The Guardian: 'Lost communities', thousands of wells in rural California may run dry

Years of pumping, drought and a thirsty agriculture industry have taken a heavy toll on the water supply – and new plans are leaving vulnerable residents behind

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This is story by Susie Cagle, The Guardian

Source: The Guardian. Written by: Susie Cagle.

When Carolina Garcia’s well began pumping sand and air instead of water in 2016, she didn’t know where to turn. The Garcias had been living in Tombstone Territory, a quiet four-street community in California’s San Joaquin Valley, for 10 years. In the middle of the state’s historic drought, many of the farms surrounding Tombstone Territory had installed new wells and deepened existing ones. Despite being just two miles from the Kings river, Tombstone was drying up.

Garcia, her husband and four children spent four days without water that first time.

They resolved to lower their water pump. It worked for a few months – but then, again, sand and air. When they repaired it again, they were told the new fix would only buy them a couple more years.

Sitting at her kitchen table one recent afternoon, Garcia was soft spoken as she remembered the facts of this crisis. But her large dark eyes filled with tears as she recalled the pain of sending her children to school unshowered, begging neighbors to fill jugs of water and going to the bathroom outside.

“We are still taking care not to use too much water,” Garcia said in Spanish. “We live with the fear that it’s going to happen again.”

The Garcias, like 95% of residents in California’s Central Valley, rely on groundwater for home use. But that resource is growing increasingly scarce, as prolonged drought and a drier climate, coupled with a vast and thirsty agriculture industry, have drained the valley’s underground stores. Much of the water that is left is poisoned by farm runoff and by natural toxins in the soil that have mixed with groundwater and surfaced amid extensive drilling and pumping. Today, more than a million Californians do not have clean water to drink at home.

At the height of the drought in 2014, California passed the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (Sgma), regulating groundwater for the first time in the state’s history. Sgma was meant to limit industrial use of groundwater while protecting the rights and resources of rural residents who depend on shallow wells. But as the new agencies tasked with managing the water drafted their plans, residents were largely left out. Many of the plans meant to protect groundwater would actually cause residential wells to go dry as the water table continues to drop until Sgma’s 2040 sustainability deadline.

“They’re making a decision to let farmers keep pumping at the expense of thousands of families’ wells going dry, which this whole process was supposed to prevent,” said Amanda Monaco, water policy coordinator at the not-for-profit Leadership Counsel.

With Sgma not shaping up to be the groundwater fix many clean water advocates had hoped it would be, other projects and state funding appear poised to fill some of the gaps. But the approach is still largely reactive: disadvantaged communities are left to suffer first before help comes.

“The urgency might not be there for folks in the city,” said Monaco. “But every single morning, folks in Tombstone Territory wake up fearing they’re going to have to spend another four months without water.”

Two million residents depend on private wells

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Jovita Torres, right, who has lived in the house she rents in Tombstone Territory for 30 years, in her garden with her three-year-old granddaughter Alessandra. Photograph: Talia Herman/The Guardian

As many as 2 million rural California residents rely on private domestic well water to drink, cook, bathe and flush toilets. Those wells are an artifact of a time long gone, when groundwater was plentiful and clean, and having one’s own access to it meant being self-sufficient.

When Ray Cano’s grandparents built the third house in Tombstone Territory, they looked forward to the day when it would become a part of the nearby town of Sanger. Until then, the house would rely on its own pump to deliver groundwater to the sinks, showers and hoses on the property.

Tombstone grew, but Sanger didn’t extend its borders, or its municipal water system. Cano, 48, inherited the home and its well and moved in in 1988. At first, being disconnected was fine. “The water used to have almost like a sweet taste. It just tasted good,” he said.

In the years since, he watched neighboring farms switch from grape vineyards to growing almonds and install newer, deeper groundwater pumps. After his well first failed in the spring of 2015, he paid to have it lowered from 60ft to 105ft. Now it’s sputtering again, pumping air between bursts of water that Cano filters three times before each use.

According to the clean water advocacy not-for-profit Community Water Center, nearly 12,000 Californians ran out of water during the 2011-2017 drought. And because individual wells are private property, residents were ineligible for most government aid programs that would have helped repair them.

Those who could afford to, like Cano, installed new pumps, dropped their wells or dug whole new ones, at a cost of upwards of $20,000. Landlords, in many cases, passed their costs on to renters. Residents who couldn’t afford new wells began to rely on bottled water deliveries arranged and paid for by local aid groups. Years later, many in Tombstone are still surviving on those deliveries.

