| FORT BRAGG, Calif.
FORT BRAGG, Calif. May 8 Michael Holmes got by
at his rural home near California's rugged northern coast on a
disability pension and water from a decades-old well -- until
the well dried up.
Holmes, 65, is among an estimated million Californians who
rely on private wells, many now threatened by the state's
historic dry spell and with no direct access to a multi-million
dollar state drought relief program.
"When this place was built in the 1950s, the water was three
feet below the ground," Holmes said, pointing a flashlight down
the well's long, empty shaft. "Now, the pump is down 26 feet and
we're still running out."
These days, Holmes buys drinking water by the gallon and
waits until enough water gathers to take a shower once a week.
The pump hangs an inch off the ground at the bottom of his
well, and when the water comes up, it's full of muck and
"It turns my white hair yellow," Holmes said, tilting his
head down to show.
California is still counting the number of threatened wells,
in the latest sign of how the state is struggling to address and
even understand the extent of the worst drought in decades.
A state report released last week showed groundwater levels
in California had dropped over the past three, dry years, but
focused mostly on issues faced by municipal water systems and
agriculture, not well-dependent homeowners.
Governor Jerry Brown declared an emergency in January in the
most populous U.S. state, requesting voluntary conservation
efforts, funneling millions of dollars to farmers and
municipalities, and even providing funds to help farm workers
idled by the drought buy food and pay rent.
In a state where the lack of water for irrigation threatens
a half-million acres of farmland, and a rapidly shrinking snow
pack means less drinking water for nearly 40 million people,
help was rushed to those who live within the boundaries of even
the smallest municipal water districts.
Even fish got help. As river waters receded, the state
trucked 30 million hatchling salmon, a record, to ease their
The $687 million drought relief package of grants, loans and
other financial assistance programs to fund solutions such as
water storage and recycling projects, anti-contamination efforts
and emergency water supplies, was aimed at communities in need.
But the relief plan did not include funds targeted at
helping those relying on private wells to dig deeper or make
They are not considered part of the public delivery system,
and finding relief for them is more complicated, said Debbie
Davis, the governor's drought liaison to counties.
Oversight of water systems in California is limited and
Counties are responsible for oversight of private wells, she
added, and it wasn't until homeowners started calling a drought
hotline in Mendocino County seeking help that state officials
realized there was an extensive problem.
"For the most part, domestic well users are expected to be
responsible for their own resource," said Davis, who estimated a
million people depended on wells. A working group is tracking
down well owners and assessing needs, said California Natural
Resources Agency spokesman Richard Stapler.
About 10 miles south of Holmes's home in Ft. Bragg, many
wells are going dry in the tiny beachside village of Mendocino,
whose 900 residents rely entirely on private wells, said Roger
Schwartz, president of the village's tiny water district.
One woman in Mendocino County called the drought hotline to
say she needed water to bathe her disabled husband, who was
incontinent, said Brandon Merritt, a county analyst. Another
family said it could not afford the $350 a private dealer was
charging for a month-long supply of water.
Schwartz, of the Mendocino Community Services District, has
pushed the state to offer grants or loans to help residents
purchase water or dig deeper wells.
But Davis said the state will focus first on helping those
who can be hooked up to existing water systems.
Such efforts would likely not help Arthur "Mark" Fontaine
and his wife Ellen. They estimate it would cost $20,000 to
improve the well that serves their property, which lies four
miles from the nearest town and is likely too far away to be
hooked up to municipal water.
Since October, they have been buying water from a broker.
"We've always had to conserve here," said Ellen Fontaine,
who grew up on the property, about 24 miles from Willits. "But I
have not been able to do laundry here for almost two months."
(Reporting by Sharon Bernstein; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and