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Drought Relief Program Doesn't Extend To Renters In Tulare County, Calif.


In California's Central Valley, some 10,000 people are living in homes with wells that have dried up. Emergency management officials think the number of people living without running water may be even higher. And as NPR's Kirk Siegler reports, getting even short-term public assistance to them is proving difficult.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: On a dusty, dirt road on the outskirts of Visalia, Calif., you'll find Jimmy Moreno's home of 10 years. It's a green, single-wide trailer. He's built a white picket fence around it. There are birdbaths and sundials. An old, worn air conditioner rattles under the shady porch. It's blazing hot. Now there are also bottles, plastic jugs and tanks full of water everywhere you look.

JIMMY MORENO: I get it from my children. My kids, they live in town, so I go over there and get all the water.

SIEGLER: Welcome to Jimmy Moreno's world.

MORENO: To take a shower, we take this, we get one gallon of this, put it in here, and we boil it.

SIEGLER: A bucket bath.

MORENO: A bucket bath. Yes, we've been doing that over a year already.

SIEGLER: His well went dry in August of last year.

MORENO: And then what we do here, we - I don't have no buckets, but we got a bucket there, and we put water here, and we flush the toilet.

SIEGLER: Thirteen months of this, hauling in jugs for the toilet, boiling water for showers and cooking.

MORENO: In the morning, this is where we - we put water in here.

SIEGLER: The county delivers enough drinking water for a few days a month. The rest is donated or what Moreno and his wife can afford to buy. Things get stressful.

MORENO: You know, because the wife, they, you know, they want to take a bath, you know. She can't take a shower or soak in the water or - you know, it's kind of stress for her.

SIEGLER: His wife works the early shift at Home Depot. At 57, Jimmy has health problems but works maintenance jobs when he can. He says they're getting by. His landlord hasn't been charging them rent since the well went dry.

MORENO: I mean, I can't be like this for, like, five, six years. And I don't want to move, you know. I don't want to move because this is a nice place. I've got my animals, and, you know, I've got my grandchildren when they come over.

SIEGLER: Moreno's story isn't some isolated case. Here in rural Tulare County, most of the well failures are in homes occupied by lower-income people - seniors, farm workers, those with few options in a crisis.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Jimmy, go stay out here.

MORENO: Oh, OK, let me get this dog and put him away.

SIEGLER: Now there is a program in Tulare County where 2,500-gallon cisterns are being delivered to homes where wells have failed. A little more than 300 have been distributed so far, but that's only a fraction of the need. It turns out you have to own the home, not rent, to be eligible. And technically, people like Jimmy Moreno shouldn't be living where they're living.

MELISSA WITHNELL: That's the issue that we're facing is that you can't rent a home without running water. It's an inhospitable environment.

SIEGLER: At the County's Office of Emergency Management, Melissa Withnell says state aid can't go to someone who lives in an uninhabitable place. So their latest plan is to try and move people into homes with running water. The new state-funded renter relocation program could help. But you get the sense they're kind of having to make things up as they go along.

WITHNELL: I think the scariest part of the drought is that it's unknown. It's an invisible, slow disaster, and we've never encountered anything like this before. So all these programs that we have running are pilot programs that we hope to continue as long as funding is available. But I think the fear is we just don't know how long we can keep going.

SIEGLER: This is something you hear a lot right now in the Central Valley. This drought is a disaster that's been slow to unfold. It's not like a wildfire or an earthquake that's the top story every day. The public's attention has drifted elsewhere. Yet, the situation for people like Jimmy Moreno is only getting worse.

MORENO: I do see the news. I do see how the tragic things happens, you know, in other countries and stuff, and they do. They help them. But you know, like, when something's in America here, it takes a little bit longer.

SIEGLER: Moreno's hoping the coming El Nino will bring some relief, and it even sprinkled the other day.

MORENO: Oh, man, I stayed outside. I was standing outside in the rain, let the rain hit me (laughter).

SIEGLER: But what could really help him out is if his place can get hooked on to the city of Visalia's municipal system. It's right nearby. A local nonprofit is helping to push for this as a long-term solution.

MORENO: All we have to do is make a trench from this wide, make a trench - it's already hooked up on Mooney's in that corner - and make a trench there. What's so hard about that, you know what I mean?

SIEGLER: There's no construction date set for that yet. So for now, his long daily routine of filling up jugs and buckets from wherever he can find water continues. Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Visalia, Calif. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kirk Siegler
As a correspondent on NPR's national desk, Kirk Siegler covers rural life, culture and politics from his base in Boise, Idaho.

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