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Helping Hands For a Community In Crisis

It was a Friday morning in June and Lala Luengas, having just finished a load of laundry, was getting ready to start breakfast when her husband, Ben, turned on the kitchen faucet. Nothing came out.

The four-year drought that continues to ravage California had left its calling card; the well that for 40 years supplied their modest house in Monson, a farming community in the San Joaquin Valley, had run dry. And in that moment the daily tasks most American families take for granted—washing the breakfast dishes, taking a shower, flushing the toilet—became rationed extravagances.

Lala Luengas talks about the challenges her family faced when their well ran dry due to drought in 2014.

Ron Holman, Visalia Times-Delta

“What went through our minds is what are we going to do with the bathroom? Older people have to go more often you know,” Lala, 73, remembered thinking as she and Ben, 83, stared at the dry tap. They turned, as rural people tend to do, to their neighbors and the Lord. They ran a hose from the house next door and prayed for rain.

“Hopefully one of these days the Lord will remember us and give us a good downpour,” Lala said.

In the meantime, the nonprofit world has stepped up to help manage a natural disaster with no end in sight, bringing water to scores of low-income rural families in California’s San Joaquin Valley as more and more wells run dry.

Ben Luengas shows the 1,300-gallon tank he received at his home in Monson in December 2014 to replace a dry well. Although the tank replaces their failed well and pump, filling it costs too much to allow regular usage.

Ron Holman, Visalia Times-Delta

By early fall, the Luengas family had a temporary 1,500-gallon tank installed behind their house to hold them over while experts engineer ways to connect them to a new water source, a plan made possible by Rural LISC (Local Initiatives Support Corporation) and its partner, Self-Help Enterprises, Inc.

The partnership is an example of nonprofits working together to address a crisis of nature that has left more than 1,200 low-income households in the valley without water for consumption or sanitation, posing health risks to already vulnerable populations such as the elderly and chronically ill.

In addition, the drought is forcing the nation’s top agriculture producing state to balance the needs of families against a $37 billion crops and livestock industry.

“The economic engine of California is being threatened. So how do we take care of the human side of that?” said Rural LISC Program Vice President, Suzanne Anarde. “Every family wants and deserves to turn on the tap and see clean, healthy water.”

A Tulare County resident with a new 310-foot-deep well replacing an 80-foot well that went dry in October 2014.

Ron Holman, Visalia Times-Delta

Aware of the well water crisis, Rural LISC turned to Self-Help Enterprises (SHE), a longtime partner known for its expertise assisting low-income families in the Valley with water and housing issues. SHE was already at work helping families figure out not only the best solution, but how to pay for it. Temporary tanks, new wells or hookups to municipal water systems can run tens of thousands of dollars. SHE puts together low-cost loan funds to help pay the cost. Without such help, refilling the tank would have eaten up most of Lala Luengas’ monthly Social Security check.

But with the drought, the agency’s workload was reaching a break point; SHE knew what to do, but needed more staff to do it, which is where Rural LISC came in. Rural LISC provided a $150,000 grant in a matter of days, allowing SHE to ramp up their efforts.

For Lala Luengas, the strategy was a lifeline for her family; she and Ben, a retired tractor mechanic, support their granddaughter Celina and great granddaughter, Madison, age 5. Their problems are hardly over; but for that matter, neither are the Valley’s. Five more homes lost water down the street at the end of March, Lala said. And even with the temporary tank, her family scrimps on every drop. She drives 13 miles each week to her son’s house to do all but Madison’s laundry; the runoff from her washer waters a little play patch of grass with a tricycle on it (which they call the “golf course.”) Every toilet flush feels like a luxury. And her dirty dishwater soaks what’s left of her rose bushes.

Somehow through it all, though, Lala Luengas has never lost her good humor, managing to focus more on what she has than what she needs. She is grateful for the help of Rural LISC and SHE that not only gave her family some relief, but is helping to navigate a costly and uncertain future.

She counts that as a blessing almost as good as rain.

Almost.

Posted in Rural Community Development

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