Health Risks of Long-Term Drought

As the sun sets on this record-tying 115 degree day (which literally burst my thermometer), no place is immune to the dryness and drought in the southwestern United States. Water is a precious commodity that those in wetter climates take for granted.

By now, most Americans have heard stories about the wells in California’s San Joaquin Valley drying up. The rural towns in Tulare County – including Cutler, Orosi, and East Porterville – were hardest hit. How are the water shortages affecting the health of residents there?

The CDC developed a survey to assess public health in disaster situations and focused the survey on Tulare County, where the greatest number of residential wells have failed in the past few years. Over 390 homes were surveyed, in both English and Spanish. At the time of the survey, 9 to 12 % of homes surveyed did not have running water. The county’s public health emergency preparedness manager said the survey has already proven valuable.

Results from the survey found over half of homes in East Porterville had decreased well water production, twice the number as Cutler and Orosi. An impact on finances, health, and peace of mind was noted heavily in East Porterville, along with worsening chronic health conditions. Residents of Cutler and Orosi saw greater decreases in income caused by the drought.

Residents have been hauling water for over a year since wells have run dry. East Porterville for Water Justice is a group of residents working with state and county officials to find a permanent water-supply solution. Temporary water tanks have been installed at homes, which has cut back on the number of weekly trips needed to obtain water.

About 95% of residents have cut back on their water consumption by cutting shower time, repairing leaks, and replacing appliances, but many say there is much more they could do. Health concerns come in as the survey found 58 to 68 % say they have reduced hand-washing frequency and 63% cut back on washing food. Water for drinking and animals is taking precedence over personal hygiene. Sixty to seventy percent have stopped gardening, likely switching to less healthy food.

The only solution for many homeowners is drilling deeper wells, which can cost tens of thousands of dollars. Tulare County passed rules forbidding charging rent on homes without running water. Most residents get their drought information from TV, so the county plans on running public service announcements. They will also be distributing materials regarding the drought and the importance of maintaining basic hygiene practices.
Weiser, Matt. “The Unexpected Health Risks of Drought.” Science. KQED, 16 Jun 2016. Web. 19 Jun 2016.

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