Second Tulare County town goes dry as water tables plummet in drought

July 18, 2022
Jesse Vad, SJV Water
by Jesse Vad, SJV Water
Tooleville, which has longstanding water issues, sits at the base of the Sierra Nevada foothills in Tulare County. CREDIT: The Fresno Bee
Jesse Vad, SJV Water
Jesse Vad, SJV Water

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The town of Tooleville in Tulare County is once again without water. The town, which has struggled for years with dropping groundwater levels and contamination issues, saw its wells dry up over the weekend. 

On July 15, residents called nonprofit Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability reporting very low water pressure and some with no water at all, said Elvia Olea, policy advocate for Leadership Counsel. 

This is the second town in Tulare County to lose water this summer. East Orosi, about 30 miles north of Tooleville, was without water for 24 hours when one of its two wells went down July 12, according to news reports. A pump was installed and restored water to East Orosi.

Tooleville, red marker, is about a mile from larger Exeter.

Tooleville, meanwhile, is surviving on water hauled in to storage tanks. The town has two storage tanks which were installed by Visalia-based nonprofit Self-Help Enterprises. On Saturday, the community was switched over to the storage tanks which started receiving 27,000 gallons of hauled water per day after the outage.

But another problem arose over the weekend. A joint in the connection system to the storage tanks came undone. The town had to switch back to the well while the leak was repaired. Because pressure was taken off the well for a day, water levels rebounded enough to sustain people. But the well will probably not last, said Michael Claiborne, directing attorney for Leadership Counsel. 

“It’s only a matter of time before they go out again,” said Claiborne. “Water levels just are not sufficient to keep this system going.”

Tooleville sits in a sea of agriculture fields. Farmers received little to no surface water this year because of the ongoing drought, pushing them to rely heavily on pumping groundwater. That has driven Tooleville’s water levels lower, said Claiborne. Drilling new, deeper wells in Tooleville isn’t an option, he added. Test wells have shown that new wells would produce water that is unsafe to drink. 

Tooleville experienced similar problems almost exactly a year ago when its wells went dry. It’s a recurring problem and the only permanent solution is hooking the town up to the water system of the nearby city of Exeter, said Claiborne. That process, called a consolidation, was resisted by Exeter for decades. But the state has the authority to mandate consolidation and in August of 2021, it began that process for Exeter and Tooleville. That spurred Exeter into voluntary negotiations. 

“The long term solution here is consolidation,” said Olea. “In the meantime though, obviously residents are still struggling to do their everyday activities with very little water.”

Most residents in Tooleville rely on bottled water which has been provided by the state since 2014 because of groundwater contamination. But the well water is used for all other domestic purposes such as, flushing toilets, washing dishes and taking showers. The lack of domestic water is compounded by the scorching temperatures in Tooleville which are already consistently upwards of 105 degrees. Olea anticipates that Tooleville will remain on hauled water for the rest of the summer. 

But it’s not the only solution being discussed. 

Given the severe lack of water, advocates have been meeting with state and county officials to discuss other temporary solutions. 

One proposal on the table is a pipeline from Exeter to Tooleville, similar to the consolidation. But instead of connecting every household to the system, the pipeline would run to the storage tanks. It would act as a more reliable source of emergency water than hauled water. 

“I’m just really worried about the logistics of hauling water out there every day, I think that’s going to be an absolute challenge,” said Claiborne. “And so getting a connection in place that’s reliable, doesn’t require truckers to go out on a daily basis would be really, really helpful.”

Exeter is open to the idea as long as the state provides funding for the pipeline and a new well, said Claiborne. 

Tulare County staff have also proposed connecting Exeter to Tooleville via fire hydrants. Tooleville is only about a mile away from Exeter, so it is possible, said Claiborne. 

As for the long term consolidation, voluntary consolidation negotiations were extended by the state until the end of the month. So far, it sounds like Exeter city officials will probably be on board as long as the state provides funding for the connection and water system improvements in Exeter, said Claiborne. 

“If that’s where they’re at, this consolidation can get done because I do think there’s funding available,” said Claiborne. “I think that’s a reasonable agreement.”

Jesse Vad, SJV Water }

SJV Water is an independent, nonprofit news site dedicated to covering water in the San Joaquin Valley. Get inside access to SJV Water by becoming a member.

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