For some Cal­i­for­ni­ans, drought ef­fects linger

The Commercial Appeal - - Nation - SCOTT SMITH

HAN­FORD, Calif. - Knee-high tufts of grass dot the streets of Hard­wick, a ru­ral neigh­bor­hood with a few dozen homes hemmed in by vine­yards and wal­nut and al­mond or­chards in Cal­i­for­nia’s agri­cul­ture-rich San Joaquin Val­ley.

Nearby, the Kings River — swollen with rain­wa­ter and Sierra Nevada snowmelt — me­an­ders through fields. Wa­ter is abun­dant in the river but it may not last.

De­spite win­ter storms that have turned much of Cal­i­for­nia’s parched land­scape to vi­brant green, the drought has yet to loosen its grip on thou­sands of res­i­dents in the val­ley. Many peo­ple must still use wa­ter stored in large tanks in their yard to wash dishes and bathe.

Sci­en­tists at Stan­ford Univer­sity and NASA say ex­ces­sive pump­ing of wells dur­ing the drought has tapped out some un­der­ground sources of wa­ter that will never re­cover.

At the height of the drought, nearly 2,400 wells dried up, af­fect­ing 12,000 peo­ple, state of­fi­cials said.

The drought emer­gency re­mains in ef­fect in Kings, Fresno, Tu­lare and Tuolumne coun­ties, even af­ter one of Cal­i­for­nia’s wettest win­ters in years prompted of­fi­cials to de­clare an end to the his­toric, fiveyear dry spell in nearly all of the na­tion’s most pop­u­lous state.

David Miguel re­lies on wa­ter from a large, black emer­gency tank lo­cated just steps from the front door of his mo­bile home. A wa­ter de­liv­ery truck tops it off ev­ery few weeks.

“You can take a bath with it, do dishes — no prob­lem,” said Miguel, a 64-year-old re­tired farm hand who was raised on his fam­ily’s long-gone dairy op­er­a­tion in Hard­wick. “I wouldn’t drink it.”

Miguel and his neigh­bor sur­vive on the trucked-in wa­ter and de­liv­er­ies of bot­tled drink­ing wa­ter. They live in the last two Hard­wick homes await­ing a state grant to hook into a re­li­able wa­ter main.

Miguel doesn’t know when his home will get con­nected to the new 470-foot com­mu­nity well out­side the county fire sta­tion, but he an­tic­i­pates a $50 monthly wa­ter bill — more than it costs to run his own well.

Miguel laughed when asked what he thinks about Gov. Jerry Brown’s re­cent dec­la­ra­tion that the drought is over for most of Cal­i­for­nia. “Oh, is that so?” he joked. Keep­ing the emer­gency dec­la­ra­tion in place in a few ar­eas al­lows of­fi­cials to pro­long ef­forts to find per­ma­nent wa­ter sup­plies for des­per­ate res­i­dents.

In parts of the San Joaquin Val­ley, un­der­ground aquifers — lay­ers of earth sat­u­rated by wa­ter — col­lapsed from over-pump­ing dur­ing years of dry weather, ac­cord­ing to sci­en­tists at Stan­ford and NASA who stud­ied satel­lite im­agery to mea­sure sink­ing land.

They say lay­ers of clay soil have com­pacted, per­ma­nently re­duc­ing nat­u­ral aquifer stor­age ca­pac­ity.

Through­out the San Joaquin Val­ley, the sit­u­a­tion has left roughly 900 homes re­ly­ing on stor­age tanks for res­i­den­tial wa­ter.

Emer­gency wa­ter tanks for res­i­dents have cost the state nearly $28mil­lion since 2014, with more than half in Tu­lare County.

Calls for help have slowed sig­nif­i­cantly, said Su­san Atkins of SelfHelp En­ter­prises, a non­profit or­ga­ni­za­tion that helps res­i­dents get tanks and nav­i­gate gov­ern­ment bu­reau­cracy.

“But they’re still com­ing in,” she said about the calls.

In Hard­wick, which has no side­walks or street­lights, res­i­dents say their wells be­gan dry­ing up af­ter farm­ers on three sides of the com­mu­nity dug deep wells to ir­ri­gate their or­chards dur­ing the drought, when wa­ter from rivers and canals was scarce.

Res­i­dent Alvin Lea said his 120foot well that was drilled in the 1960s dried up, cost­ing him $17,000 for a new one that was more than 100 feet deeper.

Lea, 77, a re­tired me­chanic, keeps his swim­ming pool full for his great grand­chil­dren to play in dur­ing scorch­ing sum­mer days. He raises 200 ex­otic birds, which also need to drink, he said, tip­ping back the brim of his hat to peer at them through a wire mesh en­clo­sure.

Randy Her­man, a long-dis­tance trucker with a fam­ily, says it’s ob­vi­ous to him that his com­mu­nity is a long way from re­bound­ing from drought.

Af­ter his well ran dry, he con­nected to a large wa­ter tank be­fore fi­nally hook­ing up to the com­mu­nity well. Not all of his neigh­bors are so for­tu­nate, he said.

“You got tanks, you got wa­ter bot­tles,” Her­man said. “I don’t think the drought’s over. It’s go­ing to take a long time.”

SCOTT SMITH/AP

Boxes of bot­tled drink­ing wa­ter are stacked up this month in Hard­wick, a small com­mu­nity in the San Joaquin Val­ley where the drought has yet to loosen its grip.

SCOTT SMITH/AP

The drought is over for many Cal­i­for­ni­ans, but David Miguel in the San Joaquin Val­ley still lives on wa­ter tanks be­cause his well ran dry.

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