Tomas Garcia, a resident of East Porterville for over 30 years, has been a water justice advocate since the drought began to affect his community’s water supply. “I started having trouble with my well,” he said. “I thought it was going to be a very simple deal to fix the situation but it was a very complicated situation.” Since then, Tomas worked with CWC to organize East Porterville for Water Justice (EPWJ), a community based organization made up of impacted residents working for water solutions. As of 2018, this group is now organizing for other community improvements and is known as Porterville United. “I like to help my community. What I do, I do for my family,” he said.
The drought disproportionately affected residents of East Porterville because East Porterville is an unincorporated community of approximately 7,500 residents, many of whom are low-income Latinos, that rely on groundwater from private wells. As many as 300 wells went dry during the hot summer months of 2014, and other wells in the area have tested positive for nitrates. “A lot of people in my community don’t want to speak and let people know they are suffering,” Tomas said. “When you come home from work (after) 10 hours and there’s not water, it’s very hard.”
After being hard hit by the drought, 755 East Porterville homes now have a source of safe and reliable water for years to come! These homes have been connected to the City of Porterville's public water system. For several years, Community Water Center conducted large-scale community outreach to ensure residents understood their options and what to expect if they chose to connect to the City of Porterville's water system. We are so glad that the project is complete and are committed to ensuring solutions for other residents who are still dealing with dry household wells.
Last updated May 4, 2018
As California's five-year drought continues, the community of East Porterville has become an epicenter for the state's water shortage. Of the 1,800 homes located in the town, nearly 500 have lost wells that provided water for bathing and washing food. Officials worry the predicament will take a toll on the health of the community’s 7,000 residents.
NewsHour's Hari Sreenivasan reports.
Four years into the drought, an estimated 1,500 wells have run dry in Tulare County. Now, thanks to a state-funded project, relief is finally coming to one of the county’s hardest hit communities.
For the first time in three years, water splashed out of a spigot at an East Porterville home on Friday. The Ramirez family home is one of about 500 in the unincorporated community whose private wells have run dry since the drought began. Now, a new project is connecting East Porterville’s 1,800 homes to the water system of nearby Porterville, and the Ramirez home is first. Using a translator, Guillermina Ramirez says, now, they won’t have to rely on an emergency water tank that had been installed outside their home.
"They were really taking care of every drop of that water," says the Community Water Center's Ryan Jensen, translating for Ramirez. "So they would bathe with the bathtub closed, they would let it fill the bathtub, then they would reuse that water, carry it in buckets to keep what little landscaping they could alive."
"This is the long-term solution," says Eric Lamoureux with the state Office of Emergency Services. "And today is really a great day for East Porterville. It’s a great day for all of our partners that have been working so hard on this. We’ve never experienced conditions in California this severe."
The state plans to consolidate all 1,800 of East Porterville’s homes by the end of 2017. The consolidation is voluntary, but residents have to agree to be annexed by Porterville in the future.
After over three years since the first homes started running out of water, East Porterville residents are now being connected to the City of Porterville’s water system.
This project came together as a result of significant community organizing and engagement. For almost two years, the Community Water Center has been working alongside members of the East Porterville community to organize and advocate for immediate and lasting drinking water solutions.
By the end of 2017, as many as 1,800 homes with unreliable or unsafe water may be connected to the City of Porterville’s water system. Water started flowing to the first home in East Porterville this morning, bringing relief to the family of Guillermina Avila and Leonicio Ramirez, who had been forced to rely on bottled water and a water tank until now.
We are proud to stand alongside all of the partners who have helped bring this solution about, and we will continue working together to ensure that water decision-makers are responsive to community needs so that anyone and everyone who needs water gets water.
CWC’s outreach team is knocking on doors, making phone calls, developing sign-up guides, and holding community meetings to ensure every resident knows about the opportunity to connect to the City of Porterville’s water system. We’re pounding the pavement to make sure property owners in East Porterville know they should contact the City of Porterville or visit the C-SET Drought Resource Center to apply to be connected by completing a consent form.
