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Drought: Tulare County Is “Blazing The Trail For The Rest Of California”

Apr 28, 2015

The lack of rain has hit all of California hard, but perhaps no place more than in Tulare County home to 60 percent of the residential wells that have gone dry in the entire state. As Valley Public Radio’s Ezra David Romero reports the county is creating a model for drought relief that the rest of the state can follow.

Denise England is working on long-term solutions for communities across Tulare County.
Credit Ezra David Romero / Valley Public Radio

Denise England’s colleagues have a nickname for her.

“Several years ago I worked in solid waste and there I was known as the trash diva, whatever that means,” England says. “They said we have a new name for you now it’s going to be the water queen.”

As the water resources program manager for Tulare County England connects state and federal funds to communities with water issues. Last year the drought hit Tulare County hard with the number of dry household wells spiking in one month to 300, then 600, then 900.  

Each red dot represents a domestic well that's gone dry in Tulare County.
Credit County of Tulare

“Currently in Tulare County we have just over 1,000 dry private domestic wells and so those folks have the most urgent need because they are not part of a water system,” England says. “If they have a dry well they have a dry house.”

Most of the dry wells in the county are in the community of East Porterville, but this year people’s wells across the region are plummeting. It’s England’s job to come up with long term solutions for those with dry wells.

The community of Okieville in Tulare County is almost entirely out of water. Residents are gathering together to plan for a water system.
Credit Ezra David Romero / Valley Public Radio

Maria Marquez lives in the tiny community of Highland Acres in Tulare County, known to locals as Okieville. This once Dust Bowl era squatterville of 89 homes housed migrants from Oklahoma. Today it’s mostly a Hispanic community.

Only one home on Marquez’s street has a working well, hoses run from that well to neighbors faucets. Marquez’s well went dried last June.

"I hold the community meetings in my home because I want a public water system. I don't want to lose my homes. I really want to solve this, because I like living here."

“The wells started making noise, the amount of water decreased and then sand started come out of the tap,” says Marquez.

Residents of the community of Okieville gather every few weeks to talk about drought relief. They'd like to see a community wide water system installed.
Credit Maria Herrera / Self-Help Enterprises

Today she has running water thanks to a pressurized tank provided through the nonprofit Self-Help Enterprises and Tulare County.

Her tank is about half full at the moment and is filled every 15 days.

But for Marquez the tank is a short term solution. She is rallying her community together to gather support for a water system – a couple of strategically placed deep wells with lines to each home. But that can take up to five years to create and is expensive. Communities like Okieville need water ASAP.

“I hold the community meetings in my home because I want a public water system,” Marquez says. “I don’t want to  lose my homes. I really want to solve this, because I like living here.”

That’s where the “Water Queen,” Denise England, comes in.

She, her team and nonprofit organizations across Tulare County are tallying the number of wells going dry and installing 15 water tanks a week  for homeowners whose wells have gone dry. At that rate it will take one year to put a patch on the problem.

"The California disaster act assistance has not been used for a drought before. You're trying to take things that make a lot of sense in flood or a fire and you're trying to apply it for drought." - Denise England

Okieville is just one Tulare County town on the brink of going entirely dry.
Credit Ezra David Romero

It’s an unprecedented time where Tulare County is telling the state what it needs to do and changes are happening speedily.

“There’s not lot of written documentation, which is nice because once we get the okay to do something we’re able to just go do it we’re not waiting on an agreement,” says England.

One of those changes has to  do with landlords. A month ago a landlord couldn’t apply for a free tank on a property he rented and did not live on. This kept renters without water.

"We're sort of blazing the trail for the rest of California and I guess the nation." - Denise England

“The struggle we’ve been having in Tulare County is that landlords didn’t want to talk to the county officials, so that’s really what held us up,” says Eric Lamoureux  is with the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services.

The community of Okieville like many others is planning a water system, but that make take years to implement.
Credit Ezra David Romero / Valley Public Radio

Now Tulare County is working on a process where a landlord  has the option to take the free tank, but has to pay for  installation fees. If the landlord can’t afford that and still wants the tank, then they can’t charge rent, because landlords must be able provide water to renters. If living conditions get really bad for renters then Tulare County will red tag homes, but only as a last resort.

But remember water tanks are still a short term solution. England wants to see communities either linked into existing water systems in cities nearby or for isolated places like Okieville to create their own water systems.

“We’re sort of blazing the trail for the rest of California and I guess the nation,” says England. 

She hopes to approach the Governor’s office this summer with a plan to streamline the process  so long term solutions for Valley communities with water issues won’t take five years or more to create.