One day last month, water in the community of Teviston, about 66 miles south of Fresno, suddenly stopped flowing.
The town’s services office fielded calls from residents who said their taps ran dry, and when city leaders opened their own faucets, nothing came out. Soon, officials realized that the town’s main well had stopped working.
Crews sent a video camera below the ground to investigate what might have happened. Frank Galaviz, 77, said dirt and debris was discovered in the pumps.
“Something happened down there,” he said.
This isn’t the first time Teviston has lost water. Galaviz, who has been a member of the Teviston Community Services District on and off since 2003, said the water level below the community has been dropping for the last 14 years, and two different wells had already failed. The community’s roughly 700 residents are frustrated, even depressed, by the conditions they face when their water runs out, especially since it’s not the first time. It’s not clear what caused the failure this time, but he points to mechanical issues with the current and previous wells to say that the community is in dire need of improved water infrastructure since the wells show signs of struggling to collect much-needed water.
It took until July 16 to fix Teviston’s well — five weeks since the water stopped running. The community has been approved for funding to build a fourth well, but it could be until 2023 before it goes up.
Well failure is a catastrophe becoming more and more commonplace in communities up and down the San Joaquin Valley, who are facing critical timelines as renewed drought and intense, record-breaking heat waves create drier and hotter conditions that stress the capacity of water systems — both ground and surface — to deliver.
The California Public Policy Institute, a data research nonprofit, estimates at least 2,700 wells that provide water for households could go dry this year alone, including wells in the agricultural region of Fresno, Madera and Tulare counties, costing roughly $14 million. Statewide, 50 of the state’s 58 counties are under drought emergencies.
To cope with its current circumstance, Teviston has relied on bottled water deliveries paid for by State Water Resources Control Board contracts, while trucks haul thousands of gallons of water from as far away as Fresno to refill storage tanks that help maintain some water pressure for homes.
Galaviz said the community’s water lines are also at least 40 years old; when they break in one place, the pumps have to be shut off to fix them. Record temperatures over 100 degrees that swept through the Valley in recent weeks left residents in crowded homes to sleep through the heat, since the lower water pressure couldn’t keep the swamp coolers running. When the wells are working properly, the water is at risk of contamination.
“We’re a victim of circumstance,” Galaviz said.
Laura Ramos, programs manager at the California Water Institute at California State University in Fresno, said water shortages have the potential to affect everyone if drought persists beyond this year, but those seeing immediate impacts are primarily relying on private wells and small water systems.
She compared wells to straws trying to get water in areas of the Valley where groundwater levels have dropped due to previous droughts or high water use.
“The water is there, but your straw isn’t long enough to reach where it’s already been used,” she said.
The institute is working with other agencies to prepare community outreach to Valley residents who don’t typically get information about resources available to them during water emergencies. Ramos said her own mother’s well had gone dry and her mother had no idea there was help for her. When Ramos later asked her mother what the best way was for her to get information, her mother answered: her church bulletin.
“I had no idea that my mom’s well was going dry,” Ramos said. “We need to educate not just the people that have the immediate need but also the people that are around those people.”
It’s one of the issues California State Sen. Melissa Hurtado also sees. Hurtado, whose district spans from Fresno to Bakersfield, said she is concerned about communities that rely on ground and surface water but aren’t large enough to invest early in their water systems. She said the town of Teviston collects about $95,000 a year in water fees to residents. A new well can cost upwards of $4 million.
“The way that I see it, is that we have an outdated water system in the state of California, we haven’t been investing in water infrastructure for a long time,” Hurtado said.
Valley communities often face long wait times to get funding to improve their water systems. In 2019, California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed the Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Fund to authorize the State Water Resources Control Board to issue “grants, loans, contracts, or services to assist eligible recipients” to increase the available funds for projects.
The state also contracts with local agencies who take calls from residents when their wells run out of water.
Since 2013, the Department of Water Resources has tracked daily reports of dry or failing wells as well as those whose issues have been resolved. The majority of reports come from inland and southern California. So far this year, the department has recorded 269 cases of water shortages. The department said the shortages don’t always just mean drought, but also corroded wells, water overdraft and changing climate patterns.
Hurtado said there is an urgent need to address the long-term causes of climate change that may be contributing to existing problems in the most vulnerable communities like those in her Valley district.
“I think August is going to be a critical date, to be honest with you,” Hurtado told the NewsHour. “If we don’t prepare, if we don’t invest in innovation, if we don’t do a better job at water management, Teviston will be the story for many Californians and really for many Americans.”