At their Tuesday meeting, the Tulare County Supervisors approved the county's drought plan amid concerns that it falls short in helping residents where wells are already running dry. Source: Community Water Center

Why it matters:

Water advocates say Tulare County's drought and water shortage plan lacks a clear path for water system consolidations needed by rural residents already struggling with dry wells and drinking water contamination.

Aug. 1, 2023 — Tulare County Board of Supervisors

Documented by Dani Huerta

What happened: At their Tuesday meeting, the Tulare County Supervisors unanimously approved the county’s drought and water shortage risk analysis and response plan amid concerns that the plan falls short in facilitating water system consolidations for rural residents in communities where wells are already running dry.

The plan was developed to satisfy the requirements of Senate Bill 552, which aims to ensure drinking water for all residents during drought periods and water shortages.

To meet state requirements, the plan has to include consolidation of existing water systems and domestic wells, establishment of drinking water mitigation programs and creation of emergency and interim drinking water supplies when wells run out.

“We know that Tulare County is often ground zero for drought in California, with many residents losing access to water,” said Bryan Osorio of Community Water Center. “Even with the large influx of rain we received this year, wells are still going dry.”

Osorio said there are currently 228 dry wells in Tulare County and that five wells have gone dry just within the last 30 days, according to the Department of Water Resources My Dry Well tool.

On Aug. 4, California’s Groundwater Live dashboard shows 296 reported dry wells in Tulare County.

He said consolidations of water systems are one of the few sustainable, long-term solutions for residents with dry wells or contaminated drinking water, and asked that the county amend the plan to clearly identify paths to consolidation. He cited an example in West Goshen, which enabled residents to connect to the Cal Water Visalia system.

“If the county doesn’t have the capacity to do this, a timeline should be created and embedded in the plan for when this will happen,” he said.

Denise England, grants and resources manager with the Tulare County Resource Management Agency, said a consultant was hired to draft the plan, which was then vetted by the drought task force and had a public comment period, during which one comment was received from the Community Water Center.

She said some of the requests from Community Water Center went “above and beyond” the requirements of SB 552, such as augmenting local data and consolidations of water districts. She said the county is facilitating four consolidations, which involve moving water customers from one district so that they can be served by another existing district.

“I just want everyone to understand how critical this is and how really seriously we took it,” said Vice Chair Larry Micari. “We did follow SB 552 and met the requirements of that and there’s things that were suggested that were outside the scope, that we didn’t because obviously, it’s outside the scope.”

Micari said that he believes the issues expressed about consolidation reside at the state level and that the county operates as a pass through. He said that several consolidation projects have taken several years to complete and referred to one that took “eight or nine years.”

Supervisor Eddie Valero said he went through the plan and believes the county did its due diligence with outreach and that it meets the state’s requirements.

“But we also need to go above and beyond, especially with several communities, many of them in my district, that have continued for far too long suffering the inequities of no clean drinking water and obviously the mismanagement of water districts as well,” Valero said.

Daisy Gonzalez of Community Water Center, said they routinely assist families in Tulare County struggling with dry wells and that they’ve been able to help some, but not all, and there are many families going without. Community Water Center offers assistance with dry wells, water quality testing and a bottled water program.

“We are in a drought crisis and it’s only going to get worse,” she said.

Water district education needed: One thing the supervisors, advocates and residents all shared were concerns about water district management.

Rebecca Quintana, a resident of Seville, asked the county to do more to educate water district board members.

In response, Supervisor Pete Vander Poel said they host an annual Government 101 training for special district board members to become acquainted with policies and get their questions answered by attorneys and subject matter experts. The next training is tentatively scheduled for the evening of Oct. 19.

Micari said he works with many special districts and encouraged board members to attend the training.

“We all receive complaints and concerns concerning other special districts; the unfortunate side is that we have no authority over them,” he said. “We do constantly recommend the 101 training, we urge them to take it, we offer assistance to them, officer counsel and they just refuse.”

“It’s very frustrating because it is the people that suffer,” Micari said.

Up next: The Tulare County Board of Supervisors will meet again on Aug. 15.

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