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Could California’s drought make residents sick?

September 3, 2016 at 3:59 PM EDT
As California's five-year drought continues, the community of East Porterville has become an epicenter for the state's water shortage. Of the 1,800 homes located in the town, nearly 500 have lost wells that provided water for bathing and washing food. Officials worry the predicament will take a toll on the health of the community’s 7,000 residents. NewsHour's Hari Sreenivasan reports.

Read the full transcript below.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Tomas Garcia lives on a strict water budget.

TOMAS GARCIA: I get about nine of these cases of water, and I’m two cases and two gallons left for the month.

HARI SREENIVASAN: It’s halfway through the month, and this is the only drinkable water source for Garcia, his wife and two daughters. They also rely on this 2,500 gallon water tank that sits in front of their home. This water is not drinkable, the family cautiously uses it for washing dishes, flushing toilets and showering.

Just over a year ago, it used to be much worse. The Garcias had no running water, because the Tule River had dried up after years of drought.

It had been the main water source for the well under their home and for many residents of East Porterville, California, a community of 7,000 people 75 miles southeast of Fresno. Of the 1,800 homes in the community, 500 have had their wells dry up completely.

TOMAS GARCIA: We were in desperate need for water, you know? And then the solutions to our problem is just to have a way to carry the water to our properties, you know? And the only way I have is my personal vehicle, my family vehicle.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Hauling water is all that Garcia did with his free time. He works as a manager at an auto body shop. And it’s what the Garcia family did instead of Saturday brunch or Sunday church.

TOMAS GARCIA: My wife dislocated her shoulder, because it was a lot of work pushing those little five gallons buckets from inside the van, handing it to me, and me dumping in those tanks you know. And the stress to come home and there’s no water on my property, my family in need, and then health problem you know, and then it was very, very difficult.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The stress hasn’t helped Garcia’s high blood pressure and diabetes. He also worried that his daughters would get teased at school because people assumed families without running water didn’t shower. David Rozell is the public health emergency preparedness manager for the county. He says an on-going drought is not a typical emergency.

DAVE ROZELL: In an earthquake or something, you can treat the injuries and they will heal over time and get better. We’re several years in and the disaster is still happening. We are not even in the recovery phase yet.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Rozell can’t definitively say what the health problems might be because there hasn’t been a lot of health data collected related to the water shortage.

DAVE ROZELL: We’re coming into new territory here. We’re not sure the full extent of what this is going to do to the community.

HARI SREENIVASAN: In order to discover those health problems, the state conducted its first survey in three of the driest communities like East Porterville. The results were released this summer.

DAVE ROZELL: We had heard anecdotal stories about the types of things that they were doing to conserve water. Whether it was reducing their hand washing, reducing their food washing, whether it was they had observed more dust or felt that there was, the community was less healthy because of the drought. But we didn’t have hard and fast information that we could use for that.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The survey found that two-third of East Porterville residents have reduced how much they: shower, wash their hands, wash their food, or flush their toilets. Rozell says these habits will lead to more gastrointestinal illnesses. Residents also reported that drier conditions and dust have worsened chronic health conditions, allergies and asthma.  Then there’s the psychological toll.

DAVE ROZELL: The drought had had some negative effects on their mental health and their peace of mind. We saw about half the households that we interviewed tell us that the drought had negatively affected their peace of mind.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Tomas Garcia knows about that.

TOMAS GARCIA: I spoke to different people just only last week. And then they mention to me, “You know what? I was thinking of suicide myself.” I said, “What?” I said. Just because the stress they goes through. The most stressful days sometimes it was when I came in around this time and then loading the water and transfer from one tank to another and sit on myself and thinking about, “What are, I’m doinG this?” you know.

MELISSA WITHNELL: We definitely feel frustrated when we see the struggle that we see the residents going through.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Melissa Withnell is with CSET, a local nonprofit running East Porterville’s Drought Resource Center. It has set up temporary showers stalls, bathrooms, and sinks in the parking lot of a local church.

MELISSA WITHNELL: People are playing outside, people are working outside. We have a farm labor community. So, you know, it becomes a major issue when you cannot get in some water and rinse yourself off.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The center also hands out stacks of bottled water, but Whitnell says this site – as well as the water tanks or stress counseling services provided by the county – are only interim solutions.

MELISSA WITHNELL: We definitely encounter, you know, mixed feelings because you’re trying to help people but there’s only such much you can do until a long-term solution is established. And so it then becomes an issue for the county and the state to step in so that this doesn’t become a public health emergency.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Felicia Marcus is the chair of the State Water Resources Control Board.

FELICIA MARCUS: Generally this is a local concern, a county concern in trying to figure it out. But I think that in the enormity of a crisis of this kind, everybody has to come together and try to figure out how to do it.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Marcus recognizes that handing out bottled water and dropping water tanks in front of homes are not permanent solutions to the drought and growing public health concerns.

FELICIA MARCUS: Has it taken longer during this drought to get it all done than I would like? Absolutely. I think all of us who have been working on it would’ve liked it to have been done instantly. But in dealing with reality, it takes working with people you have people who kept thinking, “Well, it’s gonna rain the next year. So do we really have to go through all of this?”

HARI SREENIVASAN: Marcus says progress has been slow because water agencies at both the state and local levels have never collaborated before on an unexpectedly long drought.

FELICIA MARCUS: We’ve had to invent whole new ways of doing things for the state agencies to be able to step in to use their legal authorities and our funding tools to be able to come together to create a solution for this particular community at scale that will be a longer lasting answer that will help.

HARI SREENIVASAN: After nearly three completely dry years in East Porterville, state and local water agencies pooled together resources and drew up a long-term plan: connect homes with dry wells to the water lines of a neighboring city. The first few homes turned on their taps two weeks ago. The Garcia family is scheduled to be hooked up to running water by the end of the year.

TOMAS GARCIA: Water is supposed to be for all. And then especially we live in the United States of America. This is most powerful country, and we have the resources to come up the solutions.