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When the wells run dry, California neighbors cope in drought

Farming in Tulare County brought in $8.1 billion in 2014, more than any other county in the nation, according to its agricultural commissioner. Yet 1,252 of its household wells today are dry – more than all other California counties combined.

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    In this June 30, 2015 photo, Tino Lozano looks into a bucket as the last of his available well water drips from a hose in front of his home in the community of Okieville, on the outskirts of Tulare, Calif. "There it goes. That was all," said Lozano, masking his desperation with a smile. "That's how we do it in Okieville now."
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Looking for water to flush his toilet, Tino Lozano pointed a garden hose at some buckets on the bare dirt of his yard. It's his daily ritual now, in a community built by refugees from Oklahoma's epic Dust Bowl drought. But only a trickle came out; then a drip, then nothing more.

"There it goes. That was all," said Lozano, masking his desperation with a smile. "That's how we do it in Okieville now."

Living with a dried-up well has turned one of life's simplest tasks into a major chore for Lozano, a 40-year-old disabled Army veteran and family man.

Millions of Californians are being inconvenienced in this fourth year of drought, urged to flush toilets less often, take shorter showers, and let lawns turn brown. But it's dramatically worse in places like Okieville, where wells have gone dry for many of the 100 modest homes that share narrow, cracked streets without sidewalks or streetlights in a dry corner of California's Central Valley.

Farming in Tulare County brought in $8.1 billion in 2014, more than any other county in the nation, according to its agricultural commissioner. Yet 1,252 of its household wells today are dry – more than all other California counties combined.

It's particularly alarming in Lozano's neighborhood, where at least 15 domestic wells used by 23 homes have dried up.

Some neighbors rig lines from house to house to share water from the remaining wells deep enough to hit the emptying aquifer below. Others benefit from state drought relief that pays for trucked-in water to fill 2,500-gallon tanks in their yards, and boxes of drinking water that get stacked in bedrooms and living rooms.

Lozano watches his sons kick a soccer ball in front of their rented home while waiting on his neighbors to free up the next few drops. He pays $50 a month to join five other homes sharing a makeshift water system that taps into a well a half-mile away.

These short-term fixes are akin to "Third-World-type conditions," says Andrew Lockman, who runs Tulare County's Office of Emergency Services. He calls it a long-term, hidden disaster now becoming evident in kitchen sinks and bathrooms.

"It's not an earthquake or flood where you can drive down the street and see the devastation," Lockman said.

Vacant lots are strewn with junk in Okieville. Close your eyes and you're likely to hear a rooster crow or a dog bark. There's a convenience store about a mile away, but no church or school. People here like the rural life, and proudly call it home.

For miles around, farmers grow dense fields of deep green cornstalks, to be chopped up as feed for dairy cows. Alfalfa, almond, oranges and grapes abound. Industrial agriculture is the main employer, providing jobs in surrounding farms and dairies.

"Everybody has to work," said Gilbert Arredondo, an Okieville resident who sells tires. "They need water for the cows. Without dairies we wouldn't have jobs. They produce cheese."

For 150 years, irrigation from surface canals and underground aquifers turned Tulare and other naturally semi-arid regions of California green. And despite the drought, California still produces most of America's fruits, vegetables and nuts.

But the meager Sierra Nevada snowpack no longer replenishes the rivers like it used to, and farmers are drilling ever-deeper wells to compensate for the plunge in surface water. Field workers who earn just enough to feed their families can't afford to compete, and drillers are booked for months in any case. One farm bought its own $1 million drilling rig just to ensure its supply.

Maria Marquez, a 50-year-old widow, panicked when the stream of water in her shower turned to air in June 2014. Then she got busy working on a solution, for herself and for Okieville, which is located 5 miles outside of Tulare and is formally named Highland Acres.

She sent her adult daughters to shower at the homes of friends and relatives. Her granddaughter Yaritza, now 4, went to live with her other grandmother.

Marquez couldn't afford to move, and who would buy a house without running water? Drilling her own new well would cost more than years of earnings from the food truck where she serves dairy workers.

"People who have money have working wells," Marquez said, "but those of us who don't, we're fighting."

She called a help line. As a homeowner, she was eligible to get a large water tank installed outside for washing and flushing, to be filled every Monday by a county truck, as well as bottled water for drinking and cooking. California's $3.7 billion drought relief program, which includes $38 million for drinking water and tanks, mostly pays for it all.

