Clovis water hauler Eugene Keeney delivers water all across Central California. He says the calls came in extra early this year. (Ezra David Romero/Valley Public Radio)
It’s the dead of autumn and there’s no sign that the California drought will ease up. When wells run dry the immediate answer is to dig a new one, but they’re expensive. In some parts of the state there’s been an uptick in water theft, but in Central California many homeowners are turning to a legal water solution that’s not dependent on city water lines.
Eugene Keeney hooks his 2,500-gallon water truck up to a fire hydrant outside Fresno, in Clovis. On the south side of Shepherd Avenue -- in the city of Clovis -- the grass is green and still moist, with the water from daily running sprinklers piped in from Clovis’ water system. But the north unincorporated side of Shepherd Avenue is in Fresno County, where residents chose not to connect to the city’s water system some years back. From this side of the road all you see are brown yards and dirt driveways.
Sometimes Keeney, with his water delivery company NRK Services, delivers drinking water as far as 50 miles away, but today his trip is shorter, across the street. “In this little neighborhood here, I have probably about 10 to 15 customers,” Keeney says.
Many of these wells have run dry and some homeowners are on waiting lists for new wells. “Some of the areas that are north of town -- their groundwater wells are inadequate for their needs,” says Lisa Cohen, assistant public utilities director for Clovis.
Keeney says the price to hire a well driller is costly, and even if a new well is drilled there is no guarantee water is in the aquifer. “One customer got one done in six months,” says Keeney. “I got another customer that’s been waiting seven months now, but they got to go like 1,000 feet deep. And if you want to pay extra, they’ll drill your well sooner.”
Keeney, who delivers water legally, says the calls for deliveries began two months early this year. Last year Clovis sold 33 million gallons of water to contractors like Keeney. He says the calls increase when farmers with crops near residential areas begin to irrigate. “It’s the straw effect, long straw and short straw,” Keeney says. “You know they’re 1,000 feet deep, homeowners are a couple hundred feet deep, so as soon as you start drawing, the water table drops and you lose your water.”
This is how the water delivery truck system works in Clovis. Keeney checks out a water meter from the city, he tells the clerk what hydrants he’ll draw from, he self-reports the gallons pumped over the phone, pays his bill and brings his meter in every six months for evaluation
It costs him only $3.50 or so to fill his 2,500-gallon truck. That’s the same rate people who live in Clovis pay. Keeney’s profit is about $147 per truckload.
The Clovis Water Authority says that although this seems like a lot of city water used by truck haulers, it’s really less than 4 percent of the city’s yearly water production.
Twice a week Keeney delivers water to over 40 homes.
Peter Hammar, who lives on a 2½-acre parcel, is one of Keeney’s customers. He’s had to severely cut his household water consumption since his well was reduced to a dribble earlier this summer.“We noticed that the tank was filling slower and slower and slower,” Hammar says. “Finally, I had the well guy out, Scott Water. Scott’s guy said the well is essentially dead.”
Hammar’s yard is sparse. There’s not a weed in sight, just a giant palm and three other trees. He’s turned to living weed eaters to keep his plot tidy and drought-tolerant. “Come on you guys, wake up,” Hammar calls out to his goats.
Past the goats and behind a fence, Hammar’s well is pumping at about one cup per minute. “I have a large green 3,000-gallon tank that you see all over the unincorporated parts of this county and it’s quite empty. You can hear how resonant that is,” Hammar says. “The water is about at the last quarter.”
Because of the higher cost of buying water from Keeney and the uncertainty of building a second well, Hammar and his wife are using water very carefully.
“You take measures; you do the best you can,” Hammar says. “Putting dishpans in every sink so you collect your rinse water, and that becomes your wash water. You take 90-second showers and so on.”
Hammar is not alone in this struggle for water, and Eugene Keeney the water transporter admits to making a profit off this increasingly scarce natural resource. But then again, he says he has to make a living and pay off his truck.
He operates his company out of Clovis, but demand brings him all over Central California. “I’ve got calls from Sanger, I’ve got calls from Del Rey, I’ve got calls from Easton, Visalia, Oakhurst, Bass Lake,” Keeney says.
And, unfortunately, that is the fate of many other homeowners in the region, grappling for water when their neighbors have it miles or just feet away.