In one of the last houses on a gravel road that ends in a locked canal, Monica Santillan used a plastic milk jug to water her water lilies.
She carefully drained the water, which was both scarce and too contaminated to drink.
The mountain water in the 153-mile Friant-Kern Canal belonged to the producers and towns on the other side. Locally, the community’s two shallow and contaminated wells were faltering due to the drought and the tendency of producers to dig deeper wells, lowering the water table.
The entirety of Tooleville, home to first the Dust Bowl refugees (who spelled the Tule River’s name as Tooley) and then successive waves of immigrant farm laborers, is made up of two parallel roads with no side streets. Santillan keeps an old pink jacket on his fence so people who turn around don’t bump into it.
His neighbor, a man with tattoos on his face and neck, made the sharp turn as the street dogs dispersed. He shouted “Paz de Christo Señora”. She wished him the peace of Christ in return.
Santilla, recently returned from accompanying her father’s body to Oaxaca to be buried with the bones of her ancestors, was looking at the mountains. She said Tooleville is beautiful in the spring when the foothills are the color of lime. But she wished she could move to town, where they could use tap water.
The “town” is Exeter, less than a mile away. This is where many of Tooleville’s 340 residents shop and go to school. Yet for more than 20 years, the vibrant Citrus Belt community refused to connect Tooleville to its water supply system.
Engineering is simple: 0.7 mile of pipe. The human risk of not doing so is high. Water in Tooleville is contaminated with carcinogenic hexavalent chromium (chromium-6), and sometimes nitrates linked to agriculture and bacteria. Large plastic bottles of drinking water can be found outside homes in Tooleville. They come in every two weeks, paid for with emergency funding from the past state during the California drought that ended in 2016. Residents pay $ 40 a month for running water they can’t. drink, cook or even use to brush your teeth.
Among a string of water bills signed in September was one largely inspired by the Tooleville struggle. Called the “Proactive Water Solutions Bill,” SB 403 gives the state the power to mandate and fund consolidation when there is a risky water supply system.
Exeter’s refusal to help Tooleville may have given hope to the more than one million Californians who live in communities without clean, affordable drinking water, which California law says is a human right. fundamental. Most communities, like Tooleville, are found in the central agricultural valley. Their residents are often Latino farm workers and their families.
“This is a huge change,” said Michael Claiborne, managing attorney for the nonprofit Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability. “Basically, this means that small municipalities will no longer have the power to prevent other Californians from getting clean drinking water. “
Exeter is surrounded by orange groves. It has a cafe with outdoor tables and an enviable wine list, as well as a gift shop where the Halloween display includes a sign that says “Help out.” Lift people up. The town celebrates the source of its good fortune with murals of illuminated groves and vintage orange crate labels.
At the Frosty King (“Best Burgers in Town”), Kate Collins, 15, sat with friends at an outdoor table.
She described Exeter as “a bit like a coastal town. It is different from the rest of the central valley. It’s greener.
She said she felt sentimental about the lovely community of around 10,500 people as she may have to leave soon. Mask warrants are expected in high school based on COVID-19 rates in Tulare County. Her father said they would move to Montana rather than comply. She thinks that more than half of her class will be moving.
“It’s not that people here would yell at people wearing masks. It’s not like that, ”she said. “The people are really nice. It’s just that it’s a very Republican place.
In 2019, when Exeter City Council voted on extending safe drinking water to residents of Tooleville, several Exeter residents went to the microphone to say it was the good neighborly thing to do. Plus argued that it would strain city staff, state funding pledges could not be trusted, their city had its own issues to tackle, and residents of Tooleville had grown picky under the supervision of activists who helped them to organize. The board voted unanimously against the consolidation.
In July, as the most recent drought worsened and the heat mounted, one of Tooleville’s wells dried up completely for a day and continues to crackle. The main well should touch sand within a few months.
Without water pressure, people climbed onto their roofs and poured water into swampy coolers. Others couldn’t risk running out of clean water and suffocated, trying to keep their children still in dark rooms.
On August 23, the state’s Water Resources Control Board sent a letter to Exeter officials warning them that if they did not have a voluntary plan for consolidation within six months, the state would step in.
One recent day, Benjamin Cuevas, who lives across the street in Tooleville, was trying to paint his house. It was slow because the neighbors kept coming by asking him to fix things like a car window that wouldn’t open.
He was aware of the warrant. Her sister, who lives next door, is on the Tooleville Water Advisory Board. He used to go to Sacramento on trips to lobby for his community.
“It’s a waste of time,” he said, rolling his eyes. “It’s always just to talk. Exeter doesn’t want to help us.
His multigenerational home, where his teenage grandson Reuben Cuevas spends most of his time learning to use a 3D printer, is furthest from the canal, next to a main thoroughfare with trucks and cars passing by.
“Good luck getting out of here in the morning,” he said, shrugging his shoulders.
Empty plastic water bottles sat next to the front door. Across the street were citrus groves where teams had continued to pick even when the smoke from a fire in Sequoia National Park was so thick her family had locked themselves inside with towels under the door. His wife said she wanted to move further into the country and have her own well.
He told her that they would not find a buyer for their house without drinking water and that a country well would soon dry up like all the others that fall to the ground in the central valley.
So he paints the house where they are going to stay. He reminded her how much she loved the leafy foothills in the springtime.