Bulmario Tapia Madrigal doesn’t want to shower in a stream of dirt. He doesn’t want to cook with bottled water, haul a bucketful to flush the toilet, or wonder if he has enough water to clean the diabetes wounds on his feet. But since his well went dry three months ago, that’s how life has been.
Some relief is coming for the 70-year-old orange picker. On a dry August afternoon, he zips his motorized wheelchair up and down his driveway, anxiously watching a crew of workers. They’re nearly finished connecting his pipes to a new emergency water-storage tank in his front yard, so large it casts a shadow over Madrigal’s red-trimmed bungalow.
“Over by the bakery, there’s a lady who has lived like this for two years,” Madrigal says in Spanish. He sweeps his arm toward the street, where the dusty front yards of neighbors are also occupied by hulking water tanks. “Anyone who used a well before no longer can.”
This is not a developing nation. This is East Porterville, California, where more than 500 wells have dried up since the beginning of the state’s worst-on-record drought four years ago. It’s home to most of the 1,675 wells (and counting) that are sucking dirt in Tulare County. Tulare is one of the eight inland counties that make up the San Joaquin Valley, the richest agricultural region in the world.
Tulare County has been working with local nonprofits to provide and refill storage tanks for low-income families who’ve run out of well water. There are an estimated 1,750 households in East Porterville, and at least 35 percent of residents live in poverty. For people like Madrigal, the tanks are literally lifesavers.
But they’re also a mark of disparity. If it weren’t for those tanks, you might never know that where Madrigal lives is separate from the city of Porterville. Even though his address reads “Porterville,” he lives on unincorporated county land adjacent to municipal limits. That means he is just beyond the reach of Porterville’s formal water district, which has continued to serve its more than 16,000 customers with clean, running water without issue throughout the drought.
Dry wells are spreading beyond East Porterville. There is a pattern to the spread:Poor, unincorporated, predominantly non-white communities are the ones struggling. Caught between city and county, water issues are nothing new to these densely settled places. Many have dealt with a lack of appropriate water infrastructure—and contaminated supplies—for decades. The drought is only the newest, most visible layer in a strata of disparities.
“The land is half and half here,” Madrigal says. “Half dry, half alive.”
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