On top of all its other water woes, the tiny town of Tooleville temporarily lost water entirely Friday after one of its aging storage tanks sprang a leak.
This is just the latest in a string of water issues that have plagued the rural Tulare County community for decades.
Tooleville’s two wells have repeatedly run dry over the years, particularly during drought. Residents rely on bottled drinking water because its groundwater supply is laced with a carcinogen called Hexavalent Chromium. It’s also currently receiving hauled water for the storage tanks from nonprofit Self-Help Enterprises because one of its wells has been struggling to produce enough water.
But the leak that started gushing water on Friday happened because the water system infrastructure is aging and hasn’t been properly maintained because of a lack of resources, said Kenia Jimenez, Tulare County policy advocate for nonprofit Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability.
The Tooleville Mutual Non-Profit Water Association oversees the system but the organization doesn’t have what it needs to properly look after the infrastructure, said Jimenez.
“Because this is a small board and a small population, they just don’t have the economy to make those huge investments that other mutuals do,” said Jimenez. “A lot of these people are farm workers. They want to come home and they want to be able to shower, they want to be able to wash their hands, to cook and they won’t be able to with this water that’s shutdown.”
The tank is being patched and water was expected back online Friday evening, said Ralph Gutiérrez, water operator for Tooleville.
The problem stems from the local association board’s history fraught with mismanagement, said Gutiérrez.
In years past, a previous board poorly managed the water association’s funds, draining down a sizeable pot of savings, he said. The current board has been trying its best, Gutiérrez added. But drought hit the area hard making it difficult to build up any resources.
“This is something that could have been taken care of six, seven, eight years ago,” said Gutiérrez. “It is what it is, sometimes you’d have emergencies.”
For the past 20 years or more, residents and advocates have been seeking to consolidate with nearby Exeter, which has a larger, more reliable water system.
City officials in Exeter resisted the idea until 2021 when the state forced consolidation to start. An interim connection is underway but the full consolidation project won’t be complete for another eight years.
“I just wish things were different for the small systems,” said Andi Galdamez, community development specialist with Self-Help Enterprises. “With these little places, I just wish there were more resources and more guidance.”