When the wells run dry: California families cope in drought

31 Aug 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Californian families cope with drought as wells run dry: ‘We can pray for rain’.

LEMOORE, CA – APRIL 24: A sign referencing the drought is posted next to a fallow field on April 24, 2015 in Lemoore, California. In this June 30, 2015 photo, the Rangel family takes a ride on their ATV along an embankment along one side of the community of Okieville, on the outskirts of Tulare, Calif. As California enters its fourth year of severe drought, farmers in the Central Valley are struggling to keep crops watered as wells run dry and government water allocations have been reduced or terminated.

Many have opted to leave acres of their fields fallow. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images) TULARE, Calif. (AP) – Looking for water to flush his toilet, Tino Lozano pointed a garden hose at some buckets on the bare dirt of his yard. Living with a dried-up well has turned one of life’s simplest tasks into a major chore for Lozano, a 40-year-old disabled Army veteran and family man. But it’s dramatically worse in places like Okieville, where wells have gone dry for many of the 100 modest homes that share cracked streets without sidewalks or streetlights in California’s Central Valley. Others benefit from state drought relief that pays for trucked-in water to fill 2,500-gallon tanks in their yards, and boxes of drinking water that get stacked in bedrooms and living rooms. These “Third-World-type conditions” are hidden from plain sight, says Andrew Lockman, of Tulare County’s Office of Emergency Services. “It’s not an earthquake or flood where you can drive down the street and see the devastation.” Okieville is quiet, dry and hot.

Residents express pride in their town, and support the need for irrigation. “They need water for the cows,” said Okieville resident and tire salesman Gilbert Arredondo. “Without dairies we wouldn’t have jobs. They produce cheese.” For 150 years, surface canals and underground aquifers turned semi-arid regions of California green, and even in drought, the state produces most of America’s fruit, vegetables and nuts. But the meager Sierra Nevada snowpack doesn’t replenish the rivers like it used to, and farmers are drilling ever-deeper wells to compensate for the plunge in surface water. Unlike Lozano, who rents his home, Marquez was eligible as a homeowner to get a tank installed for washing and flushing, to be filled each Monday by a county truck, as well as bottled water for drinking and cooking through California’s $3.7 billion drought relief program, which includes $38 million for drinking water and tanks. As with other “Okieville” communities in California, the hundreds of thousands of Midwesterners who migrated west in the 1930s were mostly replaced by migrants from Mexico after the camps evolved into permanent communities.

But sustainable alternatives remain years away, and the groundwater supplying nearly 60 percent of the state’s needs in dry years is being used up like never before. Seeking a solution for problems in Okieville, 5 miles outside of Tulare, Maria Marquez welcomed Maria Herrera, an organizer for the nonprofit Self-Help Enterprises, who brought a team of engineers and a lawyer to address about 50 people gathered in her dirt yard. “We have a lot of important items to talk about tonight,” began Herrera. As the night wore on, consensus seemed to grow around forming their own water district, and applying for state and federal grants to pay for two 500-foot deep wells costing about $2 million.

Monthly water bills would be about $50, and everyone would get reliable water — at least until the surrounding farms dig deeper. “God, give us water so we don’t have to move,” the 4-year-old says, pressing her palms together. “God, please fill up our tank, so we don’t run out of water.” Her neighbors Francisco and Faviola Zuniga found another supply, running a hose from their mobile home through several other properties to a well hundreds of feet away. So Francisco Zuniga, who struggles to find work delivering cattle feed, showers in the darkness, when the water runs cooler, and keeps a full bucket nearby. I’m bored because I don’t have a garden.” Marquez speaks very little English and never saw herself as an activist, but she has paid half the 30-year mortgage on a house she loves.

The 72-year-old with curly bangs and a ponytail proudly shows off a family portrait of her father Andrew Jackson Shahan before he followed his brothers to California and found a living milking cows. “My daddy’s on a bicycle when they was back in Oklahoma,” she drawls. Dunlap still lives in the white house with blue trim her father-in-law built in the 1940s, and little seems to have changed in all those years, until her 170-foot well ran dry in February. A $7.5 billion bond measure also approved in 2014 is designed to update the state’s water infrastructure, with $2.7 billion directed at storing more water in wet years.

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