Gov. Jerry Brown has to be pleased by the response of Californians to this historic drought. Nearly two-thirds of the local water agencies in our state met or came close to matching their mandated conservation goals for June, according to the State Water Resources Control Board.
Unfortunately for thousands of residents in the Central Valley and elsewhere in California, however, the governor is not keeping his end of the deal.
Think back to September 25, 2012. Amid great fanfare, Brown signed Assembly Bill 685, which amended the Water Code and stated: “It is hereby declared to be the established policy of the state that every human being has the right to safe, clean, affordable, and accessible water adequate for human consumption, cooking, and sanitary purposes.”
Apparently AB 685 doesn’t apply to people living in East Porterville, Fairmead or dozens of other rural communities, where wells have dried up or well water isn’t safe to drink.
These folks are relying on bottled water. They drink it, wash with it and cook with it. Some are receiving donated water. Others are spending up to 10% of their income on bottled water — and the incomes in these largely farmworker families aren’t much what with the drought fallowing large swaths of farmland.
We recognize that water is complicated in the arid West, especially in California where competing interests, strict environmental regulations and a tangled thicket of water law make it difficult to forge quick solutions.
But this is an emergency. People’s health is at stake. The state should be attacking the lack of water in these communities the same way it would react to a wildfire. Set up a command center. Identify communities where people are having difficulty getting water or are having to rely on bottled water. Send experts into these communities to meet local officials and come up with answers.
In a lot of places, the solution could be as simple as placing water tanks at homes of people who can’t afford to drill new wells and helping arrange water deliveries via tanker trucks.
But instead of treating these situations like the emergencies they are, the state response has been bureacratic shuffling and a collective shrug of the shoulders.
The State Water Board, for example, has been trying to push the private wells problem to the Department of Water Resources. That might be OK if not for the fact that DWR has almost no experience working on issues of residential water supply or quality.
In turn, DWR has assigned responsibility for tracking the problem to the counties, who have either not made this a priority or lack the ability to track dry wells. An exception is Tulare County, which is rigorously tracking dry wells.
Tulare County’s website offers insight into the depth and breadth of the problems triggered by the drought in rural Valley communities. We quote from the county’s website:
▪ As of July 24, the Bottled Drinking Water Program had approved 1,026 qualified households (an increase of 20 new clients from previous report)
▪ As of July 23, Tulare County’s Environmental Health unit had approved over 3,624 drilling permits for wells since Jan. 1, 2014;
▪ 2-1-1, through the United Way of Tulare County, has received 1,262 drought-related calls requesting referrals for assistance (an increase of 431 from previous report in April);
▪ As of July 19, FoodLink had distributed 158,259 drought-related food relief packages (an increase of 2,106 from previous report).
For tens of millions of Californians, the drought is an inconvenience. It means brown lawns, shorter showers and reprogrammed sprinkler timers.
Try running a household without running water for more than a week. In East Porterville, the wells began drying up for the 7,500 residents in 2013. There now are about 700 homes — with about 3,000 people — that lack running water.
Thank goodness for Donna Johnson, the 72-year-old “water angel” who has been bringing water to neighbors in 25-gallon tubs since last year. Among those neighbors is Juana Garcia. Wrote The Bee’s Andrea Castillo of Garcia’s situation in a July 24 story:
“Living without running water illuminates just how many things require it. There’s the obvious — showering, washing dishes, laundry and brushing teeth. But even keeping the swamp cooler on means feeding it 3 gallons every two hours. On a recent day nearing 100 degrees, Garcia turned off the cooler around 2 p.m. “This thing sucks too much water,” she said, bracing herself for sweat.
“I don’t think I’ll last another year here like this,” Garcia said. “How can the children and I live without water?”
It’s past time for Gov. Brown to fulfill the promise of AB 685 — that safe, clean, affordable and accessible water is a human right.