Water & Drought

East Porterville residents, tired of drought, say end is in sight

Running water brings East Porterville resident Juana Garcia peace of mind amid drought

Juana Garcia lived with lupus, arthritis and no running water for almost a year. In October, she received a 2,500-gallon water tank that Tulare County workers refill weekly.
Up Next
Juana Garcia lived with lupus, arthritis and no running water for almost a year. In October, she received a 2,500-gallon water tank that Tulare County workers refill weekly.

Juana Garcia takes a shower every night to cool off from the day’s heat before getting in bed, then does something else she previously couldn’t – she sleeps until morning.

Tulare County installed a 2,500-gallon water tank outside Garcia’s home in October, which is refilled weekly. For almost a year before that, she and her three children lived without running water.

“Before, everything was stressful,” she said last week in Spanish. “Now I sleep more relaxed and wake up less tired and less stressed. Ever since I’ve had running water in my house, life is much easier.”

No more long, tiring walks to the local church that offers public showers, walks that flared the 50-year-old’s lupus symptoms and aggravated her achy, arthritic joints. No more depending on other people for rides to the laundromat or refills of garbage bins with nondrinkable water.

No more choosing between using the last of that water to flush the toilet or do the dishes or fill the swamp cooler in 100-degree weather. And no more restless nights thinking about how to improve her situation with no job and no viable options.

Five years of drought have left East Porterville residents exhausted. As of Monday, 628 homes countywide have dry wells and no county-supplied water tanks. Demand for tanks outpaces supply, and workers can’t install new ones without first securing a source of water.

Read The Bee’s series on drought and health in East Porterville: ▪ Drought disaster in East Porterville turns to budding health crisis ▪ Water, and hope, run dry for East Porterville woman caught in drought ▪ In East Porterville, drought escalates mental health issues

With no central water system, families in the town of about 7,500 rely on shallow private wells, which started drying up after the nearby Tule River became a mere trickle. Rain and snowmelt replenish water below the ground, but 2013 and beyond have seen many rainless months.

Some residents bought their own smaller tanks in the meantime. Others with kind neighbors whose wells still flow drag a hose to their home. Or, like Garcia did for nearly a year, they live without running water. 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.

But the county has made progress. A year ago, twice as many homes were dry. Large, black tanks now dot the town, symbols of the temporary drought solution.

Residents say they see the end in sight. Last week, the first East Porterville family celebrated by turning on a faucet after their home was connected to the city of Porterville’s water system. The goal is to hook as many as 1,800 homes to Porterville’s system by the end of next year.

The golden ticket

The state Department of Water Resources is paying for the program. Hookup costs are estimated at $5,000 per home, and property owners must agree to be annexed into the city someday.

The state will pay around $30 million to hook up East Porterville homes, including pipeline, a new city well, water storage tank and other infrastructure, Porterville City Manager John Lollis said. Though the state says 500 homes will be hooked up by the end of the year, Lollis said the goal is 10 homes per week. Given fewer than 20 weeks remain in the year, that’s actually fewer than 200 homes.

Lollis said Porterville households pay $54 a month for water on average.

Melissa Withnell of the nonprofit Community Services Employment Training, which is facilitating part of the project, said residents who choose not to get hooked up to the city’s water system will stop receiving drought relief services, including the water tanks.

East Porterville drought resources: ▪ Learn more about the city of Porterville water connection project ▪ Read a Q&A about the project ▪ Visit the drought resource center ▪ Sign up for water service in East Porterville (English and Spanish)

“This is the moment we’ve been waiting for the past four years,” she said. “This is the golden ticket to resolving the drought issue in the community of East Porterville.”

If East Porterville is ground zero of the drought, Iglesia Emmanuel is ground zero for drought help. Public showers are set up at the church. Community Services staffs a drought resource center in the church parking lot and gives away cases of bottled water. The church also hosts monthly drought relief food distribution events through Community Food Bank.

Last year, plenty of people and organizations were eager to help, said the Rev. Roman Hernandez of Iglesia Emmanuel. But when other disasters hit, such as an earthquake in India, people moved on. Community Services took over water distribution last summer, meeting much of the need for emergency water.

The nonprofit gives only to people whose wells have gone dry or are nearly dry. Hernandez said people with contaminated wells need bottled water, but now the church can’t help.

“I’m begging for water (donations), because when these families come out of there empty-handed,” he said, pointing to the resource center, “they come to me.”

Hernandez got a taste of what his congregants have experienced when the church well went dry last August. During the three weeks that there was no water, he considered canceling church.

“We are in the same boat,” he said. “It helped me to identify with what the community is going through.”

Instead, Hernandez had the well deepened from a shallow 25 feet to 45 feet. Then it went dry again, so again he had it deepened, this time to 95 feet.

Now sand is starting to show up in the water, a sign that the well is going dry once more. Hernandez spent $16,000 on the first two drillings and the church, which is made up mostly of farmworker families, is out of funds.

He is praying the church will get connected to the city’s water system before it runs out again.

Not everyone wants to be added to Porterville’s water system. Donna Johnson, the town’s “water angel,” was the first to alert county officials of the growing number of well failures in 2014. Since then, the 73-year-old has regularly delivered water and other necessities to neighbors, as well as advocated on their behalf at meetings with state leaders.

