Reporter Emmanuel Martinez produced this radio story in collaboration with KQED.
Reveal reported in early January about the water tank program in Tulare County, California. What began as an emergency response measure to the drought was becoming the norm for hundreds of families who no longer had running water.
At the crisis’ peak, Tulare County reported about 1,400 private well failures. To combat the problem, the county began installing 3,000-gallon tanks and delivering water to residents for free. Homeowners were the only ones who qualified for the program initially.
Socorro Ambriz’s well ran dry in July. She didn’t qualify for the tank program because she rented her home. So Ambriz and her family cobbled together a system to get water into her house. Her brother made two trips every week to fill barrels at a nearby water station. She would then pump water out of those barrels into a boxy plastic tank, which would feed water into her home.
After our story ran, Ambriz paused her routine. Heavy rains brought water back to her well, at least for now. But more than 800 domestic wells still are dry, according to Tulare County officials. And where the water has returned, the supply remains unpredictable.
Ambriz knows that, and so do county officials, who have advised residents to continue using their tanks because the well water could contain unsafe levels of arsenic or nitrates. Tim Lutz of the Tulare County Health and Human Services Agency said residents should test their water before using it and, until they know it’s safe, continue to use bottled water for drinking and cooking.
But no one knows how long the water will last.
Dan McManus, a geologist with the California Department of Water Resources, said the water supply could get residents through the summer, but that hinges on the amount of rainfall, structure of the wells and when farmers begin to pump groundwater. Wells that are in loose, sandy soil can recharge much faster than those in hard-packed soils, such as fractured rock.
Ambriz was the only resident we interviewed who has seen water return to her well.
Racie Jeffers’ well went dry more than a year ago. She has relied on a county-issued tank to supply water to her home since September. She considered applying for a loan to deepen her well, but she said she wouldn’t know how to pay it back. Jeffers is a retired cook who lives on Social Security benefits.
Duane Ezell’s problems started earlier: The five wells that serve his 14 rental properties ran out of water in summer 2014. He said every driller he tried to book had a backlog. When he couldn’t find a driller, most of his tenants left. He hasn’t charged the few tenants who stayed any rent in more than a year and a half because there’s no water.
The Tulare County Board of Supervisors voted to add renters to the water tank program in December.