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Amid Drought, Central Valley Residents Face Rising Water Prices


Let's go now to a tiny community tucked in the heart of California's Central Valley. It's a place where people have been living with very little water for a very long time and still facing increasing water bills. As NPR's Richard Gonzales reports, some low-income residents there worry that if they can't pay their water bills the county could shut off their taps.

RICHARD GONZALES, BYLINE: On a dusty, single-lane road about an hour west of Fresno, there's a small rusted mom-and-pop store selling not much more than beer, soda and chips.

LETICIA FERNANDEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

GONZALES: We're in a remote rural community called Cantua Creek, surrounded by orchards and fallow fields. The owner, Leticia Fernandez, is a small vivacious woman who says her store has seen better times.

FERNANDEZ: I mean, we used to have produce and milk. The deliveries were here every week - now twice a month.

GONZALES: Fernandez blames the drought. Customers disappeared as local ranchers didn't bother to plant row crops for lack of water - no farm workers, no customers, says Fernandez.

FERNANDEZ: So that means that the people that live here now, we have to look for jobs elsewhere.

GONZALES: Fernandez says the drought made matters worse by making the cost of water unaffordable, and here's where the story gets complicated. Cantua Creek is a small community of about 400 residents. They are mostly older, retired or disabled farm workers on fixed incomes. Their water supply is passed through the local water district to Fresno County. Recently, that district tripled the price of water. County officials tried to raise water fees in Cantua Creek by about $30 per month to cover the increase, but the community said no. Even if you have to shut the water off by May, we can't afford it.

FERNANDEZ: Why? Because the water that we're receiving there is not water that is treated enough for us to drink it. So the only way we use that water is either to wash dishes, clothes or take showers.

GONZALES: They already shell out an additional $6 per five-gallon jug of drinking water. So the notion of paying more for water they can't even drink is especially upsetting. That leaves Fresno County officials scrambling for a solution that could include consolidating future water supplies for several small communities to bring down the price. Officials say the county is in no position to pay for Cantua Creek's water. The residents have to pay for themselves. Fresno County Supervisor Henry Perea says the county has no legal obligation to help the residents of Cantua Creek. But he says...

HENRY PEREA: The question is - for us politically is - are we really going to let these folks just basically wither on the vine?

GONZALES: Last week, word spread that the state of California would step in with short-term drought emergency funds - about $120,000 - to help Cantua Creek pay its water bill. James Maughan is an assistant deputy director for financial assistance at the State Water Resources Control Board. He says the state aid comes with strings.

JAMES MAUGHAN: They've got to reduce the amount of water that they're using because it is very expensive.

GONZALES: Back in Cantua Creek, Leticia Fernandez says she and her neighbors are already conserving. They've installed low flow shower heads, limited flushing, no water for gardens or washing cars. Then she points to her brown lawn.

FERNANDEZ: Don't you think that's conserving already? We're not drinking it, so what else do they want us to do with this water.

GONZALES: As the drought's grip tightens, that question is being posed in more communities facing a dwindling supply of water. Richard Gonzales, NPR News, Cantua Creek, Calif. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Richard Gonzales is NPR's National Desk Correspondent based in San Francisco. Along with covering the daily news of region, Gonzales' reporting has included medical marijuana, gay marriage, drive-by shootings, Jerry Brown, Willie Brown, the U.S. Ninth Circuit, the California State Supreme Court and any other legal, political, or social development occurring in Northern California relevant to the rest of the country.