Even businesses in the tiny farming community of Sultana don't have water meters. (Alice Daniel/KQED)
Isaac Orduño reaches into a birdcage and grabs a parakeet. It goes still in his hand, its tiny neck caught between two of his fingers.
“See this color right here,” he tells a customer, who is buying the parakeet as a pet for her granddaughter. “This color will fade away. See how it’s dark pink right now.”
Birds are a big seller at Orduño's Cattle Ranch and Feed Store, one of only a few businesses in the tiny Tulare County farming town of Sultana, population 750.
“Quails, chickens, a lot of chickens,” Orduño says. Some people buy them for the meat. Some people just want to have them as pets.
His hundreds of birds need lots of drinking water, but Orduño says he doles out the water gingerly and doesn’t just let the hose run. And he conserves in other ways. He no longer sprays off his storefront porch.
“Before, I will not lie, I would have the guys water, you know, outside,” he says. “It gets real sticky, gets real stinky. There’s a bar next door, you know, some people come and urinate here, so I mean we really had to, you know, water upfront.”
Now he uses recycled water to get rid of the grime. But he could get away with not conserving. He pays a flat water rate each month and there’s no water meter on his business.
For resident Kari Gonzales Quintana, not having a water meter is kind of like not having a gas gauge on your car.
“So you’re like, 'OK, I remember I put gas in on Tuesday. I’ve gone here and here and here. So I should have this much.' But how much do you really have?”
Quintana is also conserving, even though she, too, could get away with being frivolous. She says she no longer waters her lawn.
“This used to look like a park at one time,” she says, staring at the brittle and abandoned grass. “We have a little more than an acre. As much as we want a green lawn, we want water more.”
She lived briefly in the neighboring town of Dinuba, which has water meters. She thinks people will conserve more once they see just how much water costs.
“When you get your first bill, you are going to make a change,” she says. “You’re going to make a difference in the way you do things.”
She’s worried that Sultana’s one safe well will go dry during this drought.
“You know, I don’t want to find out like some of these other people did when you start getting sand in your water that we’re out,” she says. “This is my family home. I don’t want to move. We’re doing our part. I hope everyone else is, too.”
Sultana has a backup well but it’s contaminated with the fumigant DBCP.
“Should our well go dry, we don’t have any backup well with potable drinking water,” says Michael Prado, board president for the town’s water services district. He says not everyone here understands that well levels drop in a drought.
“A lot of people have commented and said, ‘Well, I pay my bill and as long as I pay my bill, I should be able to use as much water as I want to use,’ ” Prado says.
“We really need water meters to keep up with the governor’s request,” he adds. Under new state rules, small towns like Sultana are expected to cut back on water use by 20 percent.
At community meetings, Prado reminds folks: No more hosing down the dry, scorched streets in the summer, even if it does keep the dust in check. And as hard as it may be, no more water sharing. He says some residents send water to relatives in nearby towns where their private wells have gone dry.
And he understands why they do it. “When you have a family member in need of water, if you can help them out, usually that’s what people try to do,” he says.
Sultana can’t afford to put in water meters on its own. Tulare County is assisting the water district with an application to get a state grant. But there’s no guarantee: The district has already applied twice for grants.
Denise England, a water resources analyst with Tulare County, says the current grant application will include other nearby towns that need water meters. She hopes the consolidation will boost Sultana’s chances.
“When you can spread your fixed costs, the per user price goes down,” she says.
Jenny Rempel, communications and development coordinator for the Community Water Center, says it’s important that low-income households and disadvantaged users get some of the funding and rebates going along with the state restrictions.
“Many small water systems don’t have the metering systems to help put conservation in place,” she says.
England agrees. She says Tulare County alone has more than 300 tiny water systems.
A majority have meters, she says, but “a smaller portion have meters that actually function.”
And, says England, just to put in meters for a small town like Sultana costs around $500,000.