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With Water, One Era Ends And Another Begins In East Porterville

Kerry Klein/KVPR
East Porterville residents Leonicio and Guillermina Ramirez can run their kitchen faucet for the first time in three years.

In 2014, Governor Jerry Brown declared a drought state of emergency as wells across the state began to run dry. This just two years after California became the first state to legally recognize water as a human right. And yet, thousands of residents remain without water, as the state estimates 2,000 wells have run dry. While temporary relief has come to many, permanent relief has still been slow to arrive. Last Friday, a solution finally came to one of Tulare County’s hardest hit communities—but it wasn’t easy, and it’s not the end.

When you don’t have running water, even the simplest activities require planning, creativity and hard work. Just ask Leonicio Ramirez of East Porterville, a farm worker who picks oranges and grapes. Until last Friday, he didn’t have running water in the house where he lives with his wife and three children. After a long day in the fields, he says in Spanish, he’d drive to one of his sons’ houses to fill up 50-gallon drums of water. They’d heat that water on the stove and haul it into the bathroom to bathe. Ramirez’s wife Guillermina, also speaking Spanish, says they’d plug the drain in the bathtub so they could reuse the bathwater on their plum and pomegranate trees.

Credit Kerry Klein/KVPR
Tania Ramirez and parents Guillermina and Leonicio Ramirez at an event kicking off the first East Porterville residence to be consolidated with Porterville’s water system.

That was the Ramirezes’ reality for three years, after the well in their home ran dry. But on Friday, that reality changed. The state is connecting East Porterville to the public water system of nearby Porterville—and the Ramirezes’ home was first. After speeches from local officials, daughter Tania Ramirez opened a spigot outside her home, and out splashed crystal clear water.

The cheers and applause that erupted represent more than joy and relief; they were also the sound of collaboration and compromise. East Porterville is small—about 7000 people—and yet, this project took years and involved negotiations between three state agencies, the county, local lawmakers, city officials and a handful of advocacy groups.

East Porterville “took me back to Iraq”

The drought has been a slow-moving disaster in East Porterville. The first wells ran dry in 2013 and 2014. Neighbors relied on each other for a while. So-called “water angels” made water deliveries. The tally of dried wells ticked higher and higher until about a third of this unincorporated community was without water.

State assemblymember Devon Mathis came into office in late 2014, and he says he was shocked when he saw East Porterville. “It took me back to Iraq,” he says. “We didn’t have water there, we had bottled water, and imported showers. And when you’re seeing that in your hometown, you’re going, ‘okay wait, we’re California, we’re one of the richest economies in the world, and this is happening?’”

Credit Kerry Klein/KVPR
Assemblyman Devon Mathis speaks in front of the Ramirez family home in East Porterville.

“Statewide, we’ve got about 2,000 wells dry,” says Eric Lamoureux of the state Office of Emergency Services. “At one time, anywhere between 500 and 700 of those wells were here in East Porterville. So it really has been ground zero. The greatest concentration of impacts has been here.”

Despite that urgency, finding solutions and money has been challenging. While residents have awaited long-term fixes, the state has provided water bottle delivery services as well as community showers and emergency water tanks installed outside homes. But Lamoureux says those were stopgap measures, simply buying time until the state found permanent solutions. “We’ve never experienced any conditions in California this severe,” he says. “So everything we’ve done to address the emergency and develop a long-term solution has been from scratch.”

This from-scratch solution involves taking roughly 1,800 homes, most of which have private wells, and hooking them up to Porterville’s municipal water system. It’s called a consolidation, and officials expect the whole community to be consolidated by the end of 2017. It’s unclear how much it’ll cost in total; state officials estimate the first round of 500 homes, to be completed by late 2016, to cost around $10 million. For contrast, emergency water services cost over $7.5 million each year in East Porterville alone.

A new start

Jessi Snyder watches the proceedings from a tent in the Ramirezes’ front yard. She’s a community development specialist with Self-Help Enterprises, one of the groups who’s been connecting East Porterville residents with emergency water services. “I’m thrilled,” she says about the consolidation. “This is a very very very happy beginning.”

She says homeowners won’t need to pay a dime to consolidate, but there could be other, less tangible costs. The consolidation is voluntary, but in order to take part, homeowners must sign a contract agreeing to someday be annexed by Porterville. “You then become a city resident,” Snyder says, “which means you have access to city services like police and dog catcher and sewer and trash pickup and all of that stuff.”

Credit Kerry Klein/KVPR
Workers fill in ditches after installing water pipes at the Ramirez family home.

Property tax wouldn’t necessarily increase, but residents would see higher utility bills and more sales tax at East Porterville businesses. Homeowners who choose not to consolidate will lose out on emergency water services.

Community advocacy in action

Lawmakers, politicians and officials were instrumental in getting water to East Porterville. But Ryan Jensen of the Community Water Center says none of this would have happened if residents themselves hadn’t come together and spoken up. “When this community started to get organized and really solicit assistance from their decisionmakers, that’s when it came to the attention of local media, state media, national media,” Jensen says. “Quite frankly, it started to be painfully obvious that this is a human rights issue and it absolutely should not be happening in the state of California in 2016.”

By the state’s estimate, around 1,500 dry wells still remain. The trouble is, no one solution will work for every thirsty community. Just as the Ramirezes had to get creative, it seems, so will the state.

Kerry Klein is an award-winning reporter whose coverage of public health, air pollution, drinking water access and wildfires in the San Joaquin Valley has been featured on NPR, KQED, Science Friday and Kaiser Health News. Her work has earned numerous regional Edward R. Murrow and Golden Mike Awards and has been recognized by the Association of Health Care Journalists and Society of Environmental Journalists. Her podcast Escape From Mammoth Pool was named a podcast “listeners couldn’t get enough of in 2021” by the radio aggregator NPR One.
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