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Tapped out: Community hopes water woes will end soon

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"It's just a mess," Vonda Johnston said with a sigh, summing up her Lamont area neighborhood's ongoing struggle for regular access to running water -- a struggle residents hope will finally be resolved soon.

Last Friday, the tiny community's last remaining well literally ran dry, forcing neighborhood residents to bathe at truck stops, leave the dishes undone and flush toilets by dumping buckets of water into their tanks.

Wednesday, county agencies stepped in at the request of Kern County Supervisor Karen Goh to provide an emergency supply of potable water to about 65 affected families near Lamont who are served by the small, private Athal Mutual Water Co.

For at least the next three days, the Kern County Fire Department will man a 2,000-gallon tank at a vacant lot near Tamarack Street and East Fairview Road where water-less residents can fill up barrels and jugs with water to take home.

"We got out here as quickly as we could make arrangements," Goh said Wednesday afternoon, pausing as she went door-to-door with staff members, inviting families to fill up at the tank. "Now we're working on the longer term."

But even as the county -- which has limited jurisdiction over private water suppliers -- lends a hand, Athal is a case study in the challenges facing small, mutual water companies, which often serve outlying communities far from the infrastructure and power of a public utility.

"There's a lot of places like this around the county," said Dave Warner of Self-Help Enterprises, which helps low-income families throughout the valley find safe, sanitary housing. "I thought 10 or 15 years ago we'd be done (helping) all of them, but I was wrong."

Athal Mutual Water Co. has been plagued for years by two decaying wells constructed in the 1970s and a constant financial struggle to fix them.

Warner has worked with Athal's board of directors and managers to navigate the complex application processes for state and federal funding.

In September 2009, Athal's major well "went out" Warner said, forcing the company to draw solely from its back-up well.

"They were sort of out of luck getting state money for a new well because they had that second one," Warner said, and it wasn't contaminated.

Then, in September 2011, the remaining well's pump broke, leaving residents without water for a few days before a state emergency grant funded repairs on the pump -- although much of the aging system needs upgrading.

Friday, the second well reached its limit, meaning that the mostly low-income residents of the neighborhood will likely be left high and dry until a state emergency grant comes through for an approximately $180,000 new well.

Wednesday night, the state approved an emergency grant of up to $200,000, Warner wrote in an email Thursday morning. He said he hopes basic proposals and documents to move forward will be ready by Friday.

The county will stop supplying water sometime "in the near future," he said, and Athal's managers are working to find another interim solution until the new well is up and running.

"There is a limited life span on wells," he said. "You can't predict when a well's going to fail."

Another option for any small mutual water company to consider is tying into a larger water district, Warner said.

But the prospect of tying Athal households in with the East Niles Community Services District or the Lamont Public Utilities District comes with its own set of pros and cons.

Although state and federal money could help fund that transition, Warner said, it would have taken much longer and been much more expensive than drilling a new well.

With a larger utility, he said, there's a certain level of stability.

"It's frustrating for (Athal) because they don't have full-time staff. The board works, they have families," Warner said. "When you're dealing with an agency like East Niles or Lamont, they have full-time staff and crew ... They can delegate."

Athal's board secretary, Angelica Ruiz, on the other hand, cannot, she said.

Ruiz said she took on the job about a year and a half ago "at a time where I had to clean a lot of stuff up."

Because most of the families connected to Athal's water lines are low-income, she said collecting regular monthly bills -- $75 per connection, right now -- can be tough. And it's even harder to justify raising rates to pay for repairs when there's no water, she said.

"New people move in and fail to look at where their utilities come from," she said. "New property owners, it's important you find out about this."

Ruiz helped distribute water from the emergency tank Wednesday afternoon.

"Do we have to pay the bill this month since we don't have water?" a woman asked. A hose pumped water into a barrel she'd brought in a gleaming black truck.

Yes, Ruiz responded calmly, but a hint of exasperation snuck into her voice.

"People don't realize the wells are part of their property," she said as the woman drove away.

Ruiz said she agreed to work with the water company largely because of her four children.

"I'm part of the community as well," she said. "I hear my kids ask, 'Why do we have to clean ourselves with baby wipes before school?'"

From his perspective as an Athal customer of nearly three decades, the situation is frustrating from top to bottom, said Vonda Johnston's husband, Jim Johnston.

"My opinion is it's a heck of a mess, but if everybody would've tried, this could've all been prevented," he said. "Nobody wants to stick together."

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