EAST PORTERVILLE, Calif. — Living day-to-day in a community without running water finally wore the Serrato family down.
Their shallow well went dry more than a year ago, along with the wells of nearly a thousand nearby homes. The family of five turned to a government-provided emergency tank, conserving its contents like misers. A bucket of water for bathing replaced showers. A cup of water sufficed for brushing teeth. Nightly trips to the toilet required a walk outdoors to fetch a bucket for flushing.
“It was like the end of the world,” Yolanda Serrato said.
Out of desperation, her husband switched on the well in late January following a light rain. It belched brownish water. When that cleared, the Serratos all took showers, ignoring experts’ warnings that increased levels of nitrate contamination from leaking septic tanks and farm fertilizer runoff made the little remaining groundwater unsafe.
With the nation’s gaze riveted on a different disaster in Flint, Mich., where lead-contaminated water has caused a health emergency that threatens an entire city, East Porterville’s own crisis has been overshadowed.
Seven months after The Washington Post first reported on the region’s bone-dry conditions, a return visit found only deeper despair. Despite rains along part of the southern coast and encouraging mountain snowfalls to the north, California’s Central Valley is arguably in worse shape.
The problems from the grueling drought impact thousands of people here, not just in this parched enclave of mostly Latino farmworkers but in the wider county of Tulare — the state’s hardest-hit area. And those problems are far from being solved.
The worst suffering is in East Porterville, an unincorporated community that has more than half of the county’s 2,000 failed wells. It sits against the sloping foothills of the Sierra Nevada, where the ground is harder. Digging deeper wells is almost impossible closer to the mountains, and the $10,000 and $20,000 that it would cost to drill farther from them is out of the question for people who scrape by on farm wages. Thanks to drought-shriveled fields, hundreds of them have lost jobs picking, processing and packaging vegetables and fruits.
With emergency cash from the state, county officials sought to help by distributing bottled water and supplying hulking, black water tanks that hold up to 3,000 gallons. The igloo-shaped containers dominate browning front yards, about as tall as many of the tiny ranch-style houses they serve.
But truck crews struggle to refill them on schedule once a week, and activists say families are often left dry over weekends and holidays. “It’s breaking some of the people down,” said Fred Beltran Jr., who delivered 300-gallon tanks of water to residents when wells started failing as early as July 2013.
“Their struggle is affecting the relationships between spouses and kids,” he explained. “It’s a stress and a burden on them. The kids are dirty. Feces stays in toilets. You can sense the tension. You can feel it and see it in their eyes.”
Beltran’s mother, Elva, who directs the Porterville Area Coordinating Council, is frustrated with the county’s response and the pace of progress. Residents regularly visit the council’s headquarters at an old packing warehouse to ask for water. They also ask for money to help pay bills because their jobs won’t be returning any time soon.
As she drove East Porterville’s dusty streets on a recent afternoon, Beltran’s eyes hardened. She said she has only seen public officials discussing the situation at meetings or events. The real work — knocking on doors, asking questions directly, she said — gets left to the activists.
“Why isn’t the county doing more for these people?” Beltran asked. “Where is the state?”
Bureaucratic red tape partly explains the slow response, according to Timothy Lutz, director of fiscal operations for the local Health and Human Services Agency. Tulare County, population 450,000, was not prepared for catastrophe on such a wide scale and lacked the money to deal with it, he said. So officials turned to the state for guidance and funding.
“The difficulty with something like this is that there are so many players,” Lutz said. Money flowed from California’s capital into multiple agencies led by different directors and guided by different regulations.
For example, county officials seized on the idea of drilling a deep well in Porterville, a more middle-class city next door where water remains more plentiful. The intent was to hook 150 East Porterville homes to a water main that bypasses them on its way to four schools. The well would increase the flow so that the schools wouldn’t be affected.
At least 15 plodding steps were needed to accomplish that. The county had to work with the city to find a site, then it had to design the well, request $1.2 million to build the pump, get a federal grant to help drill it and finally test the water that was produced.
Then in October, Porterville officials pulled back, saying the project threatened to deplete too much of its own water supply during the duration of the drought. At that point, the entire process broke down, Lutz said. The shiny new orange and gray well still sits dormant on a concrete block on Olive Drive.
The county is looking at alternative ways to operate it and at other options to assist residents. There are other hurdles, too. Many of the migrant farmworkers here share a deep distrust of authority. Those who are in the country illegally shrink from public officials.
At the Iglesia Emmanuel Assembly of God in Porterville, the Rev. Roman Hernandez sat at a card table, adding names to a register of people receiving free bottled water and food. Across the church parking lot were two county-issued trailers equipped with more than a dozen showers. A few were occupied, and a few had been recently used, their doors flung open as children and women exited.
“I don’t think anything’s changed,” Hernandez said. “If anything, I think we have more families affected. . . . Most are unemployed due to the drought. The unemployment only adds to the water situation.”
Still, when the housing authority started offering vouchers so renters without water could move to locations with it, only five people signed up.
“There’s this notion that the little rain we got will take care of this problem,” said Miguel Perez, who’s coordinating the voucher program. “Maybe in the spring and summer, when reality sets in, we’ll sign more people up.”
Not far from the church, as a 1,500-gallon tank casts a shadow on their small house, Serrato family members continue using water from their well during the day — despite the warnings about dangerous contamination. At night, they switch to water from the container.
“We’re alternating,” said Yolanda Serrato, a mother of three. “I turn on the well in the morning, and then at 4 or 5 o’clock I turn it off. . . . We have showers now. The toilet flushes now. We’re able to do everything.”
County officials know that other families who have managed to draw well water are taking the same risk.
“At this point, we’re not advising anyone to be drinking that water at all,” Lutz said. “It’s not safe to drink by any means.”
While the danger will probably dry up soon, other threats will replace it.
“When summertime hits and rain conditions don’t improve,” he said, “we’ll be back in the same boat.”