Drought brings unexpected water relief to California communities

State and federal funds are paying for desperately needed infrastructure in the Central Valley.


Guillermo Lopez brushes his teeth using bottled water at his home outside Fresno, California, after his well became contaminated and then dried up. Lopez and his neighbors are on track to get hooked up to city water this year, thanks to funds made available due to the California drought.
Courtesy Sasha Khokha/KQED

Guillermo Lopez knew something was wrong with the well water at the house where he has lived half his life.“It tasted a little funny, so I never drank it,” says Lopez, 31, who lives with his mother and brother. But like many people with wells, the family had never had it tested. They drank bottled water but used the well water for cooking and everything else. Then, early last year, due to California’s long drought, their well went dry.

The family had to haul water for months — no easy task, because Lopez is disabled. It was a great relief when a huge water tank was delivered to their front yard to get their faucets and toilet working again. But the drought is about to deliver a bigger, unexpected blessing to Lopez and the other residents of Daleville Avenue, a stretch of houses in an agricultural area just outside of Fresno, California. If all goes as planned, within a year their street will be hooked up to reliable, safe drinking water from the city. Unlikely as it seems, the drought has had a silver lining.

The drought played two crucial roles in solving this neighborhood’s chronic drinking-water problems. The funding to hook up the 30-odd houses is slated to come from a mixture of state and federal dollars, available only because of the drought. But perhaps more importantly, as soon as shallow wells started to go dry, neighbors who had resisted giving up those wells began to change their minds. “People started saying, ‘Yes, I do want public water.’ It sped things up with the funding, too,” says Sue Ruiz, community development specialist for Self-Help Enterprises, which works to improve living standards for low-income families in the San Joaquin Valley.

Rural California still has a widespread problem with contaminated drinking water, and so far positive examples like Lopez’s neighborhood are few. But a recent ballot initiative will bring a major influx of state dollars, and experts hope it will allow many communities to finally obtain decent water. “I think this is an amazing opportunity we have for the state,” says Boykin Witherspoon III, executive director of California State University’s Water Resources and Policy Initiatives.


Maria Jimenez hugs her grandson, Caleb Guiterrez, 3, outside her home in Monson, California, where water bottles have collected. Monson is one of the communities in line to get funding for water system improvements that became available in response to the California drought.
Renee C. Byer/Sacramento Bee/ZUMA Wire

A few years ago, when the drought was still young, Ruiz identified Lopez’s neighborhood as a place in need of cleaner drinking water. Decades before, she had worked at an elementary school near the strip of homes outside the city boundary. She sent water samples from several homes to a lab, which found levels of nitrates, uranium and bacteria that exceeded drinking water standards. (Nitrates can cause “blue baby syndrome” and even kill infants by decreasing the oxygen in their blood, while uranium can lead to kidney problems and increased cancer risks.) But residents, who were accustomed to using as much water as they wanted for their yards and animals without paying for it, were reluctant to trade their wells for water bills.

Lopez met Ruiz shortly after his well went dry in early 2015. He embraced the idea of public drinking water and started going door-to-door to persuade his neighbors. At first, they resisted the idea. Their old wells likely would have to be decommissioned to avoid contaminating the public system, and it wasn’t clear how much the new hookups would cost. But the sell got easier, Lopez recalls, as more and more wells went dry. Drilling a deeper private well, which can cost $20,000 or more, is out of the question for many residents, including the Lopez family. “We’re lucky we have the opportunity to have the city come in,” he says.

Ruiz has been trying unsuccessfully to hook up another street a little farther from the city, where the contamination levels are even higher. The costs of connecting homes to public water for the first time can be staggering — $1 million for just the 30 houses on Daleville and a few others on nearby streets. But the U.S. Department of Agriculture has already provided  $500,000,  and   Ruiz   hopes   state funds will fill in the gap.