We’re also working to address the root cause of the problem -- declining groundwater levels. This month, CWC and our partners are doing everything we can to ensure the Tulare County Board of Supervisors takes action to address our groundwater crisis. We’re calling on the Board of Supervisors to develop an emergency groundwater ordinance that places limits on increased groundwater extractions until Groundwater Sustainability Agencies are in place and ready to manage these shared resources. Though an emergency ordinance wouldn’t bring relief to East Porterville families whose wells have already run dry, it will help prevent more families from running out of water.
After going for months without even emergency relief, the East Porterville community came together to demand solutions. We worked with residents to get organized, advocate, and even travel to Sacramento to testify before the state legislature to demand a lasting solution. It is not acceptable for anyone to spend two years reliant on bottled water and tanks.
Through organizing and engagement, solutions are underway in East Porterville.
East Porterville residents at the community meeting on June 23rd.
Close to 300 community residents attended an all-stakeholder meeting held on June 23rd on the proposed long-term solution in East Porterville. The long-term solution includes hooking up East Porterville households to the City of Porterville's water system. Community members are supportive of the city running the water system, but still have reservations around mandatory well abandonment, future annexation and future water-rate increases.
Individuals and families who live in East Porterville, have a dry well, and would like to connect with the City of Porterville's water system should sign up with the county as soon as possible if they have not yet done so. Households will begin being connected to the City of Porterville water as early as next week!
After over two years since the first wells started running dry, this meeting was a big step toward securing a lasting, community-wide drinking water solution for East Porterville. CWC is working closely with all stakeholders to ensure that community members are involved in the decision-making for their water future. To ensure that residents have a voice in the development of a long-term water solution, CWC worked with residents earlier this year to help form a local community-based organization called East Porterville for Water Justice. East Porterville for Water Justice has held monthly community meetings since March attended by local and state agency staff, including the State Water Resources Control Board and the Department of Water Resources, which are the two state agencies working on the community-wide solution.
A Draft Feasibility Study for this project is out for public comment now, which is what residents were able to learn about and comment on at the June 23rd meeting. If all goes well, many East Porterville residents will be connected to a sustainable source of water by the end of the year. We're working closely with East Porterville for Water Justice to ensure that the residents who will ultimately be drinking that water have a seat at the decision-making table.
By Judy Belk
June 8, 2016
Original story: www.huffingtonpost.com/judy-belk/waterless_b_10111316.html
Angie’s eyes filled with tears almost the moment we were introduced. We were standing in the Emmanuel Church parking lot in East Porterville, an unincorporated, impoverished neighborhood in Tulare County, California. If you want to see what happens to a community when its residents don’t have access to the most basic human necessity—clean water—make a trip to East Porterville.
“I watch them every evening—entire families coming together to take showers over there.” Angie pointed to six portable shower stalls that her social services agency had installed. “Some come early in the morning before school. But mostly they come at night since many are farmworkers, and they only have one car or truck. I see young kids wrapped in damp towels, shivering in the backseat, waiting for their parents to take their turn showering. It breaks my heart.”
“How many families?” I asked.
“Almost a hundred a day,” she explained while apologizing for the tears that were now flowing down her young face. “Some days I can’t bear it. We go through about five or six pallets of bottled water a day, too.”
I had made my way to the church parking lot at the invitation of the Community Water Center, a Central Valley-based non-profit advocacy organization working to organize residents around the principle that all Californians have a right to safe, clean and affordable drinking water. It’s a right that seems out of grasp for the residents of East Porterville and many other forgotten water-deprived communities throughout the Central Valley, where some residents have gone as long as a decade without reliable access to clean water.
How did we get to this point in California? Why, in one of the most prosperous states in the wealthiest country in the world, must families wait in line to use a portable shower stall and donated water in a church parking lot in order to bathe? Contrary to what you might think, drought is not the only culprit. Even in the face of drought, golf courses and backyard fountains across the state have continued to benefit from access to water. Three deeply rooted injustices have created this water crisis in unincorporated areas like East Porterville, a crisis that is stripping Californians of their dignity and threatening their well-being.
