Tule River tribe suffers chronic water problems, even in record wet year

September 12, 2023
Lisa McEwen, SJV Water
by Lisa McEwen, SJV Water
Residents of the Tule River Tribe reservation in eastern Tulare County get most of their water directly from the South Fork of the Tule River. A recent storm clogged the river with debris forcing a shut down of the treatment facility and cutting residents off for eight days. SCREEN GRAB of Tule River Tribe home page.
Lisa McEwen, SJV Water
Lisa McEwen, SJV Water

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Despite a record snowpack that has kept the South Fork of the Tule River flowing at a steady clip, residents of the Tule River Reservation – who get 60 percent of their supplies directly from the river – were recently without water for eight days.

The problem, ironically, was too much water. Specifically, from Hurricane Hilary.

When the late summer storm drenched dry, burn-scarred mountainsides, the runoff brought a torrent of muck with it and fouled the reservation’s intake and treatment system.

But Hilary was just the tribe’s most recent go-round with water problems from an outdated system built to serve a fraction of the homes now on the reservation.

“Our water system was designed for 60 homes, not 400 homes,” said Tribal Secretary Franklin Caribay. “There is always a need for water on the reservation. We’ve come to deal with it because we know it’s going to happen.”

With tribal budget planning in the works, Caribay asked the council at its Sept. 5 meeting to consider putting money toward a million-gallon water storage tank.

Cairbay admits that would be a “Band-Aid approach” to a perpetual problem, but he is hopeful upgrading from a 200,000-gallon tank at Manwell Springs will help the tribe serve its residents until federal funds and a permanent solution arrive. He said the spring is producing 80 gallons per minute.

“With our budgets coming up, I would like us to allocate more funding for tanks ourselves so we’re not playing the waiting game,” he said. A million gallons of water can supply the reservation for four to five days, he said. The water system serves households as well as the reservation’s entire administrative and healthcare facilities. 

The tribe’s casino, Eagle Mountain, was recently relocated next to the Porterville Municipal Airport, 17 miles away from the reservation and hasn’t been impacted by the frequent water shortages.  

South Fork Tule River flows spiked with runoff from Hurricane Hilary. USGS

Looking past the Band-Aid

In an effort to find a long-term solution, Sen. Alex Padilla (D-CA) introduced the Tule River Tribe Reserved Water Rights Settlement Act of 2023, S. 306, in February. If passed, the bill would not only confirm a 2007 settlement agreement between the tribe, the South Tule Independent Ditch Company and the Tule River Association, but it would also create a trust fund the tribe could use for water projects. 

According to a report issued Aug. 25 by the Congressional Budget Office, the trust fund would have two interest-bearing accounts: the Tule River Tribe Water Development Projects Account and the Tule River Tribe Operation, Maintenance and Replacement Account. The bill would appropriate $568 million for the accounts, with $518 million for projects and $50 million for upkeep.

If the bill is enacted early in fiscal year 2024, the report states, it would give the tribe immediate access to $20 million to complete technical studies for future infrastructure projects. 

It can’t come soon enough for reservation residents weary of finding alternative water sources.

Residents forced to make do – again

In the most recent episode, Hilary pushed dirt and debris from Pier Fire (2017) and the Windy Fire (2021) into the river. The turbid water forced the water treatment system to stop intake from the Tule River, which at its peak during the storm was flowing at 218 cubic feet per second, according to United States Geological Survey data. 

“If the river source is shut down, we can’t meet the demand,” Caribay said. 

What followed was a routine that the reservation’s 1,100 residents have become frustratingly accustomed to:  A declared water shortage and requests to limit usage. 

Residents are spread throughout the reservation, which encompasses 56,000 acres, 5,000 of which are usable. Numerous water storage tanks dot the landscape in a gravity-fed system.

Potable water was trucked in from Porterville to fill those tanks, compensating for what the treatment system was unable to deliver. 

Residents received nine gallons of water per day and a 35-pack of bottled water. That wasn’t enough for bathing, though, so some residents opted to rent hotel rooms while others showered in the reservation’s gymnasium and justice center. 

South Fork Tule River flows spiked with runoff from Hurricane Hilary. USGS

“They do what they’ve got to do to survive,” Tribal Treasurer Kenneth McDarment said. “Some just stay home and survive where they’re at.”

Water tested clear on Aug. 28 and service resumed. Tule River flows have registered less than 30 cubic feet per second for the last several weeks. 

Snowpack didn’t dampen recurring problems

Even with 2023’s historic snowpack, residents continue to deal with problems exacerbated by drought: some drinking water wells run slow, are dry or contaminated. River water can be so dirty from charred, unstable mountainside runoff, it’s not cost effective to run it through the treatment plant. 

“If we were to store enough to meet the need, we would have to have multiple million-gallon tanks,” Caribay said. “We are using all our resources to upgrade systems when we can, and adding tanks when necessary.” 

McDarment said the tribe will seek grants from a variety of agencies for the new tank.

“We will probably be seeking help from Indian Health Services to secure funding, and if that doesn’t work, we’ll budget for it out of pocket,” he said. “This is urgent because of the amount of people who do run out of water. It’s an ongoing issue for the tribe year after year.”

Caribay said, “It’s something that we’ve learned to adapt to and deal with.”

In 2022, the tribe received a $2 million grant from the Department of Water Resources’ Small Community Drought Relief Program to repair the intake system, replace the pipeline from the intake to the water treatment plant, and install a storage tank. 

McDarment lamented how nearby cities get widespread news coverage when their water supply is jeopardized.

“It’s an ongoing issue for the tribe year after year,” he said. “While others make national news, it’s a recurring deal for us.” 

Lisa McEwen, 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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