The town of East Porterville sits nestled between Fresno and Bakersfield, at the foothills of California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains. The rural community of about 7,300 residents lacks streetlights and proper roads. There’s no movie theater, no park, and, until very recently, there was barely running water. It has been dubbed “ground zero” of California’s drought, which has officially entered its sixth year.
Tomas Garcia, 51, is one of the many Latinx immigrants who live there. He left Mexico for the U.S. in the ’80s and has been in East Porterville since the ’90s. When the shower abruptly shut off on one his daughters in April 2014, he went to examine his well and discovered that the water had run out. And his wasn’t the only one: About 500 private wells had gone dry in East Porterville, according to the California Department of Water Resources [PDF]—not surprising given that the area had received just 56 percent of its average annual rainfall that year.
Community members did not sit by idly. They called local organizations like the Community Water Center to determine how to get water back into their homes—not a simple feat for a place like East Porterville. An unincorporated town, it does not have a city council or representative body to speak up for its residents. Tulare County is responsible for the town’s operations, but, as a 2013 report by PolicyLink found, these communities are “systematically underserved in the overall allocation of public resources and are frequently left out of local decision-making processes.”
Without a basic governance, unincorporated towns also often lack basic infrastructure like potable drinking water, sewage systems, sidewalks and public transit. Even when East Porterville had running water, Tulare County Health and Human Services ran tests and found it was contaminated with nitrates, which the CDC has linked to decreased blood pressure, headaches, vomiting and, in rare cases, death.
“[The drought has] taken a fragile system and pushed it over the edge by drying out or getting wells low enough that the dilution factor isn’t effective in solving contaminant issues,” says Chione Flegal, an author on the PolicyLink report.
While most incorporated towns have access to a water distribution system connected to a city or other entity, East Porterville residents relied solely on groundwater from private wells. Garcia recalls how stressful that first year without running water was: “Me and many others in the community had to lug it from friends’ homes or from work, asking for favors here and there…but you don’t want to leave your home.”
In the following years since the wells ran dry, Garcia and other residents had to rely on bottled water and 2,500-gallon tanks to shower, cook and clean. Government officials waited months before providing these emergency supplies—and it cost the state $570,000 a month to maintain when they finally did.
This year, the town began slowly transitioning to a new water source: the City of Porterville just three miles to the west. On August 19, the first home was connected. So far, at least 31 residences have running water again, and the city is connecting five more each week, according to the Department of Water Resources’ public information officer. The plan is to connect 500 homes before 2017 and the remaining 1,300 by 2018.
“These situations can go on for years and years,” says Erasto Teran, the water education and outreach specialist at the Community Water Center. “But this project hasn’t even taken six months because everyone has done their part.” Everyone includes the state, county, the City of Porterville and East Porterville. Discussions and negotiations began in February when East Porterville for Water Justice was born to create a formal entity to represent the community.
“It gives them a sense of legitimacy and confidence to be able to engage with their decision makers and say, ‘Hey, I’m not just here talking for myself. I’m talking for my entire community,’” says Ryan Jensen, a community water solutions coordinator at the center.
“[Residents] also want sidewalks and streetlights,” says Teran. “No one can stop them now. They’re going to continue improving their community.” Though they have not begun organizing for these projects yet—running water is still the top priority—East Porterville knows they have the skills and willpower to get it done. Initital steps have included opening communication with legislators in Sacramento.
As for Garcia, he’s prepared to knock on as many doors as he needs to move his community forward. He’s glad he didn’t leave East Porterville back when his daughters suggested it. “If we move, this place will still have problems,” Garcia says. “We’ve got to confront them.”