Injustice Number 1: structural racism. Millions of people—and disproportionately people of color—live in unincorporated areas of our state. (As an example, about 75 percent of the East Porterville population is Latino.) Yet for decades, local governments have debated—and abdicated—their responsibilities in serving the water-system needs of these communities. The invisible city lines drawn by government have created pockets of poverty and deprivation manifest in the lack of access to clean water. Whether intentional or not, the persistent disenfranchisement of communities of color is a key part of the problem.
Injustice Number 2: unreliable infrastructure. Communities in unincorporated areas are too often on the wrong side of the tracks when it comes to access to adequate water systems. While the people of East Porterville struggle to find enough clean water, their neighbors in the City of Porterville aren’t experiencing the same challenge. The problem? Many residents in unincorporated areas depend on private, unregulated wells as their only source of water. But these wells become unreliable in times of drought, and even when groundwater is plentiful, many wells are contaminated from fertilizers, animal waste and pesticides. This points to a third injustice plaguing communities with little or no access to reliable water systems.
Injustice Number 3: environmental pollutants. Nitrate contamination in groundwater is rampant throughout the Central Valley due to agricultural fertilizers. The contamination is compounded by animal waste, which seeps into the underground water supply. The Central Valley is big dairy country, where a large dairy farm can house as many as 10,000 cows. That’s a lot of manure that finds its way into the underground water tables. Nitrate contamination has been linked to hypertension, some forms of cancer, birth defects, and “blue baby syndrome,” a condition that reduces the ability of the blood to carry oxygen and can be fatal for infants.
So what’s the solution? As we toured neighborhoods in East Porterville, we saw large green non-potable water tanks on the front lawns of many homes, tanks provided by community groups with government subsidies. This type of intervention is, at best, a temporary solution, and even these efforts are limited to homeowners only, and are not enough to meet the needs of all residents, including renters - hence the temporary showers and bottled water deliveries.
The reality is that access to water is another inequity California must face. There are more than enough resources to go around. Even in our drought-weary state, there is sufficient clean water available that no family should have to go without simply because they live in the wrong zip code. The community organizers I met in East Porterville pointed out that clean, safe water is flowing right through water-starved communities, in aqueducts situated just yards away from where water is most needed. But water rights are required to tap into that source, and these communities have neither the clout nor resources to gain access.
One solution is investment in the communities that lack reliable access to safe water. We need to muster the political will to change the institutionalized injustice that restricts access to this basic human need in many of our state’s poorest neighborhoods. Thanks to the work of the Community Water Center, committed folks like Angie, and empowered residents, the dynamic is slowly changing as residents are educated about what’s in their water, how to put pressure on government to serve their neighborhoods, and how to organize to make their voices heard. All of us—government, philanthropy, business and private citizens together—need to do our parts.
Until then, it’s enough to make you weep.
After over two years since the first wells started running dry, East Porterville is now moving swiftly toward a lasting, community-wide drinking water solution. CWC is working closely with all stakeholders to ensure that community members are driving the process.
In East Porterville, momentum has been building, and combined with prioritization at the state level, progress is being made rapidly toward a long-term water solution. To ensure that residents have a voice in the development of a long-term water solution, CWC worked with residents to help form a local community-based organization called East Porterville for Water Justice. East Porterville for Water Justice has held monthly community meetings since March attended by local and state agency staff, including the State Water Resources Control Board and the Department of Water Resources, which are the two state agencies working on the community-wide solution.
A Draft Feasibility Study for this project will go out for public comment soon this month, meaning that work may start as soon as September. If all goes well, East Porterville residents will be connected to a sustainable source of water by the end of the year. We're working closely with East Porterville for Water Justice to ensure that the residents who will ultimately be drinking that water have a seat at the decision-making table.