Lopez’s neighborhood is far from the only place in California where the drought is busting through logjams that have blocked low-income communities from receiving clean water. Scientists have documented widespread groundwater contamination in the San Joaquin Valley from nitrates, uranium and arsenic and other hazards. Agriculture can be a major source of pollutants: A 2012 University of California, Davis, study, for example, estimated that the drinking water of about a quarter-million people across the Tulare Basin and northern Salinas Valley was at risk of nitrate contamination, caused by fertilizers and animal wastes slowly seeping into aquifers.

In 2011, a United Nations official investigated the problem. The U.N. report expressed concern about “racial disparities,” citing studies that show disproportionate impacts on Latino households and urging the U.S. government to step in. The report highlighted the small rural Tulare County town of Seville, but even so, county officials there were unable to get funding to upgrade its water system.

In addition to the nitrate contamination, tiny Seville has old, leaky water pipes that let harmful bacteria into the system. Residents are advised to boil water before they use it for drinking or cooking, and the county delivers bottled water to every house. “It pains me a little to talk about it,” says Chad Fischer, Tulare district engineer for the California Water Resources Control Board. “I don’t like the fact that this is going on in California.”

Then in mid-2014, a well that supplied about 90 homes in Seville went dry. Finally, there was a chance to get state funding for a new well for the town. “We were able to secure funding and drill a well in two weeks –– and we’d been trying since 2007,” recalls Denise England, Tulare County’s water resources program manager. Unfortunately, the new well started to go dry because of overuse, particularly by illegal marijuana growers, who were estimated to be using about 2,575 gallons of water per day. But that problem was resolved: The sheriff busted the growers last September, and the county has prohibited residents from using the water outdoors.

The boil-water order remains in effect because Seville still has leaky pipes. The funding to fix them is available, but an environmental review has taken longer than expected; the area is home to the rare tiger salamander, and detailed studies are needed to figure out how to avoid harming it. The long-term plan is to drill another well to augment the existing one and connect Seville with a water system in a nearby community, enabling the two small, economically disadvantaged communities to pool their resources.

Monson, another largely Latino community in Tulare County, also suffers from contaminated well water. The solution has long been obvious: Drill a deeper well and connect the town’s 45 homes to a community water system. “But it never got towards the finish line,” Fischer says. State funding has finally come through now that the drought has dried up those wells. As in Seville, the fix will take time and will happen in stages — but at least it has begun.

A video about water contamination during the California drought in East Orosi.

Many rural communities are still in need of safe drinking water. But state and local officials and other experts are optimistic because of a large pulse of funding on the way, thanks to Proposition 1. California voters in 2014 approved spending $7.5 billion beginning this year to improve the state’s water storage and delivery systems.

“This is just a start. We’re hoping the Prop. 1 money will help keep up the pace,” says England. “We’ve had our eye on that money since before it went on the ballot.”

Tulare County officials are working on a plan to use Proposition 1 dollars to bring public water to East Porterville, a larger rural community near the Sierra Nevada foothills, where many private wells were contaminated with nitrates and about 1,000 of them went dry during the drought.

Many other communities will benefit as well. “Prop. 1 is big enough that it can supply the money and the infrastructure,” Fischer says. It also can provide technical expertise to help communities learn how to operate these new systems. “That makes me feel pretty optimistic.”

Witherspoon has a grand idea for what Proposition 1 can do for California. He envisions recruiting scores of students from the state’s universities and community colleges to help places like East Porterville. “They need more boots on the ground; we can fill in the gaps,” he says. Students, many from similar communities themselves, would go door-to-door and hold meetings to educate residents and get their consent. Business and finance students would write grant proposals. Chemistry students would test the water, and engineering students could come up with technical solutions and draw up plans. “With the drought and water bond, all the stars have aligned,” Witherspoon says. “We have a lot of traction and faith to make this happen.”

Ruiz, who understands just how much work these projects take, is happy to hear that reinforcements may be on the way. She still worries that something could happen to hinder the project in Lopez’s neighborhood, and she refuses to believe it’s a done deal until she sees pipes going into the ground. But she’s already started daydreaming about the kind of celebration the community will hold, once the water starts flowing: “A great big water balloon fight.” 

Correspondent Elizabeth Shogren writes HCN’s DC Dispatches from Washington.

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