IVANHOE, Calif. — The plastic Santa Claus beckons motorists. So does the vintage seven-blade Trimmer lawn mower. They start conversations at Elida C. Lopez's yard sale along a quiet, country road.
She steers you to her best merchandise, a collection of plants for sale or a table covered with blue jeans. And she tells you about the old Ivanhoe train station, where she holds her yard sale.
But it doesn't take long before she points out a town well right across the street and talks about the tap water.
"I don't drink it," says Lopez, 69. "We've been drinking bottled water since forever. You hear about those problems up the road in Seville .
"Who knows what's in the water here?"
People in rural Tulare County talk about everything from the nearby Sierra Nevada to crime to higher university fees in California. But most conversations drift to the drinking water here. It's a crisis in slow motion.
Over the past decade, residents have been warned at one time or another not to drink their tap water. Chemical plumes filled with nitrates have been detected above safe levels hundreds of times in the past five years in rural wells.
Nitrates come from sewage, rotting plants, manure and fertilizers. The chemical can cause a fatal blood disease in infants.
The nitrate plumes, which many blame on surrounding agriculture, seem frightening and unstoppable. Residents wait years for bureaucrats to process their funding applications so they can get healthy drinking water. Bottled water is a necessity of life.
There are skeptics among the residents. Some say they just don't believe the water is dangerous, and they're upset that some people make such a fuss about it.
Gregorio Frias, 21, a resident in Seville, eight miles north of Ivanhoe, has his doubts. He is a custodian at Stone Corral Elementary School, the only school in the community of 400. Frias' family ran the town water system, but gave it up a few years ago because the family was losing money.
He worries about the cost of upgrading the town's water system.
"This is a small, impoverished town," he says. "Who is going to pay for improvements?"
Seville has applied for state funding to study renovation of the piping system and a new well. The county temporarily has taken over the water system, and residents are trying to organize a community service district to take it back.
In Seville, nitrates twice have been detected above safe levels in the past few years. The town's piping system is cracked and broken in places, bringing sand and bacteria into sinks and toilets.
At the elementary school, the drinking fountains are shut down. The 126 schoolchildren drink from bottled water containers in every classroom.
School office worker Maria Saldana said she lives in neighboring Yettem. Does she drink bottled water?
"Oh, yes," she says, waving her plastic bottle.
Drive south along Tulare County's brown foothills and see lush, green citrus trees. About 15 miles south of Seville, Tooleville's 339 residents live in aging houses and trailers along the town's only two streets, Morgan and Alfred avenues. A Sierra foothill, 1,549-foot Rocky Hill, gives them a striking, green vista in spring.
And just two miles from Tooleville, Exeter offers them the kind of small-city charm and shopping that people from Fresno or Visalia drive dozens of miles to get.
Tooleville seems an ideal place to get away from city life, but this town has the same kind of nitrate problems as Seville.
In the past several years, three long-time residents were diagnosed with stomach cancer, says resident Eunice Martinez, 46. Another long-time resident died of liver cancer earlier this year, she says. He ignored the warnings about contamination and drank regularly from his tap, she says.
"We know there's no way to directly connect the cancer and the water," Martinez says. "The scientists say there is only a possible connection. But it's scary. We've all been worried since they first told us not to drink the water in 1999."
She says one resident wouldn't buy a small, wading pool for her children because she feared the youngsters might accidentally swallow some water.
Martinez and her mother spend $40 a month for bottled water. It's a struggle for them to lift the five-gallon bottles. But they won't risk drinking from the tap.
"It's so different now from when I grew up around here," Martinez says. "I remember drinking from the hose and the water was so sweet. Now, I'm so used to bottled water that I prefer it to any other water anywhere."