At one of the last houses on a gravel road that blinds along a locked canal, Monica Santillan watered her lilies with a plastic milk jug.
She carefully dripped water, which was both sparse and too polluted to drink.
The mountain water in the 153-kilometer Friant-Kern canal was owned by growers and towns. Locally, two shallow, dirty wells in the community have been shaken by drought and a trend for growers to dig deeper wells and lower water levels.
The whole of Tooleville, home first to refugees from the Dust Bowl (who spelled the name of the Tule River as Tooley) and then to subsequent waves of immigrant farm workers, are two parallel roads with no cross streets. Santillan keeps an old pink jacket on his railing so people who turn around won’t hit it.
Her neighbor, a man with tattoos on his face and neck, turned sharply as the street dogs scattered. He called it “Paz de Christo Señora.” In return, she wished him the peace of Christ.
Santilla, who had recently returned from monitoring her father’s body in Oaxaca to be buried with the bones of his ancestors, looked up at the mountains. She said Tooleville is beautiful in the spring when the foothills are lime colored. However, she wanted to move to a place where they could use tap water.
The “city” is Exeter, less than a mile away. There, many of Tooleville’s 340 residents shop and go to school. However, the vibrant citrus belt community has been rejecting Tooleville’s connection to its water system for more than 20 years.
Engineering is simple: 0.7 miles of pipe. The human risk of not doing so is high. Tooleville water is contaminated with carcinogenic hexavalent chromium (chromium-6) and sometimes nitrates associated with agriculture and bacteria. Large plastic bottles of drinking water stand in front of homes in Tooleville. Delivered every two weeks, they are paid for by emergency government funds taken 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 their teeth.
Among the multitude of water bills signed in September was one that was largely inspired by the Tooleville fight. SB 403, called the “Proactive Water Solutions Act,” gives the state the power to authorize and finance consolidation when there is an endangered water system.
Exeter’s refusal to help Tooleville may have given hope to more than a million Californians living in communities without clean, affordable drinking water, which is a basic human right under California law. Most communities like Tooleville are in the agricultural central valley. Their inhabitants are often Latino peasant workers and their families.
“This is a big change,” said Michael Claiborne, chief attorney for the Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability. “Basically, that means small municipalities will no longer have the power to prevent other Californians from drinking water.”
Exeter is surrounded by orange groves. It has a café with outdoor tables and an enviable wine list, as well as a gift shop, where the Halloween display features the inscription “Lend a hand. Raise people. ”The city celebrates the source of its happiness with paintings of glowing plantations and antique stickers for orange crates.
At the Frosty King restaurant (“Best Hamburgers in Town”), 15-year-old Kate Collins sat at an outdoor table with friends.
She described Exeter as “kind of like a coastal town. It’s different than in other parts of the central valley. It’s greener.”
She said she feels sentimental about the beautiful community with about 10,500 because she may have to leave soon. Masks for the mask based on COVID-19 rates in Tulare County are expected at the high school. Her father said they would rather move to Montana than act. She thinks more than half of her class will move out.
“Not that people here are yelling at people wearing masks. It’s not like that, “she said. “People are really kind. It’s just a very Republican city. “
In 2019, when Exeter City Council voted to extend drinking water to people in Tooleville, several Exeter residents went for the microphone and said it was a neighborhood thing. More argued that this would burden city staff, that the state’s funding promises could not be trusted, that their city had problems that needed to be fixed, and that Tooleville residents became demanding under the tactic of activists helping them organize. The Council voted unanimously to consolidate.
This July, as the last drought deepened and the heat rose, one of the wells in Tooleville dried up completely for a day and continued to spray. The main well is expected to hit the sand in a few months.
Without water pressure, people climbed onto their roofs and poured water into swamp refrigerators. Others could not risk running out of drinking water and overheated, trying to keep their children in darkened rooms.
On August 23, the State Water Resources Control Committee sent a letter to Exeter officials warning that the country would enter if they did not have a voluntary consolidation plan within six months.
One day, Benjamin Cuevas, who lives on another road in Tooleville, tried to paint his house. It went slowly because neighbors kept coming to him and asking him to fix things like a car window that wouldn’t turn.
He knew the term. His 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 a conversation. Exeter doesn’t want to help us. “
His multi-generational home, where his teenage grandson Reuben Cuevas spends most of his time learning to use a 3-D printer, is furthest from the canal, next to the main road past which trucks and cars fly by.
“Good luck getting out of here in the morning,” he said, shrugging.
Empty plastic water bottles lay by the front door. Across the road were citrus orchards where crews were gathering, even when the smoke from the fire in Sequoia National Park was so thick that his family locked themselves inside with towels under the door. His wife said he wanted to move further into the country and get his own good.
He told her that without drinking water they would not find a buyer for their house and that the rural well would soon dry up, just like everyone else hitting the dirt in the central valley.
So he paints the house where they will be staying. He reminded her how much she loves the green foothills of spring.