The race to dig deeper wells is a losing game for small rural communities.
Evelyn Rios wept in 2014 when the well went dry at her home of 46 years – the home where she and husband Joe raised five children on farm-worker wages. They cannot afford another well, so they do without. Her angst only grew as California’s five-year drought dragged on.
Finally, after one of the wettest winters on record, Gov. Jerry Brown announced in April that the drought had ended. But situation remains grim, says Rios, 80, who lives in rural Madera County in California’s San Joaquin Valley. She thought she was being hooked up to the city of Madera’s water system. Now the emergency money for such projects has dried up.
“So, the drought is over?” she asks. “What about us? What about the plans to hook up to Madera’s water? How long will we have to wait now? The drought might be over for you, but it isn’t over for me.”
Full reservoirs and swollen rivers don’t mean that much to people living in rural San Joaquin Valley, where about 1,000 people still have dry wells. Their water sits underground in the nation’s second-largest groundwater aquifer, which was mined and dramatically drawn down by farmers protecting the valley’s $40 billion-a-year agriculture industry.
Legislation passed in 2014 will help regulate groundwater pumping, but it will be at least two decades before the law is fully implemented, leaving communities vulnerable to further groundwater shortages and having to compete with big farms digging deeper wells. In addition, many of those people live in small, unincorporated communities, which often lack the resources to properly maintain community water systems.
Waiting years for safe drinking water has now become a way of life in the valley. It’s one more stress for people who live in California’s most vulnerable social and environmental conditions. They face contaminated water, dirty air, lack of healthcare and language barriers, according to a state environmental screening tool called CalEnivroScreen.
People of color in this farm country die up to 15 years sooner than people who live in more affluent areas of Fresno, according to the Central Valley Health Policy Institute at Fresno State.
Many of these rural residents will still be without reliable water this year while the rest of California debates landscape watering rules.
The state is trying not to abandon people with dry wells. Starting July 1, an additional year of free water will be delivered to massive tanks that were placed at many dwellings with dry wells, including the Rios’ home.
Which only raises more questions, say water advocates in Central California. One year won’t be enough time to fix all the problems out there. What will happen afterward? Will the state continue to buy water?