A threat to 8,000 wells

Illustration: Susie Cagle/The Guardian
Illustration: Susie Cagle/The Guardian

When it passed in 2014, Sgma was supposed to protect the rights of domestic well users to access their fair share of California’s groundwater. The law ordered the establishment of management agencies that would oversee the health of the Central Valley’s already overdrafted underground resources. The agencies were to monitor the area’s water table, plan for groundwater recharging, institute pumping restrictions for agricultural users – and protect rural residents.

But in over five years of planning since, groundwater sustainability agencies established under the law did not commission analyses of how management strategies might affect those residents, to compare well depths with projected groundwater depths as pumping continues. According to engineering analyses of well data and sustainability plans commissioned by Leadership Counsel, Community Water Center and Self Help, another local advocacy group, and submitted to groundwater sustainability agencies, upwards of 8,000 wells would go dry if the San Joaquin valley’s current plans were approved. In essence, the law that was supposed to protect well users could codify their wells going dry.

Many agencies still lack accurate data on the most vulnerable groundwater users. The Central Kings management plan, which oversees Tombstone Territory and its surroundings, states that new domestic wells are close to 350ft deep. According to state data, the average domestic well nearby is actually shy of 190 feet. Some of the pumps in Tombstone Territory are still set at just 60ft.

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Bottled water on a front porch in Tombstone Territory, an unincorporated working-class area. Photograph: Talia Herman/The Guardian

In response to advocate concerns, the East Kaweah agency in eastern Tulare county replied that Sgma “does not require [agencies] to prevent any wells from going dry”. Leadership Counsel and other advocates contend these disproportionate impacts on disadvantaged communities are a violation of well users’ civil rights.

“Many [agencies] have told us they wouldn’t actually let it get down that low. But the fact that they’re doing the bare minimum at this point means they’re probably not going to aspire to more,” said Monaco.

Fears of contamination

Angel Hernandez calls places like Tombstone Territory “lost communities, hidden communities, forgotten communities” left behind without the lifeline of water. Even when those communities can drill deep enough, the water may be too toxic to drink.

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Illustration: Susie Cagle/The Guardian

Hernandez, 46, and his neighbor Isabel Solorio sit on a rural community advisory committee for the groundwater sustainability agency that oversees their community of Lanare, south-west of Fresno. Lanare is home to roughly 550 people who lived for more than a decade with water tainted by dangerous levels of the heavy metal arsenic, which has been tied to cancer, cardiovascular disease and cognitive development problems in children. That arsenic is natural in the clays deep underground, where it has seeped into lower levels of the water table that may have been in the aquifer for tens of thousands of years.

“The arsenic is getting out of the ground and into people’s water supplies because of the pumping – which is precisely what Sgma is supposed to be regulating,” said Ryan Jensen at Community Water Center. “Almost across the board, [agencies] do not see water quality as being their responsibility.”

Rural residents across the Central Valley are plagued with a host of water-borne toxins. Aside from arsenic, water across the valley is also tainted with nitrates from fertilizer and animal waste associated with a variety of adverse health impacts; 123 TCP, an ingredient in pesticides which has been linked to cancer; hexachromium six, an industrial chemical linked to cancer and other health problems; and uranium, which like arsenic is leeching into groundwater more extensively because of increased pumping.

Sgma tasks agencies with protecting not just the quantity of water in their underground basins but its quality – but that’s been open to agency interpretation. Failure will be if contaminant levels rise by 15% or more from current levels. “Hopefully Sgma isn’t going to make it worse, but clearly you can see the priorities in the way these plans were written,” said Jensen.

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The Lanare community center and defunct water treatment plant. Photograph: Talia Herman/The Guardian

Solorio, 53, lives across the street from the Lanare community center and defunct water treatment plant, now also the site of two new deep wells established with $3.8m in state funding. Last year, those wells began pumping clean water through pipes and into homes across long-plagued Lanare – the clean water that Solorio, Hernandez and others fought for for years.

But in Sgma, they are less hopeful. Their local agency has planned for a recharge basin to benefit three disadvantaged residential communities in the area. But, like in other parts of the valley, the agency’s plans will threaten shallow wells. Solorio feels it’s not enough. Her friend at the end of the block, she says, already has a well running dry.

“The priority of this new Sgma law is to protect communities too,” said Solorio. “But this board doesn’t want to talk about that. Their purpose is so different.”

‘We need long-term solutions’

Sgma’s passage in 2014 may have been inspired by rural communities running dry across the Central Valley, but it won’t be the answer for beleaguered residents who have lived without clean water for years.

“Sgma is incredibly important. The situation was out of control,” said Jessi Snyder, community development specialist at nonprofit advocacy organization Self Help. “But there’s going to be this really challenging period between now, when the plans are finalized, and 20 years from now, when we have to achieve sustainability.”

“A lot of damage can be done in that amount of time,” said water activist Lucy Hernandez.

