As Their Wells Run Dry, California Residents Blame Thirsty Farms | KUOW News and Information

As Their Wells Run Dry, California Residents Blame Thirsty Farms

Oct 19, 2014
Originally published on October 20, 2014 8:43 am

Imagine flushing the toilet and watching sand come up. That's what happened to Pam Vieira, who lives south of Modesto, Calif. Her water well has slowed to a trickle, and you can see the sand in the tank of her toilet.

"Sometimes we have brown water," Vieira says. "Sometimes we have no water."

Vieira is one of as many as 2 million rural California residents who rely on private domestic wells for drinking water.

Some of those people are among the hardest hit by the state's severe drought, as wells across the state's Central Valley farm belt start to go dry.

Vieira and her husband have lived in this tan ranch house surrounded by almond and sweet potato farms for about 40 years. Like many in this community, they're too far from town to hook into a municipal water system. Their household well has always worked fine.

But now, Vieira has to wait for the well to pull enough water to take a bath. She recycles whatever water she can to try and save her 100-year-old hydrangea.

"This is my grandmother's, and it's just burned and dying," she says. "But I think it'll make it through. What I'm concerned about is, are we going to make it through?"

The Vieiras ran an auto repair shop for many years. Now they're retired, and have nowhere near the $20,000 it would take to drill a new well.

"My husband's 75 and I'm 70," she says. "We live on a fixed income. We're not asking for a handout. We just need help."

State and federal grants are available to help small towns that rely on wells to drill new ones, but almost no public funds are set aside for private property owners with failing water wells.

"No one has thought about domestic well owners, which is a real shame because there's thousands of us," Vieira says.

Some of them are middle-class well owners like the Vieiras, but others are farmworker families.

Gladys Colunga's well went completely dry this summer. She has six children and lots of laundry to wash and teeth to brush — but no water.

The family is making do with bottled drinking water. Meanwhile, Colunga's husband's field hours have been cut because of the drought, so they're making less money.

They have to haul water from neighbors and friends in barrels in the back of their pickup, then scoop it into buckets to wash dishes. They're trying to save enough for their swamp cooler, so they can cool down the house in the lingering heat.

"That's upsetting, because just here down the road there's orchards behind us," Colunga says of the neighboring almond farmers. "The orchards are drowning in water. I understand that they need to get their crops as well, but then we're a family, we have children and we need that water. ... We have the right to have that basic thing. It's water."

Gov. Jerry Brown recently allocated state emergency funds to provide temporary drinking water to residents whose wells have gone dry. He also directed local officials to try and find solutions, like hooking into nearby towns' water systems.

But groundwater levels are dropping fast.

"We can't really use public funds to help a private well owner," says Tulare County Supervisor Steve Worthly. "I really don't see a place for the government to come in and provide the funds for everybody's well ... There's going to be thousands and thousands of wells that are going to go out."

Farm counties have issued a record number of permits to growers who want to drill wells to keep their crops watered. Worthley says farmers have that property right.

"We're not in a position to tell farmers, 'No, you can't have a permit to drill a well so you can keep your crop alive,' even though we know it has a collateral impact," he says.

California legislators recently passed rules that could eventually limit groundwater pumping, but those plans give local agencies until at least the year 2040 to meet goals for groundwater sustainability.

Meanwhile, most people with wells going dry right now are stuck. If they can't afford to drill new wells, they may be faced with trying to sell a homes that have no water.

Copyright 2017 KQED. To see more, visit KQED.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now to an environmental crisis happening in California. The three-year-long drought there has made daily life particularly difficult for residents in rural parts of the state. As many as two million of them rely on private domestic wells for their water supply. As groundwater levels fall, wells in the farm belt are going dry. Sasha Khokha of member station KQED visited California's Central Valley.

SASHA KHOKHA, BYLINE: Imagine flushing the toilet and watching sand come up. That's what happened to Pam Vieira. Her water well has slowed to a trickle, and you can see the sand in the tank of her toilet.

PAM VIEIRA: See the sand?

KHOKHA: Oh, wow.

VIEIRA: Sometimes it's full of sand.

KHOKHA: Vieira and her husband have lived in this tan ranch house surrounded by almond and sweet potato farms for about 40 years. Like many in this community south of Modesto, they're too far from town to hook into a municipal water system. Their household well had always worked fine. But now Pam Vieira has to wait for the well to pull enough water so she can take a bath. She recycles whatever she can try and save her 100-year-old hydrangea.

VIEIRA: This is my grandmother's. And it's just burned and dying, but I think it'll make it through. What I'm concerned about is are we going to make it through?

KHOKHA: The Vieira's ran an auto repair shop for many years. Now they're retired and have nowhere near the $20,000 it would take to drill a new well.

VIEIRA: My husband's 75 and I'm 70. We live on a fixed income. We're not asking for a handout. We just need help.

KHOKHA: There are some state and federal grants to help little towns that rely on wells drill new ones, but there are hardly any public funds for private property owners with failing water wells.

VIEIRA: And no one has thought about domestic well owners, which is a real shame because there's thousands of us.

KHOKHA: Some of them are middle-class well owners like the Vieira's, but others are farmworker families.

GLADYS COLUNGA: You guys, Alonzo, Luis, come here.

KHOKHA: Gladys Colunga's well went completely dry this summer. She's got six kids. That's a lot of laundry to do with no water and teeth to brush.

COLUNGA: Swish and spit.

KHOKHA: They've been making do with bottled drinking water. Meanwhile, her husband's hours have been cut in the fields because of the drought so they're making less money. They've had to haul water from neighbors and friends in barrels in the back of their pickup, then scoop it into buckets to wash dishes. They're trying to save enough for their swamp cooler so they can cool down the house in the lingering heat.

COLUNGA: And that's upsetting because just here down the road, there's orchards behind us. The orchards are drowning in water.

KHOKHA: So she's watched neighboring almond farmers water their trees while she can't turn on the tap.

COLUNGA: I understand they need to get their crops as well, but then we're a family, we have children, and we need that water. We have the right to have that basic thing - it's water.

STEVE WORTHLEY: We can't really use public funds to help a private well owner. I really don't see a place for the government to come in and provide the funds for everybody's well.

KHOKHA: Steve Worthley is a Tulare County supervisor.

WORTHLEY: Because we know that throughout the state of California, this is a statewide emergency. There's going to be thousands and thousands of wells that are going to go out.

KHOKHA: Governor Jerry Brown recently allocated some state emergency funds to provide temporary drinking water supplies to residents whose wells have gone dry. Meanwhile, ground water levels are dropping fast. Farm counties have issued a record number of permits to growers who want to drill wells to keep their crops watered. Supervisor Worthley farmers have that property right.

WORTHLEY: We're not in a position to tell farmers no, you can't have a permit to drill a well so you can keep your crop alive even though we know it has a collateral impact.

KHOKHA: California legislators recently passed new rules that could eventually limit groundwater pumping, but those plans give local agencies until at least the year 2040 to meet goals for groundwater sustainability. Meanwhile, most people with wells going dry right now are stuck. If they can't afford the thousands of dollars to drill a new well, they may be faced with trying to sell a home that has no water. For NPR News, I'm Sasha Khokha in Fresno. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.