This story is part of a Valley Public Radio original series on how the health of rivers impact the health of communities produced as a project for The California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowship, a program of USC's Annenberg School of Journalism.
Severe drought conditions have become so harsh in Central California that dry wells have become commonplace. The lack of running water has plagued East Porterville, an unincorporated Tulare County community, leaving scores of family homes without working wells. In this report FM89 Reporter Ezra David Romero visits the community and finds a dry river, dry wells and people whose basic necessities are threatened.
For Andrea and Kevin Zousino the drought has become too much to handle. They’re out in front of the East Porterville Fire Station filling two 40 gallon drums with non-potable water since their 80 foot private well dried up in August.
“We seen a little dirt in the toilet and then in the sink when we ran the water,” Zousino says. “So we knew something was going on and then I went to go take a shower there was little twinkles of water and nothing and nothing.”
The couple is considering packing up their rusted Suburban and moving out of the community. Andrea says she knew it was only a matter of time before the water underneath her home was no more.
“It’s drained,” Zousino says. “Everybody on our block there well’s gone dry except for one person. The very first one that’s gone dry was like six months ago. We knew we were probably going to be next.”
The Zousinos aren’t alone in the community’s thirst for water. Around 1,000 of the town’s 7,300 people have no water flowing from their taps. This unincorporated part of Tulare County is surrounded on three sides by the City of Porterville with a population of over 50,000. The people who live in Porterville have many things East Porterville doesn’t including running water sidewalks, and a city government.
This little town has become Ground Zero for drought in the west. News agencies from across the globe flocked to the Valley this summer to report on the town with no water. With headlines like Drown the Drought, Help People of Porterville. Even the Weather Channel reported on the town.
But the region’s struggle with water isn’t new. East Porterville sits on a tributary of the South Fork of the Tule River flowing out of a reservoir called Lake Success. The river at one time emptied into Tulare Lake, which was the largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi, but has been diverted for irrigation. Today, water is usually let out of the reservoir down the river, split into channels and slowly recharges the aquifer.
Longtime East Porterville homeowner Donna Johnson has played a key role in supplying drinking water to the town.
Johnson -- in a straw hat, zebra glasses and tarnished gold bangles on her wrists -- and her 19-year-old helper show me around the parched town.
“We’re looking at a very, very dry offshoot of the Tule River,” Johnson says. “This feeds a lot of wells in this area and it’s been dry for over a year and a half.”
Johnson is 72 years old and a self-proclaimed water warrior. After her private well went dry in June and rumors of more dead wells circulated she went door-to-door in East Porterville to find out exactly how big the problem was.
“I started talking to people and they’d go my well’s dry or my sister’s well is dry over here, my grandmothers well is dry over here and I go how many people are dry,” Johnson says. “By the time I talked to a few people I thought that’s about 15 wells that have gone dry and that sounds like it might be kind of serious."
As the reports came in Johnson whose mother was a nurse says her biggest fear was a health scare brought on by the lack of water.
“When I went home to home some of them were drinking water that looked like yellow and red,” Johnson says. “Some of them got desperate and they knew they had water that wasn’t good so they started drinking it. And I thought how is this going to be rectified.”
So she took it on herself to deliver water to each home with a dry well.
“Some people would be a little afraid to talk to me and I’d say I’m just here to give you water, do you need water,” Johnson says. “And then they’d be so grateful for it and they’d say somebody came.
It wasn’t until the local newspaper ran an article that said she was gathering water that she saw an outpouring from the community. Donations came from the Girl Scouts, Home Depot, church groups and others. But even with growing numbers and countless calls to agencies across the region Johnson saw little aid from the City of Porterville and Tulare County.
“It’s like just hitting a brick wall every few minutes and I called the Red Cross and they said they were aware of the issue and I said but don’t you come out when people have emergencies,” Johnson says. “The statement I got was that the counties aware of it. And I thought oh my God what am I going to do now.”
It wasn’t until last month that Tulare County realized that the health of East Porterville was at risk and began to hand out bottled water and non-potable water in the community. Andrew Lockman heads the County of Tulare Office of Emergency Services. He and his team had been mapping the number of homes without water in East Porterville since January.
“What we’re seeing here in East Porterville is the highest density of percentage of private wells in the county that have gone dry,” Lockman says. “So when we started with 182 homes we actually finished with over 300 homes."
He says without rain the river bed running through this community will remain dry dropping the aquifer under these homes even lower. He drives from Visalia to East Porterville a couple times a week. It’s his job to make sure this place is free of widespread disease and prevent loss of life.
“The simplest form of is that if you don’t have drinking water you will eventually pass away,” Lockman says. “That’s why we’ve been trying to push out clean safe bottled water and trying to help those without a source of water at least with some non-potable water so they can take care of their basic sanitary needs.”
But in East Porterville Donna Johnson, the town’s water warrior, is still going door-to-door with bottled water in her chrome colored F250 with her 19-year-old water recruit.
Knock. Knock. Knock.
“Hi, I’m Donna I hear you are out of water,” Johnson says. “How long have you been out of water. . .”
And even though the river bed is barren and wells are dry in East Porterville, it’s quite possible that Johnson is really the river, the rain and the health this town needed.