While sustainability agencies haven’t planned to mitigate the impacts of lowered water tables over the next two decades, the passage of a new Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Fund could bridge some of the gap. Hernandez and other water activists fought for the fund for years before it was finally signed into law in July 2019. “There’s been a lot of progress, but we need long term solutions,” said Hernandez, 51. “Delivering water bottles is not a long term solution.

The $1.4bn fund will provide support for much-needed small community system infrastructure and treatment devices, as well as consolidation projects with nearby municipal systems. And for the first time, money will be widely available to help distressed private well owners. The California governor, Gavin Newsom, has made clean drinking water a signature issue of his administration and traveled to tiny Tombstone Territory to sign the bill.

Both Snyder and Hernandez sit on the fund’s advisory committee. Both are cautiously optimistic about what it can actually accomplish in the face of such entrenched problems.

“I want to make sure we get the funding and resources here in our Central Valley, because our people are on the front lines,” said Hernandez.

“We are all very happy to have 10 years of really robust funding, but it’s not like we’re going to wake up 10 years from now and it’ll be done,” said Snyder. “It’s going to continue to be a challenge. It’s really daunting.”

Consolidating water systems

Instead of drilling deeper wells and treating the contaminated water pumped into residents’ homes, more small communities across the Central Valley are hoping to connect to larger nearby municipal systems and take advantage of water economies of scale.

Maria Olivera’s purple house sits on a quiet street in eastern Tulare county, past miles of winter-ripened citrus, fat and falling off lush, well-irrigated green trees. The water here in unincorporated Tooleville is good enough for the potted plants that crowd her front porch, but it isn’t safe to drink.

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Maria Olivera in her back yard in Tooleville, which has two community wells but only one in operation. Photograph: Talia Herman/The Guardian

“Hexachromium six, and nitrate,” said Olivera, 66, who has lived in Tooleville since 1974 and holds a seat on the community water board. Tooleville has two community wells, but only one is in operation. “And in the summer there’s no pressure. But it hasn’t run out completely yet.”

“It’ll spit and sputter, though,” said her neighbor and fellow board member Benjamin Cuevas, who bought his home in Tooleville less than two years ago without any knowledge of the water quality issues.

Olivera and Cuevas, 61, are volunteer utility district managers, collecting monthly bill payments from their 70 neighboring properties in order to keep the tainted water on. They receive some clean bottled water – five five-gallon jugs every two weeks – from the county.

“That’s included with the flat $40 a month we pay for the water we can’t drink,” said Cuevas, smirking.

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Illustration: Susie Cagle/The Guardian

Tooleville is hoping to connect to the nearby town of Exeter, using grants and interest-free loans from the state. But consolidation is still a daunting challenge. “We’ve been working on trying to consolidate Tooleville with Exeter for 15 years,” said Snyder.

They thought the deal was finally all but done last summer, but it fell apart at an explosive city council meeting, where the mayor said Exeter “can’t afford to take on Tooleville”. In Exeter, less than a mile up the road, Tooleville is perceived as the ungoverned and undeserving wilds. The crisis has not bred magnanimity. Scarcity has bred contention across the valley.

This was once also the case in Porterville and East Porterville, just 18 miles south of Tooleville. East Porterville is widely regarded as the poster child for devastating point well failure – and a consolidation success story. In the dry heights of the drought, upwards of 500 shallow domestic wells in the unincorporated, low-income community failed before the city of Porterville finally extended its system to its neighbors in 2016.

“It was a messy thing. We built the plane in the air,” said Snyder, who worked on installing meters for the new water customers. “But the city of Porterville stepped up, despite it not having been their idea.”

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Dogs in a yard in Tooleville. Photograph: Talia Herman/The Guardian

Each home that received a water connection had to abandon or destroy its well and sign a document agreeing that Porterville could annex the property into its city limits in the future. In 2016, 756 properties signed up for city water – and 341 declined.

For rural residents who don’t live within a mile or so of a community water system, consolidation is not an option at all. And even for those who do, it’s not necessarily an attractive one. Low-income residents are faced with potentially larger water bills, and with city control come city codes and regulations. But there may be no other choice, as groundwater levels continue to drop and more wells go dry.

“I don’t want anyone to find there’s no value in their home or find it condemned,” said Monte Reyes, a Porterville city councilmember and an Eastern Tule groundwater sustainability agency board member. But ultimately, he thinks they won’t be forgotten communities. The board on which Reyes sits is a rare groundwater agency with municipal, not just agricultural, representation. He sees the system working, and attitudes shifting – at least in his little corner of the Valley.

“We can’t just say stop, and wait and see. Everybody loses if we do that,” said Reyes. “Transparency and the measurement of every drop is coming.”

But it is, to be sure, not here yet.

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