On Thursday, June 23rd, from 6-8:30pm, at Granite Hills High School, East Porterville residents will have the opportunity to comment on a proposed water project that would connect most of the private household wells that have run dry in the East Porterville area with the City of Porterville’s larger community water system. In the future, a planned expansion of this water project will likely provide the opportunity for all private households on domestic wells in the East Porterville area, many of which may be contaminated, to connect to the City of Porterville’s water system. East Porterville residents are encouraged to attend the meeting to provide feedback on the proposed water project. Contact CWC's Ryan Jensen at 559-733-0219 or Ryan.Jensen@CommunityWaterCenter.org for more information, and click here for the public meeting notice.
By Matt Stevens
May 6, 2016
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)
Two long summers ago, after Adela Ramos Arellano's pump first began to sputter and wheeze, the 37-year-old field worker would return from a day spent laboring beneath the blazing sun to a home with no water.
Since then, "the cavalry," as one onlooker called it, has descended on East Porterville, an unincorporated area in Tulare County that claims about 12% of the state's failed wells. No fewer than nine government agencies and nonprofit organizations have had a hand in helping the community, which drew international media attention for its exceptional suffering in the fourth year of California's drought.
But residents and even some government officials say progress has been painstakingly slow, if not altogether ineffectual. Last year, for example, state officials sank $1.2 million into a new well that remains untapped because of quarreling among government agencies.
As a result, the drought continues to punish the people of East Porterville. Even now, some residents have to use portable showers in a church parking lot and dump a bucket of water into their toilets to flush.
In bureaucrats' latest and most ambitious attempt to help, state officials are preparing to build a municipal water system for East Porterville. They want to connect 500 homes by the end of the year and ultimately deliver safe, drinkable water to all 1,750 parcels here by the end of 2017.
"We'll have to see if they come through with their promise," Ramos Arellano said in Spanish. "I have hope. That's the last thing I'm going to lose."
At first, the solutions were crude. The nearby city of Porterville spent much of 2014 delivering water to fill people's plastic, 300-gallon containers, which had mostly been donated by dairies and were unsuitable to drink from.
Residents relied on bottled water — at first donated, then provided by the state and county, but even getting that going proved difficult. A drought emergency, officials quickly discovered, did not fall neatly into traditional state grants, and there was no blueprint outlining exactly how to deliver potable water to such a large area.
"In any typical disaster you have something you can see. You can fly, drive, whatever, and it's clear," said Andrew Lockman, manager of the Tulare County Office of Emergency Services. "We have a basic emergency management structure … a framework, but this was a new type of incident. We had to come up with a new response."
As bureaucrats puzzled over the possibilities, Ramos Arellano's family had to haul water in by the bucket, even after they got a dairy container. Every other day they trekked to the fire station for a refill because the deliveries did not come often enough.
By January 2015, officials rolled out a short-term plan. The county worked with nonprofit organizations and used state disaster funding to install massive green tanks that could hold thousands of gallons of drinkable water and be connected to a home's plumbing. Those tanks now consume more than 160 frontyards.
Families say they have learned to monitor the thin red band that slides down their tank's PVC pipe as water inside dwindles. As the ring falls, dirty dishes pile up and toilets fill until the water hauler comes rumbling down the street.
"These families need so much more help than a tank," said Roman Hernandez, a 57-year-old pastor who, for the last several months, has watched people visit his church's parking lot to sign up for bottled water or use the mobile showers.
His suggestion? Drill more wells — or at least get water from the one that has already been drilled.
Last summer, the county and the state agreed to construct a well using $1.2 million from the California Department of Water Resources. Construction was completed in October, but infighting trumped people's desperate need for water.
The county had agreed to sell the well to the city of Porterville, which had staff members who could operate it. But the city, county and state disagreed on who should get water from the project.
The dispute ultimately led the state to pull out of the discussions and draw up plans for a facility where water haulers could fill up without involving the city. Porterville reacted by cutting off Tulare County's access to water from its municipal system. The county then had to scramble to find new water sources to fill the green tanks in residents' yards.
Since the fall, the well has remained hidden and untapped at the end of a dirt road, near the spot where this city's mini-malls give way to endless alfalfa. The bickering among agencies is beside the point for residents like Guillermina Andrade, struggling in a forgotten corner of town.
