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Residents Grow More Desperate Without Water In California Town


The extreme drought here in California and across much of the West can be difficult to comprehend. The geography is vast, and the repercussions of living with dwindling water supplies can overwhelm. So let's zero in on one hard-hit small town, East Porterville. It lies in the agricultural hub of California's Central Valley, a few hours north of Los Angeles.

Before the drought, residents there were struggling with poverty and immigration issues. Now about half of its 7,000 residents no longer have running water. To find out more about how the community is coping, we called up Pastor Roman Hernandez. Since last year, when wells starting going dry, his Iglesia Emmanuel Church has been a place where residents go for help. Good morning.

PASTOR ROMAN HERNANDEZ: Good morning, and thank you for having me.

MONTAGNE: You know, all of us here in California are affected by the drought, but East Porterville would seem to be everyone's worst nightmare when it comes to something like you turn on the tap and nothing comes out. Tell us some of the stories you've been hearing.

HERNANDEZ: I'll give you an example. A gentleman that I run into, he was getting water from the duck pond at the park to take home, you know, for his family. And when I told him, you know, how infected that water might have been, he goes, no, I'm boiling it. Stuff like that is going on in this area and this community.

MONTAGNE: It shows how desperate people can get.

HERNANDEZ: And it is a desperate situation. You know, I'm here at the church seven days a week, and you get to see the desperation, you know, in people's faces, even little children. I recall this little child that probably was like five or six. His family came in one day, and I opened the door of the water container, and he just screamed, you know, as loud as he could. He has water. I guess he never seen that much water, you know, in one place, but stories like that happen every day in this area.

MONTAGNE: Why has East Porterville been hit so hard? I mean, I gather it has to do with the fact that people have depended so much on wells.

HERNANDEZ: Yeah. Once you go out of city limits, most of these families live off their wells, you know? We get families here that, first, you know, they say my well is pumping out air. It's water, air, water, air. But then, all of a sudden, you know, I open the faucet, people say, and there was no water, you know, all of a sudden. So, you know, they come here for drinking water and the showers and whatever else we have available for them.

MONTAGNE: You just mentioned showers, and you're talking, I think, about the portable showers that have been brought in as part of assistance that's come to the community. Have people lined up for those showers?

HERNANDEZ: You know what? I wish I could say yes, but no, they haven't. There's a lot of people, you know, needing to use those services, but they're not.

MONTAGNE: Why are people not lining up for them?

HERNANDEZ: One reason I think is that we have a lot of illegal families in this area, and these families are very unsecure, you know? They are very afraid to show up. And somebody asked me right at the beginning if this was like a trap, you know, to catch illegal aliens in the area, and I've been telling people, you know, for the longest time, no, just come out. Use the showers. Help yourselves.

MONTAGNE: And I understand there are still a few green lawns to be seen, in that - in the neighboring town, a golf course. People who are a bit more affluent - they're still getting water, growing flowers. Is there a resentment among the people in your parish?

HERNANDEZ: You know what? Personally, yes. And I will tell you yes also from the families that are being affected by the drought. I sit here in the parking lot of the church and the golf course is just across the street. You see those sprinklers running sometimes all day long. Honestly, it hurts to see all that water, you know, I don't want to say being wasted, but in comparison, to people that need the water to flush their toilets, to wash their dishes or to shower. It hurts, you know?

MONTAGNE: Well, thank you very much for taking the time to talk with us.

HERNANDEZ: Thank you for having me.

MONTAGNE: That's Pastor Roman Hernandez speaking to us from his church, Iglesia Emmanuel Church in East Porterville, Calif. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.