“I fought so hard for everybody to get water,” she said. “People think this is a great deal, and for some people it is. I didn’t move here to live in the city.”

Johnson moved to a 1.5-acre plot in East Porterville 30 years ago to get away from city noise and city fees, to enjoy the quiet of the country with her husband and two horses. She thinks homes with shallow wells that are close to the city boundary should get annexed.

After her own well went dry in 2014, Johnson started paying off an $11,500 loan to drill it to 150 feet. She said it doesn’t make sense to connect to the city’s water system if she still has a loan to pay.

Health still an issue

Last summer, The Bee found that the drought has 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.

Garcia is one of those sick residents. Lupus, an incurable disease that causes her immune system to attack itself, has kept her from holding a steady job for years. It makes her allergic to the sun and easily fatigued. Osteoarthritis makes her joints constantly hurt.

Since last summer when The Bee documented her plight, Garcia’s life has changed in some ways but stayed the same in others. Running water makes her feel like less of a burden to others.

Doctors at Sierra View Medical Center in Porterville have seen increases in chronic bronchitis, asthma, emphysema and other pulmonary diseases.

The 4-foot, 5-inch fragile woman still takes buckets of water outside to fill the tub where she hand washes clothes. And the pipes to her shower got clogged with sand as her well went dry, so she carries buckets of water from the kitchen to the bathtub for showers.

“The arthritis is still difficult for me,” she said. “Even carrying a bucket with water is heavy for me. Sometimes when I’m washing a dish, I feel it fall from my hands.”

Doctors at Sierra View Medical Center in Porterville have seen increases in chronic bronchitis, asthma, emphysema and other pulmonary diseases. Hospital data show the number of patients visiting the emergency room primarily complaining of breathing issues has increased by more than 25 percent between 2010 and 2014.

Dr. Todd Morrow, a respiratory care practitioner, said physicians have upped their orders for pulmonary testing. Many patients visit the hospital now with coughs that last weeks. That’s concerning, he said.

“A lot of these patients have no previous respiratory conditions whatsoever,” he said. “It’s just this cough that they can’t get rid of and it’s caused by the air we have in the Valley.”

Morrow said he has noticed a slight increase in the past year of people with worsening respiratory issues. He also helps put on the hospital’s health fairs, and said he has noticed that a lot more people ask him for information about asthma since the drought began.

Angelica Gallegos, a mother of two who developed asthma in 2013, took to wearing a protective mask for most of last summer to keep from breathing in dust. A year later, Gallegos said everything is the same.

Bad air quality and ash from the recent Cedar Fire aggravated her illness. Though uninsured, she added pills to her asthma control regimen of an inhaler and nebulizer.

End in sight

Other experts have started to catch on.

Residents in East Porterville and Cutler-Orosi surveyed by state and county public health officials last October said drought has diminished their peace of mind, increased their acute stress and affected their overall health. The survey gave evidence to notions about the connection between the drought and health that previously were anecdotal.

University of California, Riverside is following suit with a two-year, $285,000 grant to study overlooked health implications of water policy during the drought.

One policymaker who does recognize that connection is Assemblyman Devon Mathis, R-Visalia. Mathis, who is from Porterville, worked for the past two years to get funding for long-term drought solutions. On Tuesday, he announced that a drought relief bill providing $15 million in loans and grants is on its way to the governor’s desk. The funds will allow homeowners statewide to deepen dry wells, pay for treatment of contaminated wells and connect to municipal water systems.

Making sure people have running water in their homes, it’s not a controversial social issue – it sure better not be.

Assemblyman Devon Mathis, R-Visalia

Mathis said it’s unacceptable for residents with health problems to have to walk in triple-digit heat to take a shower, or eat less healthy food because they don’t have enough water to cook as they normally would.

The solutions applied to East Porterville should be replicated statewide, he said, so that other areas are better prepared and less gravely affected. But he said it took too long to get to this point.

“Making sure people have running water in their homes, it’s not a controversial social issue – it sure better not be,” he said. “This has been a two-year fight.”

Mathis said the most basic necessities are food, water and shelter. “As a government, we’re failing our people if we’re not able to meet those needs,” he said.

For some people, two years was too long. Hernandez, at Iglesia Emmanuel, said more than a dozen families have moved since last summer.

An economic analysis released in August by University of California, Davis estimates the drought led to the loss of more than 10,000 seasonal farm jobs last year – about 5 percent – and 21,000 total job losses throughout the state. Five percent might not seem like much, but 25 percent of that loss is concentrated in Fresno and Tulare counties.

Hernandez knows one woman who took her five U.S.-born children back to her village in Oaxaca, Mexico. She told him there isn’t electricity but at least a river flows right behind her parents’ home. Three families moved to Atlanta for construction jobs. And six families moved to Iowa to work for a meat-packing plant.

Mathis said the bigger fix is groundwater recharge – letting water seep into the ground instead of diverting it for other uses. His biggest goal as a legislator is to convince other state leaders to make that a vital use of water.

“Until we have recharge happening, these kinds of conditions are going to continue,” he said. “Wells are going to continue to go dry.”

As for Garcia, her anxiety isn’t as palpable as last year. She smiles more, though it’s a tired smile.

But she is holding out for the permanent solution: city water.

Andrea Castillo: 559-441-6279, @andreamcastillo

Related stories from Fresno Bee