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As Wells Dry Up, Calif. County Aims To Streamline Solutions For Water


Here in California, the entire state is feeling the effects of drought - perhaps no place more than Tulare County, which lies largely in the parched Central Valley. Many people there depend on water wells in their own yards, and this one county is home to well over half of the residential wells that have gone dry in the entire state. Valley Public Radio's Ezra David Romero reports.

MARIA MARQUEZ: Maria. (Speaking Spanish).

EZRA DAVID ROMERO, BYLINE: Maria Marquez lives in the tiny Tulare County community of Highland Acres, or what locals call Okieville. During the Dust Bowl, migrants from Oklahoma settled here. Today, the community of 90 homes is mostly Hispanic and is surrounded by wheat fields and dairy cows. Life in Okieville is becoming increasingly difficult as household wells go dry and more and more groundwater is used for agriculture.

MARQUEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

ROMERO: She says the well started making noise. The amount of water decreased, and then sand started coming out of the tap. Marquez's well failed last June, and only one homeowner street has a working well. Today, she has running water, thanks to a pressurized tank provided by disaster relief funneled in through the County of Tulare. But for Marquez, the tank is a short-term solution. She wants a water system for her community - a couple of strategically placed deep wells with lines to each home. That can take up to five years to create and is expensive. But places like Okieville need water ASAP. That's where Tulare's water queen comes in.

DENISE ENGLAND: Can you imagine getting up in the morning and turning on your faucet and not having any water, not being able to flush the toilet?

ROMERO: Denise England got the nickname Water Queen from her colleagues. She's in charge of finding long-term solutions for communities in Tulare County by connecting state and federal funds to communities with water issues.

ENGLAND: We're sort of blazing the trail for the rest of California and, I guess, the rest of the nation.

ROMERO: 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 and now more than a thousand.

ENGLAND: And so those folks have the most urgent need because they're not part of a water system. And so if they have a dry well, that means they have a dry house.

ROMERO: Aid for tragedies like earthquakes in the state comes from the California Disaster Assistance Act, but hasn't been used for a drought before, until now.

ENGLAND: You're trying to take things that make a lot of sense in a flood or a lot of sense in a fire, and then you're trying to apply it to drought.

ROMERO: As an immediate solution, England and her team are installing 15 water tanks a week for homeowners whose wells have failed. At that rate, it'll take one year to put a patch on the problem. Eric Lamoureaux works closely with England to get these tanks to the right people. He's with the Governor's Office of Emergency Services.

ERIC LAMOUREAUX: The struggle we've been having in Tulare County is that landlords didn't want to talk to county officials.

ROMERO: That struggle kept renters without water. But 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. But remember - water tanks are still a short-term solution. In Okieville, Maria Marquez relies on her water tank for daily chores. She recognizes that the tank system, in the long run, is unsustainable, so she's organizing her neighbors.

MARQUEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

ROMERO: She says, "I hold the community meetings in my home because I want a public water system. I don't want to lose my home. I really want to solve this because I like living here." As Marquez strategizes in Okieville, Tulare County hopes to approach the governor's office this summer with a plan to streamline the process so long-term water solutions for California's driest communities won't five years or longer to create. For NPR News, I'm Ezra David Romero in Fresno.

MONTAGNE: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ezra Romero