Drought relief hits road block in Ponderosa

The difficulty in delivering bottled water or water tanks leaves the community of Ponderosa waiting for a solution as the drought continues into a second year

PONDEROSA, CALIF. – The second major drought in the last decade is drying up wells and continues to fuel record wildfires across Tulare County. While most communities in the county are coping with drought or wildfires, the mountain community of Ponderosa is feeling the effects of both.

Unlike nearby communities in of Cedar Slope, Alpine Village and Sequoia Crest, where the SQF Fire destroyed three quarters of the structures last year, Ponderosa was relatively untouched by the wildfire thanks to the joint efforts of Cal Fire, U.S. Forest Service and Tulare County Fire Department.

“The fire came to the edge of the subdivision but was stopped, miraculously, by fire crews on the other side of the road,” Griesbach said. “We are so thankful for the fire service that saved our community.”

With most of the land surrounding the community scorched during last year’s wildfire, the community’s concerns have turned from fire to water. Tom Griesbach, general manager of the Ponderosa Community Services District (CSD), said the natural pond feeding the water system was nearly emptied by firefighting efforts to save the town. And now, entering the second year of a new drought, the small brook bringing snowmelt into Ponderosa has all but dried up. Griesbach said the Ponderosa CSD, which supports 144 connections of mostly vacation homes, may only have enough water to sustain its 30 to 40 year-round residents through October or November.

“Our most urgent need is to ensure we have water for our residents,” Griesbach said.

Some upgrades have been made to Ponderosa’s system since the last drought, including replacing miles of leaky pipe from Transite to plastic. Transite is an asbestos-cement mix widely used in the 1950s and 1960s because it was cheaper than cast iron. Griesbach said the pipes have become brittle after years of freezing winters, especially for the miles of pipe on top of or just below the surface, and under the pressure of heavy equipment for construction, repairs and firefighting. Volunteers and some contractors have replaced the lines, sometimes as little as a few yards at a time, as leaks are found.

“We have about four or five miles to go to replace the rest of the piping,” Griesbach said.

In 2012, the community services district received $300,000 for preliminary plans to replace two leaking water tanks, one uphill from the community and another at the bottom of the hill, and a $1.2 million loan from USDA’s Rural Development branch to construct the new water tanks, replace water lines, retire a smaller, asbestos-lined water tank and install a SCADA system to identify leaks and their location more quickly. Unfortunately, there were no takers when the bid was initially released and only one bid the second time around, which came in double the engineer’s estimate due to the community’s remote location. The community could only afford to replace the water tank up the hill and replace a small amount of water lines but still has to make annual payments on the loan for another decade. Not only did the project not do enough to fix the problems, it also plunged the small community into debt, hurting its options of obtaining funding to fix new problems on its own.

“We are not eligible for another loan due to our indebtedness on the first loan,” Griesbach said. “We are hopeful that all of the money being given to the county will give us a chance for help.”

Denise England, director of water resources for Tulare County, said options are limited for the community because of its remote location. Long-term repairs are made more difficult because of the extra cost associated with sending contractors two miles past the end of Highway 190. More concerning is the impending need for bottled water when the supply runs out. England said bottled water haulers delivering on the Valley floor are unwilling to make regular deliveries to Ponderosa.

“We are working on a proposal with Self-Help Enterprises to come up with a solution,” England said.

In the meantime, Griesbach said he wants to reach out to local trucking companies in the hopes of finding someone willing to make the trek up 190 and beyond on a regular basis. He said if there are any water, milk or freight haulers interested in delivering potable water or bottled water to the community they should call him at 559-656-4011.

Hallmarks

Ponderosa is just one of the communities struggling with dry wells across the county as the state enters its second year of drought. England and Andrew Lockman, manager of the TC Office of Emergency Services (OES), presented a drought response update to the Tulare County Board of Supervisors on Aug. 31.

Lockman said the county is beginning to see the hallmarks of the 2014 to 2017 historic drought that left communities with no groundwater, and forced them to take advantage of tank and bottled water programs.

“Unfortunately, we are seeing domestic well failures continue to come in,” Lockman said. “We are also seeing…[difficulties] in obtaining well servicers. In well drilling we’re seeing price increases, and the general lack of supply in both labor and materials as it pertains to rehabilitating wells.”

As of Aug. 4 of this year there have been 65 dry well reports—21 since April—57 active household tanks, and there has been no indication of a California Disaster Assistance Act (CDAA) movement in the state budget. Lockman said that the county was able to take mitigating steps during the last drought because there was confidence the county would receive reimbursement from the state out of the CDAA. Without it there is uncertainty whether the county can step in where necessary.

England stated that she had met with the state’s Department of Water Resources (DWR) in July. According to her the state had put together approximately $3 billion to help with drought relief. In addition the State Water Board authorized $10 million in “emergency drought funding,” but distributing the money does not appear to be very urgent.

“Their definition of an emergency response, and ours, is a little different,” England said. “Theirs is much slower and funneled into existing programs and not very innovative and not very responsive to what’s happening on the ground.”

England did mention that the state is making some efforts to help Tulare County communities in need of money for projects. DWR announced on Aug. 18 that they were dolling out the first $25 million out of a $200 million commitment to water systems. Among the first systems to get their state allotment was the Walker-Mangiaracina State Small Waster System near Visalia.

The Walker-Mangiaracina system’s well failed in June 2021, forcing residents to depend on a fire hose for their water supply. The community will receive $397,033 in funding to extend an existing water main from Visalia to ensure a reliable water supply, with additional homes expected to be connected as part of the project.

The Small Community Drought Relief Program assists communities that are not served by an urban water supplier with at least 3,000 connections or that provides more than 3,000 acre-feet of drinking water annually. The program is one of several drought funding programs available through the state. An additional $100 million in grant funding for urban drought relief projects and $200 million for multi-benefit drought relief projects is expected to be released this fall.

The two other projects in Tulare County are for the Woodville Public Utility District south of Farmersville and the Teviston Community Services District south of Pixley. The Woodville PUD will get $2.2 million in funding for a well pump, booster pump station and a water storage tank. The Teviston project will receive just shy of $4 million for a new well, water storage tank and a backup generator. These projects are expected to be funded in later rounds of the $200 million disbursement.

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