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Porterville Water Challenge

Jun 25, 2015 09:47AM ● Published by Brandi Barnett

Hope in a Bottle

July 2015
By Jordan Venema
Photo: Tamara Orth

The drought has officially captured people’s attention, and Gov. Jerry Brown has ordered a 25 percent reduction in water usage. A quick online search will produce photos with post-apocalyptic images, hard to ignore: California’s famously fertile soil gaping and cracking, its lakes reduced to puddles, draining into dust.
   
There’s no denying that right here, right now, California is in the midst of an historic drought – the worst on record since people started keeping records back in 1895.
   
The numbers don’t lie, and a picture is worth a thousand words, but until the drought takes an actual face, will the statistics mean a thing? Until the drought hits close to home, will it remain a distant thought? As a conversation point, the drought has long been on the tip of our tongues, but until our throats go dry, will we even care?
  
That’s a question many Porterville residents have been forced to ask. That, and what happens when the wells really do run dry?
   
Think about that last drip of clear water before the sputter, before the faucet coughs. Try to imagine:
   
“You wake up in the morning and make your coffee, brush your teeth, take a shower. Life’s good. You go to work, but when you come home you turn on the tap to get a glass of water, and nothing comes out. So you go to your shower, but nothing comes out. So you call the city … and they say, ‘I’m sorry, we’ve been flooded with calls, there’s nothing we can do. There’s no water left.’ So now what? It’s 115 degrees outside, you can’t take a shower, you can’t get water, you can’t cook dinner because there’s no water to boil your spaghetti. You can’t even brush your teeth. Well, maybe it will come on tomorrow. But it doesn’t – six months, eight months, a year, two years—”
   
—and still, no water.
  
 This isn’t a scene from “Mad Max”; according to Scott Bowler, it’s the reality facing thousands of Porterville residents.
   
“That’s what we’re facing,” he says. “Some of these people have been going without water for two years.” And like most people, Bowler didn’t have a clue. “I didn’t even realize how bad it really was,” he says, until he saw it firsthand.
    
“I have a friend who lives on the east side of town and he’s been without water for two years… He’s tapped into his mom’s well, and a lot of people will do that, they’ll split water. But a lot of the time that causes arguments and fights in the long run.”
   
For those who’ve never gone without, it might be difficult to imagine an argument over water, the most abundant resource on earth.
   
“What we take for granted is unbelievable,” says Bowler. “Kids are going to school dirty because they can’t do laundry (and) people are carrying five-gallon buckets of water into their home just to flush a toilet.”
  
The picture he paints might be hard to believe, but maybe not for long. “It’s not just the east side of town anymore,” Bowler says. “It’s north, it’s south, it’s west. Parts of Visalia are going dry. Terra Bella is going dry. This is going to be a huge deal by July,” Bowler says.
   
But why now, and why Porterville? Because, says Bowler, east Porterville’s water isn’t supplied by the city; it comes from another source.
   
“They have very, very shallow wells, like 80 feet. And since we have a lack of rain and snowpack,” explains Bowler, “no water is soaking back into the ground.”
   
According to Bowler, Lake Success and Tule River supply Porterville’s watershed, but “if the water isn’t running through the river, people aren’t getting groundwater.” And now more than 2,000 people in Porterville are without access to water.
   
Bowler knows a few things about wells since he drills them for a living. But his personal interest in the drought goes beyond his profession, and was inspired by a recent social media phenomenon.

“Last summer, everybody was doing this water challenge, dumping buckets of ice cold water on themselves,” says Bowler, referring to the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. “To be honest with you, I didn’t really have a problem with the challenge. Not everybody’s in a drought. But we are.”
   
In response, Bowler decided to start his own challenge through social media. “Why don’t we get people to donate two gallons of water and then challenge somebody else to donate?” he asked.
   
The water challenge soon turned into a local water drive. “We put it on Facebook, put flyers around town and started accepting donations of water from people in the community,” says Bowler. “Then we would take it over to the Porterville Area Coordinating Council,” a local non-profit that operates on a yearly budget of $50,000 with a staff of volunteers.
   
The first water drive was successful. “We had close to 1,000 cases of water, 800 gallons of water, and people donated over $600 in cash,” he says. The water was distributed to families living in drought-affected areas, but when the average California household uses approximately 300 gallons a day, how far could the water go?
   
As the drought grows worse, Porterville continues to find itself in the national, even international spotlight. Fortunately, that has meant more aid to Porterville residents.
   
It has received donations from Matthew 25 Ministries, an international organization providing relief to earthquake-stricken Nepal. More locally, water has been donated by the Nuestro Pride, Street Symphony and Sinister Motorcycle car and bike clubs.
   
Bowler adds another group to the list: “Stacklife Hydraulics of Modesto. Those guys saw what was going on, and came down with a pickup truck literally full above the brim with one-gallon jugs.”
   
“For a low-rider crew that maybe has a bad rep because they have low-riders or listen to a certain type of music, for a group of guys from Modesto to make a three-hour trip and come down here and donate water,” Bowler trails off. “These guys even went to eastside and started meeting people and handing out water personally. How do you thank somebody for that?”
   
According to Bowler, social media has led to other contacts, with people “well and beyond California.”
   
“Last year, I had a church in Ohio purchase a truckload of water from Walmart, and in the last three months, I’ve been contacted by a fourth-grade teacher in Oregon, and her kids want to donate money to the people of Porterville. A fourth-grade class,” Bowler says in disbelief.
   
That, anyway, is the silver lining: the kindness of neighbors and strangers, coming together to water this dry patch in our own backyard. But even if one’s own taps haven’t yet gone dry, Bowler says, “Be water conscious. Realize that it will run out one day.” In the meantime, he plans to do his part, drilling wells, planning more water drives. He just hopes it will be enough.


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