Her neighbors Francisco and Faviola Zuniga found another supply, running a hose from their mobile home through several other properties to a well hundreds of feet away. After horses stomped on it, they repaired the hose and buried it in the sandy soil.

Even so, the water turns scalding hot from the sun. So Francisco Zuniga, who struggles to find work delivering cattle feed, showers in the darkness, when the water runs cooler, and keeps a full bucket nearby.

"The other day, shaving, the water stopped," he said. "No pressure."

Farmworker Jose Vazquez also relies on a hose from a neighbor's well, and no longer gets enough to sustain his homegrown onions, garlic, cilantro, squash and chilies.

"Now, we have to buy everything," said Vazquez. "When I don't work, I feel sad. There's nothing to do. I'm bored because I don't have a garden."

Marquez speaks very little English and never saw herself as an activist, but she has paid half the 30-year mortgage on a house she loves. She began urging neighbors to attend meetings in her yard. Some whose wells still deliver won't come, but the numbers are growing.

"It's our home," said her daughter Judy Munoz, 26. "She doesn't want to leave it behind."

Their neighbor, Christine Dunlap, is among the few left with Dust Bowl roots. As with other "Okieville" communities in California – there's one in Stockton, another in Bakersfield – the hundreds of thousands of Midwesterners who migrated west in the 1930s were replaced by migrants from Mexico after the camps evolved into permanent communities.

The 72-year-old with curly bangs and a ponytail proudly shows off a family portrait of her father Andrew Jackson Shahan before he followed his brothers to California and found a living milking cows. "My daddy's on a bicycle when they was back in Oklahoma," she drawls.

Dunlap still lives in the white house with blue trim her father-in-law built in the 1940s, and little seems to have changed in all those years, until her 170-foot well ran dry in February.

Now two huge tanks take up her front yard, sustaining seven family members.

"With a tank like this, at least we can take showers," she said. "Lot better than what we did before, not have nothing but barrels."

Dunlap suspected trouble was coming when her neighbors' wells failed. She let her grass die after noticing sand in the water. Then, when she got up to make coffee one morning, her faucet ran dry.

Her family scrambled. A neighbor shared enough water for them to flush toilets and take "birdbaths," using a bucket and a cup, until the tanks were delivered.

"We've got used to it," Dunlap said. "I've still got my family. We can't do a lot of things we used to do. We consider ourselves lucky."

The state also pays for drinking water, but her family missed a month's supply after she made a mistake on a form, and she could hardly afford to buy her own at $3 a flat. She worked 25 years at Burger King, but has been on disability since a box of frozen French fries fell on her leg.

California became the last state in the West to regulate groundwater when Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation ending a Gold Rush-era policy last year that generally let property owners take as much as they wanted. A $7.5 billion bond measure also approved in 2014 is designed to update the state's water infrastructure, with $2.7 billion directed at storing more water in wet years.

But sustainable alternatives remain years away as local agencies devise new rules, and the groundwater supplying nearly 60 percent of the state's needs in dry years is being used up like never before, leaving the people of Okieville to take matters into their own hands.

"We have a lot of important items to talk about tonight," began Maria Herrera an organizer at Self-Help Enterprises, a nonprofit guiding Okieville to a permanent fix. She switched between English and Spanish as about 50 people, the largest crowd yet, settled into folding chairs, benches and barstools in Marquez's dirt yard.

A lawyer and a team of water engineers discussed options; consensus seemed to grow around forming a water district to apply for state and federal grants to pay for two 500-foot deep wells costing about $2 million. Monthly water bills would be about $50, providing reliable water for all, at least until the surrounding farms dig deeper.

It would take at least two years to design and built it before water flows, engineer Owen Kubit said.

"I don't think we can last this summer without no water," Arredondo said.

Others nod in frustration.

"All I can say is we're going to be doing everything we can," Herrera said.

Kubit said a wet winter – if and when one comes – could bring some relief.

"We can pray for rain," the engineer said.

Marquez does pray, kneeling alongside one of her granddaughters after the girl's nightly bath. Leaving home was traumatic for the girl. She returned once the tank was installed, but the drought still worries her.

"God, give us water so we don't have to move," the 4-year-old says, pressing her palms together. "God, please fill up our tank, so we don't run out of water."

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