California’s historic drought has caused thousands of residents of the central valley to run out of water. To mitigate the problem, local officials are hauling water to residents of Porterville, whose taps have run dry. Every resident gets bottle deliveries every two weeks, and each person has a 1/2 gallon per day to drink or use for cooking. The historic drought has caused widespread problems across much of California, but the struggle remains most intense at “ground zero” for the drought in Tulare County.
Much of Tulare County depends on ample supplies of water in this mostly agricultural and rural area of central California, that sits 70 miles south of Fresno and just west of Sequoia National Forest, at the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. The 18-month severe drought has dried up wells and municipal water in this area, which encompasses a land mass the size of Connecticut. More than 5,400 people lack running water, and more than 1,000 receive bottled water to drink. Three huge tanks of non-potable water provide a way for families to shower, flush toilets, and wash dishes by hand. A local church sets up portable showers, toilets, and sinks for residents to use.
Some people have been without running water for a year. Susana De Anda, director of the non-profit Community Water Center, compares the situation to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina because “the relief came but it came kind of late.” More help is on the way in the form of massive, 2,500-gallon tanks, installed on the outside of homes for potable water that run at low pressure. As of August 2015, just 170 tanks have gone up, while 1,300 more homes still need them.
Wells near Lake Success ran dry in November 2014. One woman had to stop taking showers at a nearby lake’s campground facilities because the tap ran dry. At that point, some residents felt as though conditions were about to get worse.
Causes of the Drought
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration cites ridges of high pressure over California, over three consecutive winters, as one major cause of the long-lasting drought. This ridge in the atmosphere keeps away most precipitation, as part of the Earth’s natural air currents. Warm winters have kept the snow pack on mountain peaks to a minimum, which has reduced water runoff to feed streams and rivers in the spring. These two forces have combined to cause extremely dry conditions for more than half the state.
Most of the water wells in Tulare County were dug 25 to 50 feet down into the soil because groundwater supplies usually remain abundant throughout the year. Now, farmers with money can dig deeper wells at a cost of $10,000 to $30,000, but that kind of solution is out of reach for most residents of the county, since more than one-third of Tulare County’s residents live in poverty. Normal well depths may not return for years, and residents have begun to get into physical fights with water officials, as the situation has become desperate.
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Many people in Tulare County depend on the agriculture industry, which is literally drying up. Some people have relocated to Oregon, Georgia, Illinois, and even Mexico to find farm work. Officials fear towns may suddenly disappear off the map as a mass exodus occurs. Truth is stranger than fiction; in John Steinbeck’s literary masterpiece “The Grapes Of Wrath”, people evacuated the Oklahoma dust bowl and headed west to California for greener pastures. Now the opposite is happening.
In our global economy, water shortages effect everyone. Some easy ways to save water include turning off the tap while brushing or shaving, installing low-flow shower heads and toilets, choosing native plants for landscaping, and purchasing water-efficient appliances with the WaterSense label. Small, everyday habits can add up to a huge difference for those in need of water during times of extreme drought.