Water & Drought

As wells dry up, Monson hopes for more than talk about a fix

• The Tulare County community of Monson already has water quality problems; now wells are drying up.

• The latest well failure leaves five homes without water.

• Residents hope they don’t have to wait long for emergency help.

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When the breeze suddenly shifts, there’s a pungent reminder of the portable toilets in the yard where children play and folks sometimes barbecue for dinner.

Servando Quintanilla cringes. He owns the five rental homes on the property where the only well went dry a couple of weeks ago. He didn’t want his renters forced to use portable toilets in the yard. It’s the drought nightmare he has tried to avoid since last year.

“It’s frustrating,” Quintanilla says in Spanish. “The county has a project to make sure there’s water here, but it might take years. I have been asking, ‘What if my well goes dry before that?’ Now it has.”

Yet this unforgiving drought may actually wind up healing Quintanilla and Monson, as long as help arrives soon to survive the immediate emergency. These Monson residents need action before the heat of summer descends on their lives, they say.

Trouble is, Monson has been trying for years without success to get help with its drinking water problems, which have involved contamination in the past.

In this fourth year of drought, the lack of indoor plumbing is spreading again through the rural San Joaquin Valley, just as it did last year. At Quintanilla’s property, there is a sight now common in many small towns — stacks of bottled water cases outside the door.

Tulare County has documented 1,000 dry wells belonging to private landowners. In East Porterville alone, more than 1,000 people are without water, but the problem is not unique to Tulare County. Fresno, Madera, Kern and Kings have all seen wells dry up for rural residents.

Monson and surrounding communities in northern Tulare County add another twist. Monson, population of 188, and several other communities have been on the back burner for a water cleanup project since 2008. Monson, Seville, Cutler, Orosi and other area communities are plagued by drinking water high in nitrates, a contaminant from septic systems, fertilizers, dairies and decomposing vegetation.

For years, several cleanup plans languished at the state Department of Public Health, which held the purse strings to grants and loans. The boldest idea is to build a regional water treatment plant and provide Kings River water for the communities.

Government maze

The idea is ready for liftoff, but funding problems have continued to slow it down over the past few years.

State leaders last year shifted responsibilities for the drinking water program to the State Water Resources Control Board. Since the water treatment plant is years away, Monson needs an interim fix. Tulare County is poised to apply for funding to drill a large well to supply the whole town.

If the emergency drought funding kicks in quickly, as it did in neighboring Seville, the well could be drilled within months. If a large well is drilled, a distribution system also would have to be installed so water can be delivered to everyone in Monson.

At the moment, the three dozen or so dwellings in Monson are all served independently by private wells, some of which already have gone dry. Some residents have pressurized water tanks that have to be refilled periodically.

Drilling a larger well and installing a distribution system makes more sense, county officials say. The town would then be ready for a medium-term solution, such as connecting with neighboring Sultana to share water resources.

“The well and distribution system is really the best short-term solution, while we work on other projects for the area,” says county Supervisor Steve Worthley, who has been trying to help Monson. “Installing water tanks and filling them over and over is not a good short-term solution.”

Kyle Ochenduszko, senior water resource control engineer with the state board in Sacramento, says the funding process has been streamlined since the agency took over the drinking water funding. He added that there is a wide portfolio of funding sources in this emergency situation. The funding could come through in a matter of months, not years, he says.

“Monson is not a unique situation in the state,” says Ochenduszko, who visited the town for a meeting several few weeks ago.

But Monson residents say they have heard these kinds of statements before. The town and other communities in this area were dealt delay after delay over technicalities in regulations and priorities from the Public Department of Health.

This time, if things don’t work out, Quintanilla fears he will need to install some kind of pressurized tanks — at about $3,000 apiece — to get water into the five homes soon. He may need to do it anyway if the well and distribution system are not set up this summer. The idea haunts him.

“I pay my taxes, and I don’t know what will happen,” he says. “I can’t sleep at night.”

If pressurized tanks are installed and hooked up to the plumbing in the five homes, the county can get water delivered, officials say.

Because the dry well involves rental property, it will be a kind of test case, says Maria Herrera of Self-Help Enterprises, a nonprofit community assistance group in Visalia. The state is not generally in the practice of giving money to business owners to fix their wells.

Herrera, who is working with Monson, says state officials will need to figure a way to move the funding ahead because of the drought emergency.

“Other communities are watching to see how long this takes and how it is done,” she says. “The drought funding has been going to well owners who are not renting properties to others as part of a business.”

Basic needs

The renters living on the property are experiencing the same hardships without water as those who own their dry wells. Forget about having a lawn. Where do you go to shower? Where do you go to wash your clothes?

Maria Jimenez remembers the day the water flow died at the rental where her family of five lives.

“I was washing dishes,” she says. “The water slowed way down, then it just dribbled out. An hour later, there was nothing. We’re using the bottled water every day.”

Her home life is like many in the area. She babysits her grandson. On the wall, there’s a military photo of her son who served in Iraq. Outside her windows, a stunning view of the Sierra Nevada looms to the east.

On her rooftop is a bucket, meant for capturing rainfall and funneling it with a hose through the bathroom window into another bucket in the shower.

The idea came from Mexico, she says, where people catch every drop of water they can get.

“It’s at least some water,” she says. “We have to do whatever we can to get by.”

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