Photo Essay

  • A supervisor waits in the early morning for farm workers to arrive and harvest tomatoes in a field near San Joaquin, Calif. on June 13, 2014.
  • Migrant workers harvest tomatoes at a farm near San Joaquin, Calif. on June 13, 2014. The 200 workers are from Mendota, a town about 18 miles away from the field. About 90% of farmworkers in California are undocumented.
  • Mexican migrant workers harvest tomatoes at a farm near San Joaquin, Calif. on June 13, 2014. The tomato harvest season would typically last for about five months with workers averaging six days a week in the fields. But with the drought, farmers are forced to fallow more land while the harvest season shortens, creating fewer job opportunities.
  • Ysidro Reyes measures the temperature of a green tomato at a farm near San Joaquin, Calif. on June 13, 2014.  Ysidro runs a company that hires farmworkers during harvests and supervises their fieldwork. To comply with strict regulations, his workers cannot begin the harvest until the tomato reaches 52°F.
  • People line up to get a number for the drought-relief food distribution in Huron, Calif. on June 18, 2014. Community Food Bank is targeting communities hit hardest by the consequences of the drought. High unemployment rates and extreme poverty are acute problems in the Central Valley and are not caused by the drought directly. However, fewer job opportunities worsen the struggle these communities face.
  • Migrant workers develop a pistachio plantation outside of Alpaugh, Calif. on June 16, 2014. With the promise of a hefty return investment groups develop large almond and pistachio orchards amidst the historic California drought in the arid southern part of the Central Valley. Thousand-feet deep wells are used to irrigate the orchards, and the wells cost up to $500,000 to build. Demand for the wells in the valley has never been higher. 
  • Migrant workers develop a pistachio plantation outside of Alpaugh, Calif. on June 16, 2014. With the promise of a hefty return investment groups develop large almond and pistachio orchards amid the historic California drought in the arid southern part of Central Valley.
  • Drip irrigation pipe at a newly developed pistachio plantation outside of Alpaugh, Calif. on June 16, 2014. With the promise of a hefty return investment groups develop large almond and pistachio orchards amid the historic California drought in the arid southern part of Central Valley.
  • Hugo Santos waits for the start of the drought-relief food distribution in Huron, Calif. on June 18, 2014.  Hugo wears a t-shirt he received while working at a ranch. Community Food Bank workers constantly monitor how many people attend their regular food distribution and boost aid when they notice a spike in demand. The drought-relief food distribution events come in addition to the periodical food distribution that is already serving impoverished communities.
  • A section of the Los Angeles Aqueduct crosses Jawbone Canyon, Calif. on June 16, 2014.  The Los Angeles Aqueduct delivers water by gravity to the city of Los Angeles from 338 miles away in the Mono Basin and from 233 miles away in the Owens Valley. Los Angeles has enough water in reserve to escape severe rationing this year.
  • An onion field in the Imperial Valley, Calif. on June 15, 2014.  With senior water rights to the Colorado River, the Imperial Valley, a former desert region turned into prosperous farmland similar to the Central Valley, has been unfazed by the drought severely impacting the rest of California.
  • People line up for food aid at the community center in Lanare, Calif. on June 19, 2014.  Although loss of jobs related to drought made life harder for many, extreme poverty in the Central Valley is chronic and widespread.
  • A pile of recently picked onions lay across an outdoor couch in front of a home in Lanare, Calif. on June 19, 2014.
  • A young citrus orchard in Orange Cove, Calif. on June 18, 2014.
  • A bulldozer destroys an orange orchard in Orange Cove, Calif. on June 18, 2014.  With no allocated surface water, many farmers decided to take their orange orchards out of production. However, others hired the company to remove orchards nearing the end of their lifespan or to replace them with more profitable trees such as almonds and pistachios.
  • A recently pulled orange tree lays on its side in an orange orchard in Orange Cove, Calif. on June 18, 2014. 
  • Joseph Gomez sits in a bulldozer during a break from pulling an orange orchard in Orange Cove, Calif. on June 18, 2014.  On average he works 10 to 15 hours a day, bulldozing roughly 10 to 15 acres in that time. Due to the high demand the company has worked non-stop for the past seven months.
  • Fallowed land next to a tomato field near San Joaquin, Calif. on June 13, 2014.
  • Ranchers herd sold cattle into pens at the Livestock Market in Visalia, Calif. on June 18, 2014. The drought forced many ranchers to sell off their livestock they could not sustain as the feed fell short.
  • Buyers listen to a live auction for cattle at the Visalia Livestock Market in Visalia, Calif. on June 18, 2014. The drought forced many ranchers to sell off their livestock they could not sustain as the feed fell short.
  • A bird’€™s-eye view of the Delta-Mendota Canal and the California Aqueduct near Westley, Calif. on June 10, 2014. Both the Delta-Mendota Canal and the California Aqueduct deliver water pumped out of the San Joaquin-Sacramento River Delta to the San Joaquin Valley and to southern California.
  • A full moon rises above the San Joaquin River in Firebaugh, Calif. on June 12, 2014.
  • Farmer Joe del Bosque’s shadow on fallowed land at his farm in Los Banos, Calif. on June 12, 2014. Although Joe uses as much groundwater as he can pump to keep the production running, to boost the quality and quantity, he has to add surface water from his savings from last year to the mix. Since he did not receive any surface water from the north this year, he will most likely deplete his savings and will be forced to fallow more land in 2015.
  • Fallowed land at Joe del Bosque’s farm in Los Banos, Calif. on June 12, 2014. Joe prepared the land for cantaloupes but with his surface water allocation cut back to zero this year he chose to fallow some of his land to save the water to keep his almond orchard alive.
  • An almond orchard and fallowed land on opposite sides of an irrigation canal at Joe del Bosque’s farm in Los Banos, Calif. on June 12, 2014. Joe upgraded his canals with a plastic liner to prevent water from seeping underground, saving 1,000 to 1,500 acre feet of water per year.
  • A dead almond orchard next to the Interstate 5 near the San Luis Reservoir, Calif. on June 12, 2014.
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California drought creates grim ripple effect

Updated
By Balazs Gardi and Shoka Javadiangilani

“The very success of a person as a politician is dependent upon resources that come from the people that you give exceptions to” says Michael Machado, farmer and former California State Senator.

