EAST PORTERVILLE, Calif. — Hundreds of domestic wells in California's drought-parched Central Valley farming region have run dry, leaving many residents to rely on donated bottles of drinking water to get by.
Girl Scouts have set up collection points while local charities are searching for money to install tanks next to homes. Officials truck in water for families in greatest need and put a large tank in front of the local firehouse for residents to fill up with water for bathing and flushing toilets.
About 290 families in East Porterville — a poor, largely Hispanic town of about 7,000 residents nestled against the Sierra Nevada foothills — have said their shallow wells are depleted. Officials say the rest of Tulare County has many more empty wells, but nobody has a precise count.
Other Central Valley counties also report pockets of homes with wells gone dry and no alternative water service.
"When you have water running in your house, everything is OK," said East Porterville resident Yolanda Serrato. "Once you don't have water, oh my goodness."
With California locked in its third year of drought and groundwater levels dropping, residents and farmers have been forced to drill deeper and deeper to find water. Lawmakers in Sacramento passed legislation to regulate groundwater pumping, which Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law this past week.
Three days later, Brown signed an executive order that provides money to buy drinking water for residents statewide whose wells have dried up, while also directing key state officials to work with counties and local agencies to find solutions for the shortages.
The State Water Resources Control Board had already allotted $500,000 to buy bottled water for East Porterville residents, said Bruce Burton of the board's Drinking Water Program.
But many East Porterville residents, like Serrato, say all they want is to get a glass of water from the kitchen sink. Her well dried up nearly two months ago, she said, making life challenging for her husband and three children.
To bathe, they each have to fill a bucket from a 300-gallon tank in the front yard, carry it inside and pour water over their heads with a cup. They've lived in their home for 21 years, she said. "It's not that easy to say, 'Let's go someplace else.' "
East Porterville sits along the Tule River, which starts high in the mountains and runs through the unincorporated town. Typically, river water permeates the sandy soil under the community, filling up wells as shallow as 30 feet deep. Not this year. Drought has caused the river to run dry, along with the wells.
Tulare County spokeswoman Denise England said East Porterville needs to get connected to the nearest water main in neighboring Porterville. That could cost more than $20 million and take up to five years, if the project didn't hit political snags, she said.
England said counting the number of dry wells is difficult because people don't come forward fearing their children will be taken away if their home lacks a safe water source, or they believe that their home would be condemned, making them homeless.
Officials have had to combat these rumors, she said, adding, "We're blindly feeling our way through this."
In the meantime, charities have stepped up. Local schools, businesses and a religious group in Cincinnati, Ohio, donated water to the community.
Elva Beltran's Porterville Area Coordinating Council has provided 46 homes with 300-gallon tanks, which are filled each week. The group has pallets of donated bottled water and stacks of blue buckets waiting to be distributed.
Beltran said every day a new family comes in seeking help. "They're hurting," she said. "We need water like we need air."
A local bank donated $50,000 to Self-Help Enterprise, so the housing nonprofit can provide more homes with water tanks.
Community development program director Paul Boyer said people have been creative, using solar bags to heat water for bathing and putting tanks in trees to increase water pressure. Boyer said it will be more difficult when it turns cold this winter.
"Families every night dream about water," Boyer said. "Every day they're thinking about how they're going to deal with water."
The well belonging to Vickie Yorba, 94, dried up in February. She now relies on a donated water tank in front of her small home that she and her late husband bought 66 years ago. A neighbor with a deeper well ran a garden hose to Yorba's home.
She is proud of how sparingly she uses water, likening it to the little used during trips she and her husband took years ago to the mountains.
"It isn't hard," she said. "Not if you know how to camp."