CARUTHERS — Despite the allure of peace and quiet, life in the countryside in Kings and Fresno counties is looking less and less attractive.
The reason — drought — isn’t hard to identify. For residents living off relatively shallow private wells, not having to pay hundreds of dollars a year in city water and sewer fees seemed like a good deal. But with farming neighbors and nearby cities sucking a lot more out of bigger, deeper wells, there’s no telling how much longer water will be flowing out of rural kitchen faucets.
The race to the bottom is on.
Ted Miller, who lives on 2.5 acres near Caruthers not far from the Kings/Fresno County line, knows what’s going on. An electrical engineer by training, he figured out what happened to the water table since his 185-feet-deep well was drilled approximately 50 years ago.
He got really interested in the issue when his pump failed in 2008. Miller assumed it was because the water level dropped below it, causing the pump to burn up.
It cost him about $2,000 to get a new pump installed. He put it 147 feet below ground. The water level was 128 feet, giving him 19 feet of water above the pump.
So far, so good. But Miller wanted to make sure it didn’t happen again.
He knew that the water was 40 feet below ground in 1962. That works out to an average drop of about 2 feet per year between 1962 and 2014.
Miller has been closely monitoring water levels ever since 2008. On Jan. 24 this year, figuring it was the right time, he hired somebody to lower the pump. They didn’t hit water until 142 feet, meaning the average drop since 2008 was about 2.5 feet per year. Miller had 5 feet of water to spare.
He had the pump lowered to 155 feet — about as low as it could go without sucking up silt accumulating on the bottom.
He now had 13 feet of water above the pump.
Miller kept pondering one key fact: Because of the drought, nobody is sure how fast the water is going to go down. He said his “pessimistic” estimate going forward is an average drop of 4 feet a year.
“If the climate we’ve had recently continues … it could drop 10 feet a year,” he said. “We don’t know.”
Miller didn’t wait around to find out. He called Bradley & Sons Inc., a driller based out of Sanger. He scheduled an appointment for a new, deeper well costing approximately $15,000. The earliest available date was in November.
Thousands of other country residents are in the same boat. Miller was just the latest person to get in line.
“This is a coming tsunami,” he said.
Miller’s neighbor, Natalie Clark, has had tougher time. She lowered her pump as far as it would go last year.
She looked into a U.S. Department of Agriculture low-interest loan program, but the former correctional officer on disability retirement was above the income cap. She hunkered down, letting the landscaping die and hoping for a wet winter to boost the water level and buy her some time.
The winter precipitation ended up about half of normal. Last week, Clark’s well went dry.
Clark is filling up water bottles at another neighbor’s house. She’s using it to cook, drink and flush the toilet. The shower is unusable. She’s eating off paper plates so she won’t have to wash dishes.
To bathe, she’s going to a relative’s house in Lemoore.
She’s scheduled a driller to start work on a new well. Because it’s an emergency, it’s likely to cost extra.
“They’re telling me, maybe a month before they can come out here,” she said.
It might be a lot longer than that.
Ron Bradley, co-owner of Bradley & Sons, estimated that his company has a 21-month wait list.
Many of his customers lowered their pumps as low as they could go last year — just like Clark did. Some people are signed up with multiple companies to see who can get to them first.
“We’ve been lowering pumps for the last 4-5 years,” Bradley said. “Most of the people have a pretty good idea where they’re at.”
Bradley said some people are installing large plastic tanks to work in conjunction with their wells. That way, they’ll have some carryover capacity if and when the hole goes dry.
“I’ve seen some pretty creative things going on,” he said. “That right there, it will buy them some time.”
Miller says his relatively good situation motivates him to offer help to nearby homeowners.
“You help your neighbors out in the country, because they’re in the situation you’re in,” he said.
“I don’t really know what I’m going to do,” Clark said. “I’m just waiting.”