After traveling more than 2,000 miles across California, it’s clear that the state’s drought is mired in paradox with decades of water mismanagement and regional fighting. While cities – some of which never installed water meters – struggle to convince its dwellers to conserve, agriculture consumes 80% of California’s water.

President Barack Obama back in February assured the public that he is well aware of the historic drought impacting the country’s biggest economy and largest agricultural producer. A month after he declared a State of Emergency, California Governor Jerry Brown joined Obama as he met with local farmers and leaders in the San Joaquin Valley, including visiting Joe del Bosque’s farm in the southern part of the Central Valley.

The son of migrant farm workers, del Bosque learned the ins and outs of farming. When he was a child, the wells only allowed farmers to grow annual crops, such as cotton and alfalfa. If they were short on water they simply idled the land.

As a teenager, del Bosque watched water flow from the mountains in the far north to the arid south through the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, a canal system built by former Governor Pat Brown.

“We have a different type of drought than most people in the rest of the country think of because we’re not so reliant on rainwater that falls on us as we are on the rain and snow up here,” del Bosque said, pointing to the Sierra Nevada mountains on the map pinned to his office wall.

The farmers simply follow what the market demands, explained del Bosque to Governor Brown, who was surprised to see freshly-planted almond orchards while touring the San Joaquin Valley. “I’m not apologizing for these farmers planting in the worse drought we’ve ever had, but that’s the reason we plant what we plant,” del Bosque said.

It is chilly and dark when about 40 miles south of del Bosque’s almond orchards hundreds of migrant workers meet at a local gas station to wait for a ride out to the fields. Ysidro Reyes, a third generation labor contractor, who hires them to pick tomatoes, is the first on the field to check that the green tomatoes have reached the perfect temperature before signaling the start of the harvest. 

The signs along the Valley’s roads declaring “Water means jobs” suddenly make sense. When water allocations are cut short, farmers have to make a decision: either fallow land intended for row crops and impose further distress on the already impoverished labor force, or lose the trees, their highest yielding cash crop.

“Twenty years ago, California didn’t have as many trees as it does today, those trees take water 12 months out of the year, these row crops take water 90 days out of the year, so the trees are really sucking California dry” Ysidro said, “They’re just drinking more water than they should.”

When the surface water stops flowing in from the north, farmers and ranchers across the southern part of the Central Valley resort to what lies deep beneath their feet.

Steve Arthur, who inherited his well drilling business from his father, can relate. For years, water wells reaching down to 300 feet were considered deep, but these days, farmers who can afford the often half-a-million-dollar price tag and an eight-month-long wait list have to dig well over a thousand feet. For small farmers with only a few dozen acres, the high costs are difficult to rationalize. But for big investors and large developers, the hefty price of a new irrigation well is nothing compared to the promised fortune.

The bumper sticker on Arthur’s truck. – ”we leave you wet” – applies to the many wells set up by his business, but unregulated groundwater pumping in the San Joaquin Valley isn’t something to take lightly. Not only does the surface infrastructure crumble, but as the earth compacts with it, the space to replenish groundwater disappears, too. In some instances, between 1920-1970, land sunk more than 28 feet.

Unlike the south, there is always water in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta; the issue is the quality. The Sacramento and the San Joaquin Rivers supply the fresh water flow that holds back the Bay’s intruding seawater. The less the rivers flow or the more the State pumps to the south, the saltier the Delta’s water becomes, making it harder for farmers to use for irrigation, costlier to filter to quench the thirst of city dwellers, and almost impossible for its habitat to survive.

To mitigate the habitat loss caused by dams that interrupted the natural migration of the native Chinook salmon, today most of them start their life in hatcheries. Earlier this year, young fish were loaded onto trucks to bypass the shallow river, a common practice that gives them a better chance to survive once released in the Bay.

“We’ve been in drought for 30 years because we’ve been over-pumped for 30 years,” Barbara Barrigan-Parilla of Restore the Delta said, who looks at the Delta as a natural heritage that needs protection rather than a source of a finite commodity with only one beneficial use: production. “We got the tail wagging the dog. You have the people in the south, that have the most political control who want water that they should never have had - just trying to bully their way to the table to change the whole system,” she said.

As the debate on how to manage California’s water heats up, so does the water in the state rivers and half empty reservoirs. And because those temperatures keep rising, for the first time ever in their decades long history, hatcheries in the north rushed to evacuate all of their salmon and trout to save them from certain death.

Balazs Gardi is a documentary photographer focusing on the everyday lives of diverse communities in need. Shoka Javadiangilani is a writer, editor and producer specializing in large-scale global projects on social issues. Together they co-founded Azdarya, an online documentary magazine about water. Its mission is to tell ‘Stories from the Water Front’, offering a deeper understanding of the unfolding global water-crisis, its impact and possible solutions. 

For more feature photography, go to msnbc.com/photography