On a recent afternoon, Andrade, 38, stepped gingerly around dozens of boxes and buckets scattered and stacked on the floor of her modest home. The boxes hold jugs of Sparkletts water for drinking; the buckets hold tank water for dishes, bathing and flushing. Inside the bigger buckets, smaller ones float, to be used as giant measuring cups.
Andrade stood in the shower and demonstrated her routine; it is the same whether she is flushing the toilet or trying to bathe: Scoop, lift, pour.
"Very difficult," she said in Spanish. "Hopefully [something] will happen soon. It's been two years already."
If everything goes according to the state's plan, sometime this year construction crews will tear up Andrade's street, install miles of water mains and ask her to sign an agreement that will make her a customer of the city of Porterville.
As a result of the multi-agency tangle over the well, the Department of Water Resources sought a more aggressive and permanent solution. Frustrated officials decided they would build a municipal water system for the people of East Porterville themselves.
The system, if approved by local officials, would draw from the new well, pumping water through newly laid piping to about 500 homes in East Porterville and a portion of Porterville.
The project will cost about $7 million. The state is currently spending about $500,000 a month on the tank and bottled water programs.
The State Water Resources Control Board, meanwhile, is in charge of a longer-term plan to install fire hydrants, create water storage facilities and hook up the remaining 1,250 homes in East Porterville as early as the end of 2017.
"There are a million ways this can go wrong," said Greg Farley, drought manager for the Water Resources Department. "This is like putting in a water system for a whole city in a year. It's a big undertaking."
And in this town, getting the word out to residents, giving them a voice and securing their trust could also prove difficult.
Federal data suggests that more than a third of the population falls below the poverty line; about 75% of the community is Latino; many don't speak English, many more prefer not to speak up. And the federal data does not count the hundreds of people who lack proper immigration authorization living in East Porterville.
Community and nonprofit leaders say many of East Porterville's immigrants have been reluctant to sign up for government assistance, all but certain they will be deported. Some parents have worried that if they admit that their homes are without water, officials will seize their children. And county officials say they are still struggling to get renters on the water tank program, in part because landlords don't want code-enforcement officers to visit and discover violations.
"There's a lot of fear out there right now," said Ryan Jensen of the Visalia-based nonprofit Community Water Center. "The voice that's missing at that table is East Porterville itself."
On a recent Tuesday morning, a steady flow of locals stopped at an outpost on Plano Street, handed volunteers their punch cards and loaded bottled water into the trunks of their cars. One man said he was unaware of any state plan to build a water system. Another said he was concerned that if he agrees to hook up to the city's water system, engineers will cap his well and officials will limit how much city water he can use.
To help ensure they get a say, residents recently formed the group East Porterville for Water Justice.
Rafael Surmay, 47, attended a meeting in April, and now he recognizes neighbors who are also out of water when he runs into them around town.
In 2000, Surmay moved his family from San Jose to East Porterville, where he could buy land and fulfill his California dream for just $50,000. Six years later, roses bloomed in his yard, Surmay's youngest child was born, and the postman even had enough money to buy another property on the west side of town.
"Everything was perfect," he said.
Then one day, about two years ago, Surmay was on vacation with his family when a neighbor called his wife with "bad news."
When he returned home to a dry well, he unwittingly began what has become a familiar sequence for people here: He hooked up to a generous neighbor's working well and got a 300-gallon container, then a 2,500-gallon green tank.
What he did not do was abandon his house — not when the roses wilted, not when his neighbors fled, not when a banker suggested it might be best. He did not leave even though he owned that other property on the west side of town — a house with running water hooked into the city's system.
No, this house in East Porterville "is my first love," he said.
So he modified his mortgage and bet big on the state.
"There is a solution for everything," he said, standing tall in front of his yard. "I wanna fight."
Times staff writers Cindy Carcamo, Brittny Mejia and Marisa Gerber and Times researcher Scott J. Wilson contributed to this report.