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Taps Run Dry in Fairmead, “Watch, I Get Nothing”

Ezra David Romero
Valley Public Radio

Reporters flocked to the Valley town of East Porterville last year where over 600 private wells went dry. This year many other towns are facing a similar plight, including the community of Fairmead. Valley Public Radio’s Ezra David Romero visits the community and finds an aging population with people whose basic needs are on the brink.

Credit Google
There are less than 2,000 people living in the Fairmead area.

I’m standing near Highway 99 in Madera County just before Highway 152 where thousands of people zoom by daily on the way to the coast. From the highway it’s almost as if the rural community of Fairmead is forgotten. It was once was mostly an African American colony known for growing corn and cotton.

“It used to have a post office and stores and things like that, but time has changed it," says Jean Wilson. 

Today Fairmead is surrounded by almond and pistachio orchards.  

Jean Wilson is one of the pastors of a primarily black church nearby. She and her husband moved to Fairmead 20 years ago to escape big city life. It wasn’t until last year that her private well started shooting out sand.

"I was the first one that actually went out of water. I think about a year this month. There were no resources and nobody could tell me anything and I was just kind of shuffled around." - Jean Wilson

Credit Ezra David Romero / Valley Public Radio
Valley Public Radio
When Jean Wilson's domestic well went dry she decided she began going door to door to find out who else in Fairmead was without water.

Wells in the Fairmead area have been slowly going dry for years. Family homes with shallow private wells under 500 feet can’t compete with agricultural wells sucking water out of the aquifer at 1,000 feet or deeper.

Wilson got so fed up with the back and forth between Madera County, the state and other agencies that she wrote Governor Jerry Brown.

ROMERO: “What’d you say in your letter?” WILSON: "That it's almost inhumane. The biggest issue was where can we go get water. You're telling me I can't have water. What are you saying?"
Listen to the interaction here.

Wilson eventually got a response back through a phone call from the Governor’s office, but aid from the state didn’t come. So she created a flyer, began hand delivering water and went door-to-door to find out who else’s taps had gone dry.

Credit Ezra David Romero / Valley Public Radio
Valley Public Radio
Annie and Lawyer Cooper have lived without running water in their home for almost a year.

Annie and Lawyer Cooper found one of those flyers at a laundromat. Their home is in the middle of almond orchard just outside of Fairmead. Last June their private well dried up when an almond farmer began drilling a well across the street.

“I was doing dinner that day and it’s like about four o’clock," says Annie Cooper. "I called him and said you know this water is really getting short. There’s hardly any coming out. He said it’ll pick up later on this evening and the next hour this water was gone. We’ve been without it ever since.”
Listen to Annie Cooper here.

The Cooper family moved to Fairmead from Arkansas in the 1940s like many other African Americans did with the hope of farming small acreages instead settling in cities like Los Angeles and Oakland.

Like the Coopers, the Williams family came to the area in the 90s from Southern California to retire on 40 acres of agrarian beauty. When their well went dry they spent $15,000 to drill deeper, but 75-year-old Girtha Williams says even then water is not guaranteed.

"I'll wake up like about three o'clock in the morning the flow is kind of good. So I'll wash the dishes and stuff, but like after early in the morning it kind of slows down." - Girtha Williams

Credit Ezra David Romero / Valley Public Radio
Valley Public Radio
Thelma Williams says life before her well went out was fantastic. Her family hosted barbecues all the time at her home.

Less than a mile away her daughter Thelma has been without water for seven years. She can’t afford to dig a new well. So she showers at her parents home and daily gathers water.

“So when I’m done rinsing my dishes over at my place then I save that water in  bucket so I can use it for the toilet because you cannot afford to just waste any kind of water," says Thelma Williams. 

For a while farmers supplied water to those without wells in the Fairmead area, but that’s stopped. Just recently Madera County announced it’s taking over because of funding from the state.

"Why do we have to go through so much of this? Let all of them get their water cut off, everybody's water cut off for one month and have one station for everybody to go get water and see what happens." - Jean Wilson

Jill Yeager is the Madera County Deputy Director of Environmental Health.

“With that funding we have strategized a program that will help deliver some temporary water provisions to certain residents," Yeager says. "They have to be homeowners.”

In time qualified residents will receive a large tank for potable water. A water service will fill the tank when it runs low.

But even still Jean Wilson, the woman who alarmed the Governor about Fairmead’s water crisis, says the process is taking way too long.

“Why do we have to go through so much of this?" Wilson says.  "Let all of them get their water cut off, everybody’s water cut off for one month and have one station for everybody to go get water and see what happens.”

Madera County plans to have bottled water delivered as soon as state funding comes in and hopes to have the first tank installed sometime in May.  

Ezra David Romero is an award-winning radio reporter and producer. His stories have run on Morning Edition, Morning Edition Saturday, Morning Edition Sunday, All Things Considered, Here & Now, The Salt, Latino USA, KQED, KALW, Harvest Public Radio, etc.
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