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Photo courtesy of Melodye Serino

Californian columnist Lois Henry

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Lois Henry, Lompico County Water District chairwoman, wins an award for good stewardship.

In the torrent of drought news engulfing us daily, I recently saw a bit that struck a chord.

Seventeen rural water districts throughout the state will likely run out of water in the next two to four months.

Since I am a board member on a small rural water district, the item would have caught my eye no matter what.

But I also noticed one of the districts listed was the Lompico County Water District.

Why would I care about a teeny canyon community up by Santa Cruz? Because Lois Henry is the board president up there, of course. There were also four Kern County districts listed, which caught my eye, big time, but we’ll come back to that.

First, no, I’m not making it up. There’s another Lois Henry in this state who’s into water. She also doesn’t mince words and has no time for suffering fools, gladly or otherwise. I totally dig her!

And now Lompico Lois is at the epicenter of drought consequences.

“Well, we haven’t taken any water out of the creek since August, one well loses suction and we have 29 gallons a minute we’re pulling for 500 homes,” Lompico Lois said she told the state Public Health Department when someone called to ask how things were going. “So they put us on the list (of districts likely to go dry soon).”

That’s when Lompico Lois’ phone started ringing. Her hometown paper dubbed Lompico the “canary in the coal mine” for what to expect as the drought drags on. She was interviewed by multiple TV news stations and even got calls from the New York Times and Newsweek. She’s hoping to get an emergency tie-in to the San Lorenzo Valley Water District. If not, they’ll have to truck water in. Both options are costly.

“And our people already pay premium rates,” Lompico Lois said.

The best she can say about the situation is that it has definitely put Lompico on the state’s radar.

Similarly, Lake of the Woods Mutual Water Co., one of the four Kern districts listed by the state as nearly dry, has got the state’s attention.

I couldn’t reach anyone from the other three Kern districts, Camp Condor, Cypress Canyon Water System and Boulder Canyon Water Association.

I’m glad the state has taken notice but we should not have had to come this close to the cliff. California voters passed Proposition 84 back in 2006, setting aside $1.5 billion to help small districts bring up their drinking water standards by, among other things, consolidating with larger districts. Which we have been trying to do.

I say “we,” because I’m also a board member on a small rural district. (Much smaller at only 155 connections.) We’ve been trying to get state money to help us consolidate with Vaughn Mutual Water Co. for years — since 2009 to be exact.

My personal experience has been that we have long periods of zero communication from the state, then get a packet of forms to fill out reconfirming that — YES — we’re still interested in getting state money to consolidate.

We’ve been notified recently that we can access up to $1 million for Vaughn to do feasibility studies. But the actual cost of Vaughn taking us over is estimated at more than $4.5 million. The consolidation would involve my district and two other smaller districts. New wells, treatment facilities, pipes, hydrants, etc., for all of us are not cheap. The state has offered a low-interest loan, which would be its own nightmare, forcing Vaughn to become a bank/collection agency. That’s not going to work so we’ve requested a grant. Fingers crossed.

It’s the same situation, at almost the same estimated cost, in Lompico, which has been slogging through consolidation paperwork since 2010.

“The state wants to do this, they want to give the money to you, but they bury you in paperwork,” Lompico Lois said.

As for Lake of the Woods, near Frazier Park, president Bob Stowell said his district had applied for state funding to drill a new well some time ago. The money was approved about six months ago, he said.

But that was only after going dry last summer. That’s right, nearly 400 households had to rely on trucked water last summer.

“We’ve got the state helping us now,” Stowell said. “They’ve been out trying to find some more possible areas to drill a new well.”

I tried to find out how much the state has spent to help small water districts. But that was last week and, frankly, I got tired of waiting for an answer.

Oh, and here’s another wrinkle. Even after all that paperwork and waiting on the state’s glacial response to this crisis, the biggest obstacle for us small fry merging with the bigger fry will be CEQA.

Each consolidation will require an environmental review — even Lompico.

Lompico Lois brought that issue to the attention of San Jose Assemblyman Bill Monning, a Democrat. “I don’t know where that’s going,” she said.

Meanwhile, I got more forms from the state the other day demanding to know our districts’ “drought preparedness” plans.

Lompico Lois has received the same forms in the past, she said. She dutifully fills them out but wonders if anyone reads them.

Reach Lois Henry at 395-7373 or e-mail lhenry@bakersfield.com.