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After years without water, taps are turned on in East Porterville

After years without water, taps are turned on in East Porterville
Guillermina Avila Ramirez and her husband, Leonicio Ramirez, enjoy cool water shortly after it was running for the first time in three years. (Tomas Ovalle)

Tania Ramirez stepped into her family's front yard Friday morning, leaned down toward a pipe protruding from the garden, and twisted a spigot.

For the first time in three years, water came pouring out.

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"We're so happy," said Ramirez, 20.

Finally, she said, life "seems a little bit more normal."

In California, clean water has been formally recognized as a human right. But five years of punishing drought have stripped some of the state's most vulnerable residents of that basic necessity.

Perhaps no place has suffered more than East Porterville, the unincorporated area of Tulare County that the Ramirez family calls home.

Hundreds of wells have gone dry in East Porterville, forcing the people who live there to flush toilets with buckets of dirty water, go without showers and watch their landscapes decay. The extent of their misery has attracted worldwide media attention.

Meanwhile, officials have struggled to wade through local politics and state bureaucracy to get the suffering residents a sustainable supply of water. A $1.2-million well remains untapped months after construction was completed.

But on Friday, water from the nearby city of Porterville flowed to an East Porterville home, the first of what officials say will be as many as 1,800 residences there to benefit from a new municipal water system.

Though many California communities still suffer from acute water shortages and poor water quality, East Porterville has been the "poster child" of this difficult drought, said Bill Croyle, a deputy director with the Department of Water Resources.

"I had chills when they turned the water on," Croyle said. "Just seeing the smiles on [the Ramirezes']  faces. … They should never have to worry about this ever again."

The Ramirez home is one of about 70 situated near existing water lines in East Porterville. Officials plan to hook up the rest of those homes within the next several weeks. They want to connect 500 homes by the end of this year and the final 1,300 in 2017.

To get hooked up for free, East Porterville residents must agree to annex their property to the city of Porterville, which will run the system and bill residents for the water.

Many residents of East Porterville have been without running water over the past two years.

For months, East Porterville residents have been relying on state-sponsored deliveries of bottled water as well as massive green tanks filled with non-potable water that have sat in frontyards.

When residents get connected to the water system, their water deliveries will end, the tanks will be removed and their wells will be capped, state officials said.

But significant challenges remain.

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Some residents who have poured money into drilling deeper wells are reluctant to cap them. Others are worried about what will happen if their more rural slice of town gets too deeply intertwined with the neighboring city. A few longtime locals simply don't trust government and remain deeply skeptical about any offer of help.

But government officials say they cannot continue to shell out $650,000 a month to deliver emergency water. They have struggled to get word about the new plan out to the community.  About 75% of residents are Latino, and more than a third fall below the poverty line.

The officials acknowledge that getting all the affected residents to sign annexation agreements could prove difficult.

"We're going to build this system," Croyle said. "If they chose not to hook up, at some point, the tank needs to be pulled out of the yard."

For the Ramirez family, things are moving quickly. Speaking by phone Friday, Tania Ramirez said her family's green tank could disappear as soon as that afternoon, now that the water is back.

Their story is emblematic of so many in East Porterville.

The family has lived in its modest orange house on East River Avenue for more than a decade. Guillermina Avila, 55, and her husband, Leonicio Ramirez, 62, work on farms picking grapes and have been without water since their well went dry three years ago.

Leonicio would drive a van to Terra Bella twice a week and fill tanks with non-potable water. Once home, he transferred that water to buckets.

Then life revolved around those buckets: The family took sponge baths and washed dishes with water from them. They also used water from the buckets to tend the few plants that hadn't yet died.

"It was kind of scary," Tania said, "to know there was no water."

So when utility workers arrived Thursday and began tearing up the road to install a water line, Tania said, her family felt relief.

Perhaps that's why, after holding up a pitcher of water for the camera on Friday, Leonicio happily dumped the water on his head.

He ran his fingers through his wet hair, and grinned.

Twitter: @ByMattStevens

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