, 14 miles of pipeline, 300 fire hydrants and other infrastructure.
Agreeing to get connected requires residents to complete three steps:
▪ Complete a consent form.
▪ Complete an extra-territorial service agreement (which means they agree to someday be annexed into the city).
▪ Open a utility account with the city.
Doe said 678 people have given their consent, while 59 have declined to connect. Less than half have completed the third step, and just 58 homes are now receiving water from the city, he said.
Doe said the program gives priority to the 322 homes with dry wells first. But he said some of those residents either haven’t submitted their consent form or have declined to participate. He and county officials warn that choosing not to connect to the city’s water system will result in having the water tanks, which were billed as an interim solution, removed and emergency bottled water shipments ended.
“Once the county takes the tank away, those residences will be tagged as uninhabitable,” Doe said.
He said the county and affiliated nonprofits have sent letters and held educational forums to warn residents of the implications. Anyone who chooses to connect to the city’s water system after the March 1 deadline will have to pay the hookup fees.
One East Porterville resident who won’t connect is Donna Johnson. She was the first to alert county officials of the growing number of well failures in 2014. Since then, she has delivered water to her neighbors and advocated on their behalf with county and state leaders.
But Johnson moved to a 1.5-acre plot in East Porterville 30 years ago to get away from city noise and city fees, and to enjoy the quiet of the country with her husband and two horses. After her well went dry in 2014, she received an $11,500 loan to drill it to 150 feet, which supplies her with water.
She said it doesn’t make sense to connect to the city’s water system if she still has a loan to pay.
“I feel caught between a rock and a hard place,” she said. “I’m grateful for what they’re doing for the people that really need it, but I’m just a Kansas farm girl in the state of California. I’m not a city person.”
Where to get information about connecting to Porterville’s water system:
Porterville City Hall, 291 N. Main St., 559-782-7499
Drought Resource Center, 185 S. Leggett St., 866-284-5142