Special Reports

Tulare County school districts battle the drought

Palo Verde Elementary School Superintendent John Manning visits with students at recess in the Tulare County rural school.
Palo Verde Elementary School Superintendent John Manning visits with students at recess in the Tulare County rural school. Vida en el Valle

Officials in charge of rural school districts in Tulare County have plenty to think about when it comes to battling the effects from the drought.

Driving by the playground of the east campus of Pleasant View School, you’ll notice unwatered, dry and yellow grass. The scene is a stark reminder of California’s historic 4-year drought, but it’s a simple fix that comes with a $7,000 price tag for a new pump.

But it’s these rural areas that are the hardest hit by the dry spell that has officials on edge to keep the small school’s water systems flowing.

Pleasant View School’s west campus houses kindergarten through second grade. Pleasant View is surrounded by acres of farmland.

Superintendent Bob Odsather and school board officials became concerned about the water supply more than a year ago. The concern came about when news reports over failed wells surfaced in nearby Porterville and other Tulare County rural sites.

“We thought we’d be prudent and start monitoring where our water levels were. We knew that the one well that we had wasn't going to last. We started at about 157 feet, and between May, June and July, we were dropping anywhere from a half-foot to a foot a week,” recalls Odsather, who oversees instruction between the east and west campuses of the K-8 elementary with a daily enrollment of about 550.

The older well in the west campus is 198 feet deep and currently contains water to approximately 22 feet. The new 700-foot well, which cost $160,000, is expected to be shielded from the drought as long as the tap remains prudent.

“I would hope so,” said Odsather, “and it just depends on the area.”

Odsather said piping the new well will be completed this week.

However just having a new well dug may not be sufficient.

Farther west in Tulare County is Palo Verde Elementary, where superintendent John Manning and his school board finished a new well for the school just over a year ago.

The old well has a depth of approximately 240 feet and is currently pumping water at about the 167 mark. The new well was dug to 400 feet in August of 2014.

Six months after the well was finished last year, it failed to produce water. Manning and the school board put out to bid the job for a new well, but drillers didn’t respond likely due to the strict regulations placed on digging a well for a school; not a single bid was received.

To voice the urgency and keep water on the forefront, Odsather testified before a board representing the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) last October.

“I talked about, the small schools like us, if we lose water then we have no water. Where do we send our kids? We’re rural,” he told EPA officials.

“The solution is bottled water coming in, you still have to flush toilets, it just becomes a real burden on the districts. And then the money to go dig a well if the districts don’t have it.”

Odsather isn’t blaming farmers for irrigating. He said the aquafer is somewhat replenished whenever the fields are irrigated.

Odsather believes a “collective voice” on how the drought is affecting rural school districts should be on-going.

“I think there’s power in numbers, to really put a bigger voice together on how this is impacting the schools. I think they need to think proactively about where they're going to be two, three, four, five years down the road. And to closely monitor the situation,” he said.